Going into the 2020 offseason, the Buffalo Sabres had almost no centers under contract behind Jack Eichel.
Marcus Johansson is really a winger, Johan Larsson and Vladimir Sobotka are set to be an unrestricted free agents, and Curtis Lazar, Casey Mittelstadt, and Dominik Kahun are all restricted free agents.
Even Sam Reinhart, who I’ve been dying to see down the middle for years, is without a contract heading into next season.
In the last week, the Sabres have made two moves that should equate to most of the minutes that Eichel does not play next season. The first move was trading Johansson to the Minnesota Wild for veteran Eric Staal. The second move was the signing of Lazar to a two-year contract extension on Thursday.
Lazar is a good depth piece who played well in limited minutes in the 2019-20 season. He was very successful in the faceoff circle, winning 51.2% of his draws and played a lot of minutes on the penalty kill. Lazar even chipped in on the offensive end with five goals in 38 games.
However, Sabres fans shouldn’t expect Lazar to get to the double-digit-goal pace he was on last season.
In Lazar’s other 246 NHL games, he has just 15 goals. A career-high shot percentage of 15.2% last year is not sustainable.
Lazar, on paper, should be the Sabres’ fourth line center to open the season. With Staal likely as the second line center, that leaves just one spot open.
So, who’s going to be the third line center?
Dylan Cozens is the most interesting name for this conversation. The Sabres’ 2019 first round pick had a phenomenal 12 months after being drafted.
Cozens looked NHL ready in the 2019 preseason for the Sabres, produced at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship with nine points in seven games for Canada, and was one of the best players in the Western Hockey League with 85 points in 51 games for the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Because Cozens is mature for his age in the defensive end, he has a realistic shot to play a depth center position behind Eichel and Staal.
If the Sabres don’t feel Cozens is ready for the NHL or if they want to start him out on the wing, enter Larsson.
Bringing back Larsson may not be realistic, in that he has every reason to not want to return to the Sabres. The 28-year-old is still in his prime years, and has given the last seven years of his career to the Sabres. I would not blame him one bit for preferring a contending team’s bottom-six.
Larsson is not a high-event player, but does a great job at limiting opposition possession and, in turn, quality scoring chances.
From watching Larsson over the last few years, he always seems to have the puck, and the numbers back that up. He may not do anything with the puck, but his line always seems to have it.
Exactly what you want for a role-playing center.
If Larsson does not want to return and the Sabres don’t want to force Cozens in, there are some options in free agency. Carl Soderberg, Mikko Koivu, and Erik Haula are just a couple of veterans who could fill the role of third line center.