The Sabres have had to wait but Owen Power might be joining them at a perfect time.
Tuesday night in Toronto, Power, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft, will make his debut against the Maple Leafs. Growing up in Mississauga, Ontario, the 20-year-old defenseman was no stranger to practicing on the ice at Ford Performance Centre this week ahead of his first game.
“I grew up in this building,” said Power, whose mother, Trish, works for the City of Toronto. “I think anyone’s NHL debut is a really special moment but to be able to have it in my hometown, with all my family here, I think it makes it that much better.”
Power was first No. 1 overall pick to not spend his first post-draft season with his NHL team since Erik Johnson, who played a year at the University of Minnesota after being drafted by the Blues. The defenseman wanted a shot at an NCAA title on a stacked University of Michigan team after their championship dreams ended just before the start of the 2021 tournament due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
The Wolverines fell short in 2022, losing to eventual champion Denver in the NCAA Frozen Four last week. Power used his second season in Michigan to refine his game. He ran the power play and improved his decision-making in both zones. In 33 games he scored three goals, recorded 32 points, and was named to the All-Big Ten First Team.
There are eight games remaining in Buffalo’s season, and these next two weeks will provide Power with a good introduction to the NHL game. The Sabres are planning to ease him in and help him gain confidence heading into the summer.
“We haven’t thrown a lot of information at Owen,” said Sabres head coach Don Granato. “I don’t want information overload. Even systems, you look through the National Hockey League, we’re all playing 85 percent the same system. These guys know how to play games, so we don’t want to throw a lot at him. We haven’t.
“We’ll let him absorb it at his own rate. … But it’s all going to come sort of organically.”
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) April 11, 2022
Help from Dahlin
Rasmus Dahlin knows what Power is going through. The 2018 No. 1 overall pick faced high expectations when he arrived in Buffalo to help turnaround a franchise in a tailspin. Things didn’t go that way, and while the Swedish defenseman was putting up 13 goals and 84 points in his first two seasons, the wins were hard to come by.
Success doesn’t happen overnight, especially for a team that’s been run like the Sabres have over the past decade. Four years after Dahlin entered the league, the team has been sure to surround Power with help to allow him to succeed.
“He’s a young kid, he’s here to learn,” Dahlin said. “It takes time, so that’s going to be my advice to him, it takes time. Just let him be who he is and let him develop. So no rush.”
The Sabres feel like they’re in a better place than they were during Dahlin’s rookie season — a place where they can allow Power to develop without the enormous pressure to win right now.
“Nobody has to be the savior,” Granato said. “This group is going to do it together and they’re building together. You can see the camaraderie and the passion that they have for each other and to put that jersey on. It’s fun to be a part of as a coach. You guys who were all in the building saw the stick banging when Owen went in there and you could just see a group of 20-some guys just completely immersed in themselves and nothing else. In the moment. That’s fun to watch as a coach.”
It’s been 11 seasons now without playoff hockey for the Sabres, but this spring there’s a different feel in the air around the franchise. They’ve gone 10-7-3 in their last 20 games, which includes wins over Toronto (twice), Minnesota, Calgary, Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Carolina. After struggling under former head coach Ralph Krueger, Dahlin has matched his career-high 44 points while Jeff Skinner has rebounded with a 30-goal, 54-point year. Tage Thompson has been a breakout star (32 goals, 58 points). Dylan Cozens has taken a big step in his development, and Alex Tuch, acquired as part of the Jack Eichel trade, loves being in Buffalo and showing it on the ice.
General manager Kevyn Adams is projected to have around $40 million in salary cap space to used in the off-season, plus the Sabres could have up to three picks in the opening round of the draft. There’s finally some sunshine poking through the years of rain, which will set up a 2022-23 NHL season where expectations will be back in Buffalo.