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Ranking Former Sabres In Stanley Cup Final

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Evander Kane Sam Reinhart Evan Rodrigues Kyle Okposo Brandon Montour Dmitry Kulikov Florida Panthers Edmonton Oilers Buffalo Sabres Stanley Cup Final

Game One of the Stanley Cup Final is Saturday, with six former Buffalo Sabres players set to take the ice for the Edmonton Oilers and Florida Panthers. Sam Reinhart, Kyle Okposo, Evan Rodrigues, Brandon Montour, and Dmitry Kulikov are all expected to play Game One for the Florida Panthers. Evander Kane is the lone former Sabres player representing the Edmonton Oilers.

Each player has helped carry their respective teams throughout the playoffs, to varying degrees. Reinhart, the 50-goal scorer in the regular season,  poses the biggest threat to his opponent. The series may be determined by how the rest of the past Buffalonians fare in the tightly-projected series.

According to PuckLuck.com, the Florida Panthers are ever-so-slightly favored to win the series with a 50.2% chance of winning the Stanley Cup. DraftKings Sportsbook likes the Panthers even more, with implied odds of 57.4%.

Florida being favored to win the Cup is music to the Sabres organization’s ears, as the 2024 7th-round draft pick from the Okposo trade becomes a 5th if the former captain and company raise Lord Stanley.

Regarding individual impacts, let’s rank the former Sabres by who will have the biggest role in the series, beginning with the least impactful.

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Kyle Okposo

Since being acquired by the Panthers on trade deadline day, Okposo has been shuffled in and out of the lineup consistently. The same has remained true in the playoffs, with Nick Cousins, Ryan Lomberg, Steven Lorentz, and Jonah Gadjovich rotating in similar roles on the fourth line.

Okposo was traded for as reliable injury insurance, but he outplayed Cousins, Lomberg, and Gadjovich in the Conference Finals against the New York Rangers to earn the Game One start. Throughout the regular season with the Sabres and Panthers, Okposo’s wins above replacement rates placed him third of the former Buffalo contingent. He outpaced Kane, Montour, and Kulikov.

Okposo projects to play on a line with Kevin Stenlund and Steven Lorentz and is not expected to log big minutes. He’s only averaged 8:41 in ice time per game in the playoffs. In a bigger role, he’d probably rank higher on this list. Instead, Okposo will be lucky to stay in the lineup.

Dmitry Kulikov

Kulikov’s return to Florida has been in a much more sheltered role than earlier in his career. The Panthers deploy a third pair of him and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, which helps provide a veteran presence while adding dynamic elements to the depth of the backend.

The former Sabres defenseman still looks for the big hit but isn’t as mobile as he once was. Instead, he’s used in a secondary penalty-killing role with mild success. He can move the puck but mostly defers to his partner Ekman-Larsson to do that as well.

Kulikov averages under 14 minutes a night, so his impact is limited. The Panthers choose to lean heavily on their top four of Gustav Forsling, Aaron Ekblad, Niko Mikkola, and Montour instead.

Evander Kane

Kane would rank dead last if this ranking was based purely on PuckLuck’s WAR metrics. He struggled mightily in the regular season compared to years past and has been battling injury throughout the playoffs. He was a net negative at even-strength for the Oilers when factoring in offensive and defensive play above replacement.

The opportunity for redemption is there for Kane to start the Cup Final. He’s projected to play with Leon Draisaitl and Dylan Holloway and should log big minutes. The extended time off before the start of the series was arguably most helpful to the Oilers, as Kane and his ailing teammates had time to heal up.

Kane has shown the dynamic power-forward traits that can turn a playoff series in the past and has a chance to be a great story on the ice if Edmonton pulls off a Cup win.

Brandon Montour

Montour had a huge breakout last season, helping lead the Panthers to the Stanley Cup Final. This season has told a different tale, with the offensive-minded defenseman seeing a huge drop in numbers.

Montour still quarterbacks Florida’s powerplay, although much of the puck control falls on Barkov’s stick. You’ll still see flashes of mobility with and without the puck from the smooth-skating defenseman.

He logs big minutes for the Panthers and has to match the speed of the Oilers’ forwards on the counterattack for Florida to have a chance.

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Evan Rodrigues

The ever-underrated Rodrigues joins a storied list of misunderstood Sabres having significant impacts on teams around the league. One of the most defensively-responsible forwards in the league, Rodrigues ranked fifth in the entire NHL in even-strength defense above replacement per minute played. This is one spot ahead of teammate and Selke Trophy winner, Aleksander Barkov.

These extended WAR metrics also rank Rodrigues as a top-90 player in the NHL. Considering his role, salary, and position versatility, he should never have become the journeyman player he is.

Rodrigues is projected to start the series in a hybrid role on the Panthers’ second line with Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Bennett. If Florida’s head coach Paul Maurice decides to shuffle things around, Rodrigues spent most of the season on the Panthers’ top line with Barkov and Reinhart. He also helps form one of the league’s better shutdown lines with Anton Lundell and Eetu Luostarinen.

Sam Reinhart

Enough can’t be said about Reinhart’s production this season with the Panthers. In a contract year, he’s added to that success with eight goals and 12 points in 17 playoff games. Playing alongside Barkov makes him better, sure, but the same could be said the other way around.

The duo, with Carter Verhaeghe, has the difficult task of igniting the offense while keeping Oilers superstar Connor McDavid in check. Florida is the deeper team, so coming out of that matchup even would be a win for the Panthers.

Reinhart also will play a key role in controlling the series through special teams. His 27 powerplay goals in the regular season led the NHL and set a franchise record. He also kills penalties and will try to limit Edmonton’s potent powerplay, which can score quickly and often.

Reinhart’s the one true former Sabres player with Conn Smythe potential with an outstanding Stanley Cup Final, as the playoff MVP. Should he do it, he’ll become the third player to don a Sabres jersey in his career to win the award, joining Roger Crozier and Ryan O’Reilly.

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