The Buffalo Sabres begin the 2021 Prospects Challenge tonight. The Sabres have several notable prospects on their roster including Arttu Ruotsalainen, who appeared in 17 games last year, Mattias Samuelsson, who appeared in 12, and goaltender Ukko-Pekka Luukonen. The most notable name missing from the roster though is undoubtedly Owen Power. The 2021 first overall pick has decided to return to the University of Michigan for his sophomore season. While it is unheard of for a first overall pick not to sign an entry-level contract and begin his career on the teams NHL roster, this move makes sense for all parties.
The 6’6” Power showed elite defensive prowess in his freshman season at the University of Michigan. Power also put up solid points production with 3 goals and 13 assists in 26 games and followed up 3 assists during Team Canada’s gold medal performance at the World Championships.
The Sabres followed through on many analysts predictions by drafting Power. The Elite Prospects 2021 NHL Draft Guide states, “It’s easy to understand the appeal with Power. There just aren’t many 6-foot-6 defencemen who can skate quite like he does. He doesn’t make many mistakes with the puck, and he has no problem working the short-range passing game to let his teammates do the legwork in transition. He doesn’t hesitate. He has a great knack for finding space. And he has a big enough shot to credibly threaten from range.”
First overall picks have signed and started the following season with their respective NHL teams each year as far back as 1970. The expansion Sabres won a coin flip to pick one place ahead of fellow NHL newcomers, the Vancouver Canucks, and selected Gilbert Perrault (the Canucks took Dale Tallon at number two for those wondering). The two exceptions to this rule are Rick DiPietro and Marc-Andre Fleury who also happen to be the only two goaltenders selected at that spot.
So, to say Power not playing for the Sabres next season is an oddity is an understatement. It is literally unheard of. The situation revolving Power and the rest of the 2021 Michigan Wolverines men’s hockey team is unheard of too.
Four of the first five picks in the NHL drafts played for the Wolverines in 2021. Power, Matty Beniers (Seattle), Luke Hughes (New Jersey), and Kent Johnson (Columbus) all decided to play in Ann Arbor next year instead of signing entry-level contracts. Hughes will be a freshman while the other 3 men will be returning for their sophomore seasons. As if such a glut of talent on one collegiate roster wasn’t enough, Florida’s first round pick Mackie Samoskevich will also be joining UM as a freshman next season. Unprecedented.
The context behind the decision for these men to return to Michigan is unprecedented as well. The collegiate team with more NHL talent than has ever been seen would not even be able to compete for a NCAA Championship. Michigan was forced to withdraw from the tournament just hours before their opening round game after multiple players tested positive for COVID-19. One can only imagine the feeling of loss such an occurrence would garner. To say the Wolverines have unfinished business is an understatement to be sure.
In 2021 and 2022, Power will have the chance to continue his development at the University of Michigan along with fellow premier NHL level talent next season. They will enter next season as an overwhelming favorite to win the NCAA tournament, which would be their first since 1998. Michigan certainly stands to benefit from the result of last season’s misfortune as they return an unprecedented roster.
As far as the Sabres are concerned, their roster is in the midst of a complete turnover. The players previously thought to be the core of the team have either been traded, left via free agency, or are injured and awaiting trade. The players coming to replace the core are a mixture of young players looking to establish themselves and newly added free agents looking for a chance to increase their playing time and prove their worth on one-year contracts.
The Sabres are not in predicted to seriously compete for the playoffs next year. And while Power would certainly upgrade their roster, he would not likely be able to change their fate. Instead, the Sabres will look to continue rebuilding their roster and may be picking in the top 5 again next year. The Sabres will be able to save a year of of Power’s entry level deal, which will now expire after the 2025-2026 season instead of the 2024-2025 season.
Power may still play in Buffalo this season though. NHL entry-level contracts contain a “Slide” clause. Players that are 18 or 19 years old and does not play a minimum of 10 NHL games have their contracts “slide” or extend by one season. So, fresh off an NCAA Championship on April 9, 2022, Owen Power could sign his entry-level contract and join the Sabres for their 9 of their final 11 games of the season.
In all, while the circumstances regarding the first overall pick in 2021 have never been seen before, it seems fitting for the 2021 world we live in. The Sabres will save a valuable year of Owen’s career while he and Michigan seek to fulfill their destiny.