Sabres Need Tuch To Lead the Way

Alex Tuch, Buffalo Sabres

Of all the reasons that can be attributed to the optimism currently surrounding the Buffalo Sabres, Alex Tuch is probably the biggest. After being acquired from the Vegas Golden Knights in the November 2021 Jack Eichel blockbuster, Sabres fans had to wait nearly two months to see their return in the trade, but it was well worth it. Tuch became a sensation upon debuting, scoring at a nearly point-per-game pace and emerging as both a leader and fan favorite in the process.

Entering his first full season with the club, the Sabres are expecting him to continue his success. 2022-23 looks to be a pivotal campaign for Buffalo, and for the team to achieve its expectations of further improvement, Tuch has to lead the way.

Tuch Couldn’t Have Arrived In Buffalo At A Better Time

Since the end of the COVID-shortened 2021 season, the entire Sabres organization had been engulfed in the controversy surrounding Eichel and his neck injury. It developed into a toxic, polarizing mess that all but guaranteed that the two sides would part ways, and that was exactly what happened.

After the superstar center was traded to the Golden Knights, the Sabres were left with a massive void and needed to wipe the slate clean in a big way. Enter Alex Tuch.

Being traded to Buffalo wasn’t exactly a true homecoming for Tuch, but it certainly was in the spiritual sense. Growing up just over two hours away in the Syracuse, NY suburb of Baldwinsville, he was a Sabres fan as a child and grew up next door to another native of the area that played for the team, Tim Connolly.

Alex Tuch Buffalo Sabres
Alex Tuch, Buffalo Sabres (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

“I really just loved everything about the team,” Tuch said in an interview with the NHL Player’s Association after being acquired. “And now, to be able to say that I play on Buffalo, it’s just unbelievable.”

As a result, he showed a genuine, childlike eagerness when he arrived, and it turned out to be the breath of fresh air that the Sabres desperately needed. After making his long-awaited debut at the end of December, Tuch tore it up in the second half of the season, scoring at a nearly point-per-game pace. He finished with 38 points in 50 games, which was still good enough for seventh on the Sabres.

But though his offensive contributions were a welcome boost for Buffalo, it was Tuch’s aura that proved to be his most valuable asset. In addition to endearing himself to the Western New York community through numerous acts of charity, the infectious energy he brought revitalized the downtrodden Sabres and it quickly became evident that his teammates were drawn to him too. His tradition of shouting “woo” into the camera while leaving the ice (a la wrestling legend Ric Flair) quickly became popular and it wasn’t long before the team embraced it.

Sabres fans also caught on quickly and it was hardly two months into his tenure before they began calling for him to receive the team’s vacated captaincy. Thanks in part to the renewed vigor, the Sabres had an improved second half and finished the season with 75 points, their highest total for a full season since 2018-19.

Tuch Is Crucial In Make-or-Break Season For Sabres

Though there was a reason for hope with the Sabres’ strong end to the 2021-22 campaign, their season nevertheless ended at game 82 and with that came the NHL record for the longest postseason drought at 11 seasons. 2022-23 might not be the season that finally ends the dreaded streak, but the Sabres will be expected to at least make a run at it and still be in contention down the stretch.

The team has the tools to make it happen. Even after losing top weapons Eichel and Sam Reinhart, Buffalo’s offense looked as good as it has in years last season, thanks to Tage Thompson’s breakout 38-goal performance and Jeff Skinner and Kyle Okposo posting very strong bounce-back campaigns. Youngsters Peyton Krebs and Dylan Cozens showed great promise for the future as well. However, the key to the team’s success in many ways is going to be the play and leadership of No. 89.

Related: Sabres Have Stable Leadership Group to Lean on in 2022-23

It can be argued that 2021-22 was Tuch’s breakout as well, something he never seemed able to do in Vegas despite the team’s star power. Despite missing more than 30 games, his 50 points were the second-highest of his career to the 52 he posted in 2018-19 (in 24 fewer games). Possessing a very strong shot and a surprising amount of speed given his 6-foot-4 frame, Tuch excels at creating opportunities and has proven that he can both pass and score. He played exceedingly well alongside Skinner and Thompson and there’s no reason to believe that head coach Don Granato won’t keep the three together as the team’s top line.

If the Central New York native can build off the last year’s foundation and replicate his success for a full campaign, the Sabres’ chances of further improved fortunes are that much more likely.

The Future Could Be Bright at KeyBank Center

It does seem that Tuch is the most viable option to become the 21st full-time captain in Sabres history since Okposo is entering the final year or his contract and the likes of Rasmus Dahlin and Dylan Cozens are still growing. Putting the “C” on his jersey would help solidify the “hustle and hard work” identity the Sabres forged for themselves last season and also be a well-deserved reward for the considerable efforts Tuch has made in such a short span.

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The 26-year-old has four seasons remaining on the seven-year, $33.35 million contract he signed in 2018 but at this point, it’s safe to assume the Sabres will want him to stick around far beyond that. With Thompson signing a whopping seven-year, $50 million extension recently, Tuch could likely receive one as well in the near future. He may have to prove worthy of it on the ice first, however.

Good things appear to be on the horizon for the Sabres and the team appears ready to take the next step on the road back to contention. However, as they have proven in the past, it’s not a guarantee that they will. With Tuch leading the charge, the proverbial ball is in Buffalo’s court. Will they live up to the hype? We can only wait and see.

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