Owen Power is finally getting a break. He needs it after the craziest hockey season any 19-year-old kid has ever had. But come fall, the attention will return and he’ll start for real down the path of becoming one of the Buffalo Sabers’ marquee men.
Think about what the big defenseman from the University of Michigan has done in the last 12 months. Last May, he played for Canada in the World Championships in Latvia and, less than two months later, was the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft.
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has the pedigree – he won gold at the IIHF World Junior Championship and earned MVP honors in the Ontario Hockey League – and talent to be the long-term solution in goal.
Then came the highly anticipated, star-studded college season at Michigan. The abbreviated trip to the World Juniors in Edmonton that were shut down by Covid, albeit only after Power became the first Team Canada defenseman to notch a hat trick in the tournament. A return to Michigan. An unplanned trip to China for the Olympics after the NHL opted not to go. Another return to Michigan and a trip to the Frozen Four, where disappointment reigned after an overtime loss to Denver in the semifinals.
And, finally, to the start of his NHL career with the Sabres. To signing a contract and taking a morning skate in Tampa, practicing in his childhood rink in Etobicoke, Ont., and making his debut the next night against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
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There are whirlwinds. And then there is the lunacy of Power’s 2021-22 campaign.
“It’s nice just knowing that you won’t have all that stuff (next year),” Power said after the Sabers’ season ended. “Training wise, it’s not much different. You just still go in there every day and try and get better. So I feel like it’s definitely a little bit more relaxing knowing kind of what’s coming instead of just having all those thoughts and possibilities. It will be good just to have that one thing.”
The Sabers can’t wait to see what Power will become.
Power had two goals and an assist in his eight games, putting up a plus-3 rating while averaging 22:05 per game of ice time. He had a stunning 58% Corsi rating at 5 on 5 and while you’re on small sample size watch, the numbers matched what the eyes saw.
At 6-foot-6, Power is a rare package of size, nimble skating ability and strong hands. He’s going to be on everybody’s preseason Calder Trophy lists come fall. Power said the eight games he played give him a big leg up on next season.
“I think they’re huge. Just being able to kind of get acclimated with all the people here and also playing,” he said. “It’s definitely nice going into next year and knowing what the league is kind of like.”
Winnipeg Jets forward and Michigan alum Kyle Connor, a 47-goal scorer this season, foreshadowed Power’s NHL success when asked about him by The Buffalo News during All-Star Week in Las Vegas in February.
“The first thing that stands out from skating with him in the summer is his skating ability,” Connor said. “He skates so fluid and that makes it tough on you as an offensive player. He’s got such good reach that he can skate with you, really skate. That’s rare to see at that age. He’s going to be a great player in this league .”
Power entered a difficult situation, coming into an NHL locker room in Game 75 of a season as an unknown one with a team that had been together for six months. Things were pretty seamless on the ice, but went better than could have been imagined off the ice. His first night in Tampa, alternate captains Kyle Okposo and Zemgus Girgensons took him to dinner and let him ask whatever he wanted about the NHL and he quickly became part of the group.
“What I loved about the way Owen came in here was 1, He was able to be himself and accepted by his teammates, and then 2, just the way he wanted to fit in,” said General Manager Kevyn Adams. “‘I’m going to pick up pucks after practice or water bottles.’ That’s a big deal. And then everybody feels that. So that’s the environment we want.”
Victor Olofsson is feeling like himself again. A wrist injury that caused the sharp-shooting winger to score zero goals in a 30-game stretch is healed. His return to form was key in the Sabers’ late-season turnaround.
“I wasn’t expecting the guys to be so good to me,” Power said. “They definitely made it really easy for me to just come in here and be comfortable. Just allow me to kind of be myself. I thought they were awesome.”
Power was so polished that the Sabers’ stated plan of getting a veteran on the right side to play with him, either at the trade deadline or over the summer, may not be as automatic now. The top two pairs of Rasmus Dahlin with Mattias Samuelsson and Power with Henri Jokiharju were more than capable of serving as a Top-4 quartet even with none of them older than 22.
As one NHL executive told Sportsnet insider Elliotte Friedman in a bullet item for a recent “32 Thoughts” column: “Owen Power, Rasmus Dahlin and Mattias Samuelsson on the blueline is going to be a problem.”
And he didn’t mean for the Sabers.
Jokiharju said it was easy to see how Power was a No. 1 overall pick and that the 19-year-old’s package of size and skating immediately stood out.
“I think I kind of knew already he could make some plays and I was surprised more how he played defensively,” Jokiharju said. “How he assessed himself, what kind of stick he had (while defending onrushing opponents). For myself, I think it took me a long time to get used to that. So I feel he was already ready for that step.”
“He was great,” Power said of Jokiharju. “I think him and everyone else did a really good job just making me feel comfortable off the ice. With him on the ice, he talked me through a lot of situations. So definitely made it easy for me to just go out there and play my game.”
Coach Don Granato and his staff showed no hesitation with Power, making him an immediate member of the penalty killing team and slowly giving him some power-play chances as well. Power was happy his eight appearances challenged him. He opened against the Leafs, played in Boston, got burned on a rush by St. Louis superstar Vladimir Tarasenko and closed against Chicago’s Patrick Kane.
“It was pretty cool,” Power said. “You grew up watching those guys, but it was also kind of fun seeing how you match up with them and just having the challenge of playing against them. I had a lot of fun.”
Said Samuelsson: “He’s a special player. Even his first game in Toronto, seeing a 19-year-old step in the league as a D-man and have that poise and calm with the puck and just look very natural, you know he’s only gonna get better. It’s exciting with the ‘D’ we have. He’s a great kid, great personality and definitely a hell of a player.”