Their 10-year playoff drought is tied for the longest in NHL history, but the young roster that the Buffalo Sabres possess is leading to some optimism surrounding the team’s future.
Few outside the organization had expectations beyond last year’s results, so there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain following a season that ended with the worst record in hockey, albeit peppered with bright points flashed by rolling out their young talent from the team’s pipeline
“I think the biggest part of this culture is getting competitive people with the characteristic of being accountable. … We want guys we can push, and we’re definitely going in that direction,” Head Coach Don Granato said.
“You want to be winning hockey games, so how your team is playing in the process is really important,” Sabres GM Kevyn Adams said. “You can’t lose sight of that. … We need to start building a culture of accountability in this organization and wins and losses are a part of that, but you have to dig deeper than that and have those conversations with players to help them understand where they need to improve. You’re not going to accept anything other than being our absolute best.”
The Buffalo roster has responded with a hot start to a new season, they are 5-1-1 and second in the Atlantic Division.
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There’s something different about this year’s Sabres squad than the team that struggled to win close games last year.
When Don Granato took over mid-season as an interim coach, many people may have thought he’d be just that.
It’s not uncommon when there’s a coaching change during the season that the interim designation in sports is often awarded to someone that can simply act as a bridge and placeholder between the head coach’s departure and the time it takes to find their replacement.
Yet when GM Kevyn Adams got hands-on and started taking action from the front office down and also directly (and quite literally) from the ice up, putting every player possible under the microscope for evaluation- He did the same for the then-interim coach.
And what he found was someone who knows how to develop teams flush with young talent and prospects into winners.
“I love potential,” beamed Granato, who was hired as a full-time coach on June 29. “Potential is exciting for the player and, to me, it’s extremely exciting as a coach, because you’re trying to be as creative as the player in getting the player to (reach that potential) as fast as you can get them there. … And that’s fun for me. That’s the drive for me.”
Some had wondered since his interim period as head coach last season if Granato would be a viable candidate when it came to filling the role full time. The front office decided he was just that. And his resume speaks for itself.
He took an expansion of the United States Hockey League team to the championship in its second year, won a title during his first season in pro hockey, developed the nation’s brightest young stars into NHLers at the USA Hockey National Team Development Program.
At the USA Hockey National Team Development Program from 2011-16, Granato and his assistant coach, Nick Fohr, developed future NHLers Auston Matthews, Matthew Tkachuk, Noah Hanifin, Zach Werenski, Charlie McAvoy, Colin White, Seth Jones, Brady Skjei, Jacob Trouba, J.T. Compher, Quinn Hughes, Tage Thompson, and Josh Norris, among others.
In 2001, only six years after he coached a group of underage players with the USHL’s expansion Green Bay Gamblers to a 9-38 season, Granato was named the American Hockey League Coach of the Year for leading Worcester to the second round of the playoffs. He earned the honor over men who went on to lead NHL benches, including Mike Babcock and Bruce Boudreau.
In 1994, he sold Green Bay ownership on the idea of selecting young players, rather than adding older guys who were promised prominent roles in previous stops. Granato knew his first season would be difficult and, he acknowledged recently, “My career could have been over before it even started.” But he believed in his ability to develop. The Gamblers won back-to-back championships after that trying first season.
His first professional head coaching gig with the East Coast Hockey League’s Columbus Chill lasted only two seasons because the franchise was folding in response to the city receiving an NHL expansion team. There were 11 vacancies in the league that offseason, Granato recalled, and he applied for only two.
Granato was an alternate governor with the league and knew each owner well. His colleagues were taken aback by his decision to limit his options so early in his career. Granato was only willing to go somewhere he could win and with ownership he trusted. The following season ended with him leading the Peoria Rivermen to a league championship.
He’ll look to have the same success developing the young Sabres core.
“I think as you watch us, you’ll see that night to night we’ll be getting better and more efficient in different areas, and eventually it will all start to add up,” Granato explained.
Fortunately, he felt the same way about the Sabres.
“You always need to think … ‘this is going to go on your track record,’ ” Granato said. “When you put 20-some years in, you better make sure you have good ownership, good people, good players and good discipline or you don’t take it.”
He called mentors and confidants to ensure he wasn’t making the same mistake he tried to avoid for decades.
“They were all like, ‘You’ve got to get that job,’ ” Granato recalled. “I just needed to bounce it off them. And then because of where we’re at, this goes on your resume. This is your career.”
“For me, I have to do things that I feel good about, and this is the job I wanted. So, the way the guys finished the season, the fact that they were excited to wear a Buffalo Sabres jersey proud, I was happy,” Granato said. “It was just nice when the season ended to feel like you did something good. The guys felt good about themselves, about their game, about Buffalo, about the Sabres and, honestly, it was just nice to feel that. I know what this franchise can accomplish.”