Sabre Rattling

Led By The American Braintrust Of Kevyn Adams And Don Granato, Big Things Are Expected In Buffalo This Season
By: 
Bill Hoppe

 

There’s a newfound optimism brewing along the banks of Lake Erie. After more than a decade in the NHL doldrums, the Buffalo Sabres are in the midst of a resurgence that has the team’s loyal fanbase counting the days until the puck drops this season. 

It was developed late last winter, less than a year removed from an embarrassing 18-game winless skid and another last-place finish. By early March, having overcome injuries and COVID-19 absences, the Sabres appeared primed for breakout run, and sure enough, they finished the season on a 16-9-3 tear.

A team filled with 20-somethings had matured over the previous six months, growing close under new coach Don Granato. Players embraced each other and an aggressive system that highlighted their strengths.

Youngsters like Dylan Cozens, Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Mittelstadt and Tage Thompson all seized leading roles. Veterans Kyle Okposo and Jeff Skinner recaptured their old form. Early in the season, Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams infused the lineup with more young talent, acquiring Peyton Krebs and Alex Tuch in the blockbuster Jack Eichel trade with the Vegas Golden Knights. Late in the year, Owen Power, the first overall pick in 2021, jumped to the NHL.

The Sabres didn’t simply compile some wins down the stretch; they earned victories in important contests. They defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Heritage Classic, one of three late-season triumphs over their fiercest rival, and beat Vegas in Eichel’s highly anticipated return to Buffalo. They also roared back from a 4-0 deficit to stun the Chicago Blackhawks.

Their most significant stretch in more than a decade – the Sabres have an NHL-record 11-year playoff drought – has ignited optimism in a rabid fan base beaten down by a stunning run of futility.

“It’s been a long time coming for a fan base that’s as passionate as anyone in the league,” Okposo said of the excitement.

Adams agreed that the late season surge and all through the offseason he has felt “just an excitement around our fan base.”

“Excited for the season, excited about the fact they feel this group of players really, really wants to be in Buffalo and cares about the community,” he said.

Adams and Granato, both of whom have deep roots in USA Hockey, want players to showcase their personalities. It’s another reason why fans like the current team so much. They see a group of likable guys who are proud to represent Buffalo and hellbent on leading the Sabres back to glory.

The first day of last season, for example, Dahlin expressed how the Sabres’ new core could change the culture.

“Our players have done a really nice job of being themselves and showing their personalities and being honest about where they feel their game is, where they feel the team’s at,” Adams said. “And that’s the type of culture we want to have within our locker room and something that Donny and I talked about every day. How do we make sure that we have an environment where the players are excited to come to the rink, they’re excited to be a part of this organization, part of this community, and then that will allow them to truly be themselves and show their personalities?

“And I think that’s what our fans are starting to see – who these players are, what they’re all about. And they’re really, really quality people. That gets me excited that our fans are seeing that.”

Granato said “our guys feel that there’s something bigger than certainly themselves and even bigger than our team because we’re in Buffalo.”

“We’ve gotten guys in here that when you are connected with your love of the game, you feel the energy in the building because people go to the rink because they love the game,” he added. “They watch hockey because they love hockey, too. So it does create a sense that we’re in this together, and us as players and coaches are in it with other people in Buffalo that are passionate about hockey. …

“This is a big hockey place, and our guys have sensed it. From my time being here, I could see and sense that we have an opportunity to be a part of something big if we get our stuff in order. And they’ve really taken to that, I believe. They’ve made that a real objective.”

Adams and Granato form a unique GM-coach duo. Adams, who played 10 seasons in the NHL, took over the Sabres in 2020 having never worked on the hockey side of a front office. Meanwhile, Granato, who began his coaching career in 1993, was hired as an assistant coach by the Sabres’ old regime. Among his many previous stops on the coaching carousel was a six-year stint at USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program.

When Adams, who has grown comfortable in his new role, fired former coach Ralph Krueger in 2021, he promoted Granato and saw immediate results.

Over the past two seasons, they’ve developed a strong working relationship.

“There’s a very, very solid trust that Donny and I have working side by side day after day, going through a lot of different experiences together,” Adams said. “We trust each other just in the fact that we both know … we have the same goal and we’re trying to accomplish the same thing. What I appreciate is we can have very honest conversations about everything – that’s about the job, that’s about life, that can be personal.”

Granato said Adams is “an easy person to have respect for.”

“Because of that you want to work harder,” he said. “He’s a person that you can trust, he’s not judgmental – he’s passionate and he cares. He wants to help. So I’m not afraid to express to him anything I feel vulnerable [about].”

 

Bill Hoppe is a freelance writer based in Buffalo, N.Y.
Issue: 
2022-10

Poll

What's Your Favorite Thing About The Hockey Season?
Hanging out with all of my friends.
13%
Dangle, snipe, celly!
16%
Getting a great workout in.
5%
All of the the above!
66%
Total votes: 613