The Buffalo Sabres have been through some ups and downs since the start of the year. From a very slow start for their stars to a COVID outbreak and bad coaching, things have not been easy for them. However, after almost breaking the record for the longest winless streak in the NHL’s cap era, they’ve been improving. And a lot of the credit for that goes to their younger players and Don Granato.
Don Granato Makes Young Guns Shine for Buffalo
Saying that the Sabres have been unlucky in 2021 is an understatement. They lost their captain, Jack Eichel, to an injury early in March. One of their best defenceman, Jake McCabe, was injured early in the season. The team faced a tough challenge against COVID that forced them to shut down completely for two weeks in March. One could say the Sabres were buried underneath a pile of misery. However, a glimpse of light sparkled after former head coach Ralph Krueger was released from his duties.
It was clear to nearly every single person in the NHL that one of Buffalo’s biggest problems was Krueger. Of course, he wasn’t the only one. But his lack of self-accountability was worrying and it was very clear that no one was satisfied with how things were going. The morale was on the floor, players like Rasmus Dahlin – known for his very offensive game – were failing miserably. The team was dead.
Until Don Granato appeared and started working his magic.
The Granato Show
Don Granato was named interim head coach on March 17 and took over the Sabres bench on March 18. However, changing coaches mid-season is not easy in normal situations, in a shortened season it became even harder. He was faced with adversity since day one.
To start with, he didn’t get his first practice with the team after having to cancel it due to the NHL COVID Protocols. Then on March 27, Granato was put under protocol with the rest of the coaching staff. The Sabres were shutout for the 7th time that night. Something had to change and fast.
When Buffalo entered the ice on March 27 in Boston, they looked like a totally different team. Even though they played two solid periods, it ended up being a tough 3-2 loss to the Boston Bruins. Still, that was a small spark for the fragilized team.
They hosted the Philadelphia Flyers on March 30 and things seemed great. For the first two periods, they looked strong, getting a 3-0 lead to enter the third. That’s when everything fell apart. The Flyers scored four unanswered goals in a 4-3 overtime loss for the home team.
That night they tied the 2003-04 Pittsburgh Penguins for longest winless streak – with 18 losses under their belt. Everyone had lost their faith in them, there were jokes all over the place. It seemed like there was no hope at all.
Until they hit the ice on March 31 for the rematch.
When The Odds Turned
Buffalo knew they had only one choice that night: win. There was no other option, they needed to go into the game and play like there was no tomorrow. And that’s exactly what they did. Sam Reinhart, Curtis Lazar, Steven Fogarty and Casey Mittelstadt scored throughout the first two periods. Brandon Montour scored twice in the third to wrap the game and give the Sabres a 6-1 win. They could finally breathe again.
After that, things started to look a lot better. They are currently 5-3-2 in their last 10 games and a lot of that has to be credited to Granato. However, there are some names that deserve to be highlighted here and they belong to the Sabres youngsters.
The Young Core
Calling some of the guys below youngsters might not be accurate in NHL terms, especially since the team is very young. But when compared to what Buffalo was looking little more than a month ago, they need to be highlighted.
Since Granato took over, the 22-year-old has scored seven goals and three assists for 10 points in 17 games. During the Krueger era, he had only one goal and five points in 13 games. He has been leading the team in points since April 1st, with nine in his last 10 games. Considering this an improvement is an understatement with how things were before. Mittelstadt has been a key player for Buffalo and seeing him thrive along with his linemates definitely makes Buffalo’s fans happy.
Speaking of Mittelstadt’s linemates, Rasmus Asplund has been a very pleasant surprise. After being in and out of the lineup, he finally became a regular – and he earned it. He has played 12 games under coach Granato and has five goals and seven points. The 23-year-old had three points in 29 games last season and had only one goal under Krueger. The former coach’s failure gets pretty noticeable on the paper once you look at these simple statistics.
Tage Thompson has been around for a while. This is his third full season in the NHL – his rookie year being with the St. Louis Blues – and his second with the Sabres. He missed the entire 2019-20 season after sustaining a shoulder injury on November 17, 2019. The 23-year-old has also been in and out of the lineup but his solid performance in April with Mittelstadt and Asplund has guaranteed him a spot as a regular. In the past 10 games, Thompson has scored five goals and six points. Before Granato, he had only two points in 13 games.
The defenceman didn’t have the easiest start in his career but things seem to be improving for Henri Jokiharju. He played his rookie season with the Chicago Blackhawks, splitting time between Chicago and their AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs. After getting traded to the Sabres in 2019, the 21-year-old player had a career-high four goals and 15 points in 35 games during the 2019-20 season. However, he’s only seven points away from beating those numbers.
Jokiharju is another example of what bad coaching was doing to the young Sabres team. He’s a big part of the reason why Buffalo went from 99 goals-against in 29 games under Krueger to 56 in 17 under Granato. His defensive game improved, allowing his pair, Rasmus Dahlin, to improve his offensive play.
Of course, Dahlin wouldn’t be left out of this list. It’d be a true crime because if there’s a player that struggled pre-Granato, that’s Rasmus Dahlin. His natural talent and incredible skills were what got him picked first overall in 2018. He never stopped producing offensively – even if he got fewer points than normal – but was terrible at defence. Turnovers, missed passes, bad hits, too many penalties taken, name it and Dahlin had it in his resume for the first 30 games of the season. However, the 21-year-old Swede has been getting back on track since Granato took over the Sabres. He has eight points in the past 10 games, paired with Jokiharju.
This has not been an easy year for Dylan Cozens. The Sabres rookie was one of the nine Sabres players to get COVID in March, sustained an upper-body injury on March 11 and another one on March 29, which lead him to miss 15 games in total on his rookie year. However, since he returned to the lineup on April 11, Cozens has five points in five games.
The rookie might not be getting huge numbers but the circumstances are not favourable. He’s playing for the worst team in the league, most of his games were under a coach that didn’t know how to use his skills and the COVID background doesn’t help. But the 20-year-old has been playing on a line with Arttu Ruotsalainen (another Sabres rookie) and now Anders Bjork, the newest Buffalo addition, and they’ve been thriving. It may be too risky to say this with them having only four games together, but the Sabres might’ve found a very special thing with those three.
The Trade Surprise
When the Taylor Hall trade was announced and Anders Bjork was a part of the return package from Boston, it was a consensus that the Sabres got the worst from the deal. However, the 24-year-old has been working hard to prove that he’s here and he’s not going anywhere. To be fair, he was an average forward in a team that has superstars but his production was going really badly this season. In 30 games with the Bruins, he had only two goals and five points and Boston needed more.
Moving him was probably the best decision for both player and team, especially with a return like Taylor Hall. But whatever was missing for him in Boston, he seems to have found in Buffalo – in only four games. Bjork has one goal and three points in a Sabres jersey, playing with two rookies – including one who made his NHL debut on April 9. Of course, shining on a team that’s been bad for so long is not hard but the American player has been doing it against teams like Boston, Pittsburgh and the Washington Capitals – all occupying a playoff spot right now. Again, it might be too early to say this but maybe he just needed a fresh start on a team that actually needs him.
Writing about Buffalo’s young core and not talking about Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson is impossible. Both are 25, Reinhart has been around for a while now, but they’ve been key players since the beginning. They are leading the team in points, combining for 57, and have been the most reliable players for Buffalo, even under Krueger. With Eichel out and Jeff Skinner having an odd season, the Reinhart-Olofsson duo has been carrying the team for a long time now. Under Granato, their production has been stable – Olofsson decreasing a little but he’s been improving as the games go by.
Even if they’re already eliminated from the playoffs – for the tenth consecutive season – Buffalo’s fans have a few reasons to be excited about the future. This article only shows seven of them. Of course, it is a little bit too early to believe they will win the Stanley Cup anytime soon but things are set to be better now. The Sabres have a whole lot of great prospects and multiple picks in the next two drafts. All Kevyn Adams has to do now is not make the same mistake with their next coach and they might have a shot at not breaking the record for most years without a playoff run.