NHL - US Sports: Can Buffalo Sabres end postseason drought?
The Buffalo Sabres haven't qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2010/22, the longest current drought in the NHL.
However, guided by coach Don Granato and General Manager Kevyn Adams, the Sabres enjoyed an outstanding end to last season which has given cause for optimism that the wait is coming to an end in 2022/23.
End of season run
The Buffalo Sabres showed signs of blossoming towards the end of last season going 16-9-3 in their last 28 games which began with a rout of the Toronto Maple Leafs in early February and ended with victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on the final day of the season.
Going 32-39-11, the Sabres finished fifth in the Atlantic Division but the end of season run gave serious cause for optimism heading into 2022/23.
Re-setting the culture
Following the recent season several Sabres players spoke of a different feeling within the team, saying coming to the rink is more fun than it has been in a long time.
The culture shift hasn't come about by chance but through GM Adams making bold and brave decisions over his two years in charge and Coach Granato giving his players the freedom to express themselves.
Since replacing Jason Botterill in June 2020, Adams has overhauled a roster whose core either didn't want to be there or sought opportunity elsewhere.
Superstar Jack Eichel demanded to leave after a fall out over treatment on a serious neck injury, while Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen and goalie Linus Ullmark all grew impatient and moved on to pastures new.
Adams maximized the Sabres' return from Eichel's trade to the Vegas Golden Knights, getting Peyton Krebs and Alex Tuch who have made a home for themselves in Buffalo and collected several draft picks from other trades which he has used wisely.
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Benefited from losing
While credit must go to Adams, he has benefited from the Sabres being able to select top-end prospects high in the draft, several of which have matured to a point where they can be impactful players in the NHL.
This includes first overall pick in 2018 and now All-Star defenceman Rasmus Dahlin and first round selections in 2017 and 2019, Casey Mittelstadt and Dylan Cozens respectively.
The first overall pick in 2021, exciting blue-liner Owen Power, plus their first and second round additions in 2022 forwards Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka are all set to make an impact next season too.
Adams has done an excellent job of supplementing his young group with a handful of reliable veterans who bring a level of know-how and assistance to their development.
This includes 41-year-old goalie Craig Anderson, forward Vinne Hinostroza, 28, and defenceman Ilya Lyubushkin.
They have been added to a solid leadership group who have committed themselves to the Sabres organisation.
34-year-old Kyle Okposo is tipped to become new Captain following the exit of Eichel and he will be well supported by Zemgus Girgensons, 28, who has spent his entire eight-year NHL career in Buffalo.
Granato the right choice
Coach Granato was initially hired as assistant coach in 2019 but took over as interim boss in March 2021 when Ralph Krueger was fired. Offering the 54-year-old the job full-time in the face of much criticism has proved an inspired decision by Adams.
Described by Adams as allowing his team to play without fear of making a mistake and generating an environment which allows players to grow authentically, true to their skillset and personalities, Granato has helped a number of his team turn their careers around.
Ever since he took over, 24-year-old Tage Thompson has turned into one of Buffalo's best players, scoring a team high 38 goals plus 30 assists for 68 points last season.
Before Granato, the huge 6'7" American who was a first-round pick of the St. Louis Blues in 2016, has spent most of his NHL career plugging along in the bottom six, and never scoring more than eight goals and 14 points.
Similarly, 30-year-old Jeff Skinner re-found his outstanding goal-scoring form under Granato following two disastrous seasons where he lost complete confidence in himself.
Skinner bagged 33 goals last season following two years with 14 and seven which came after a 40-goal campaign in 2018/19.
Netminding the biggest question mark
The Sabres re-signed the aforementioned Anderson and Eric Comrie from the Winnipeg Jets to fill their netminding positions.
At the same age as his number 41, Anderson performed admirably last season going 17-12-2 in 31 starts with a .897 save-percentage and 3.12 goals-against-average (GAA).
However, the respected American is in the twilight of his career and his numbers have slowly dwindled over recent years.
27-year-old Comrie started a career high 16 games for the Jets last season with a 10-5-1 record and an excellent .920 save-percentage and 2.58 GAA.
In five seasons previous, he hadn't started more than three games, so his ability to be a number one over an 82-game season is a big unknown.