The Buffalo Sabres had just concluded a pregame meeting. Veteran forward Kyle Okposo was shocked by what he saw after the coaches left.
Instead of going their separate ways, most players stayed on the chat room to continue to have fun. Without referencing how things went in the past, Okposo was making a clear point about the current — post-Jack Eichel — makeup of the Sabres and the bonds being formed among a group of developing youngsters and journeymen.
“We all enjoy being around one another.” And that’s a really special thing when you’re in the NHL, because it doesn’t happen everywhere,” Okposo said.
This moment made him think back to his youth hockey days when teammates were always together and played mini-sticks in arena hallways.
“This is a grown-up version,” he said. “I think there is a team there, and there are men there who care deeply about each other. And our whole thing is happening the way it’s supposed to. And I’m really excited about our future.”
The Eichel era in Buffalo ended officially on November 4, when the former face was traded to Vegas. In reality, the players who remained in Buffalo were already familiar with their former captain.
Okposo, who has close ties with Eichel, said that it was not personal. It was about having to look ahead, start fresh, and allow the players to grow organically and “write there own chapters.”
There is plenty of blame to go around for how Eichel’s six seasons in Buffalo proved a failure.
There were questionable trades, high-priced signings, and no vision for developing team culture. Instead of allowing cliques among players to form, there was no vision. Eichel was made captain, possibly before he was ready.
And there was ownership’s impatience with losing, which led to a revolving door of front-office firings, leaving a Frankenstein’s monster of a roster assembled by one or another former GM to fit the needs of one or another former coach.
Add it up, and the Sabres’ decision to essentially tank the 2014-15 season for a shot to draft either Connor McDavid or Eichel led to Buffalo finishing last in the standings four times and 10 seasons without a playoff appearance to match the NHL’s longest drought.
Eichel has been lost, as well as defenseman Rasmus Rasmus Ristolainen’s offseason departures, so the Sabres can start fresh with a core team of youngsters and Don Granato, who is a first-time NHL head coaching coach with a track history of player development.
Granato took Ralph Krueger’s place in March and Buffalo, amidst an 18-game losing streak. Granato insists that the team plays without fear and keeps its eyes on the prize.
Granato said that too often players are used to playing in fear that a mistake will result in being benched. Granato acknowledged that this threat has been removed, but it takes time for players’ to recalibrate.
It’s a philosophy and a system built with an eye on the future in hopes that players gain confidence through experience.
The Sabres are 7-6-2 and have a better start than they expected. They also endure the peaks and valleys that come with a team trying to find its identity. And they’ve been competitive despite missing four key players to injury, plus forward Alex Tuch, who was acquired in the Eichel trade but remains sidelined through January with a shoulder injury.
Granato has emphasized staying in the moment, but allowed himself an opportunity to depart from his message in assessing whether the Sabres had pinned a franchise’s hopes on one player.
“I think moving forward, there’s more concern for me in the players we got. We’re extremely excited about what we got back. But nobody’s our savior,” Granato said. “Nobody should come in here as a savior. Maybe that’s been the challenge of the past.”
MUSIC CITY MATT
Matt Duchene has found his groove with the Nashville Predators in his third season. With nine goals — three of them game-winners — and seven assists, he’s just the fourth player in franchise history to have 16 or more points through the first 15 games of a season.
He’s already surpassed last year’s totals, when he had six goals and 13 points in 34 games. And Duchene’s burst in production coincides with the Predators going 8-1-1 after an 1-4 start. The 10-game run saw all but one assist.
“I really haven’t changed anything in terms of my approach, my mentality,” Duchene said, after scoring the decisive goal in a 4-3 overtime win at St. Louis last week.
The 13-year NHL veteran, a nine time 20-goal-scorer, signed a seven year, $56 million deal in Nashville in 2019 in free agency.
Coach John Hynes can see a difference.
“He’s faster this year, much more competitive on the puck,” Hynes said.
Goals: Leon Draisaitl (17), Points: Draisaitl 33; Assists : McDavid (19Edmonton), 19); Even-strength Goals: Kyle Connor (Winnipeg), 11, Rookie Goals: Lucas Raymond (Detroit), 7 Goals-against Average (minimum 10 Games): Jack Campbell (Toronto), 1.68 Shutouts : Jacob Markstrom (4Calgary).
GAME OF THURSDAY
Coming off a 5-2 win over Edmonton at Winnipeg on Tuesday, the Jets visit the Oilers to complete a home-and-away series on Thursday night between two of Canada’s top three Western Conference teams.
Source: Fox News