By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
We’re now a month into the tenure of Don Granato as interim coach of the Buffalo Sabres.
And at this point, I would submit that most of the assumptions that we all had about the team, coaching and front office can be thrown out. As screenwriter William Goldman once said about Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.”
The easy and for the moment popular narrative about the season is that Sabres finally got better after they got rid of their inept old coach, Ralph Krueger, and have turned their fortunes around under Granato. Krueger should rank with Ron Rolston on the list of clueless Buffalo coaches, while Granato deserves to be strongly considered after a month’s work for the permanent job – no matter who else might be interested.
I wish I could say I agree with all of that. But I’m not ready to disagree with it. I just don’t know. There is much to ponder.
At the end of the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season, the Sabres were at 30-31-8. That’s not a playoff team, but it was better than the team’s record in 2018-19 (33-39-10). There was no talk of a coaching change during the extra-long offseason.
What’s more, there was no talk of a coaching change on January 31, 2021. Buffalo had just lost to New Jersey to fall to 4-4-2. The Sabres’ performance was probably better than it looked in the standings, since realignment of the divisions had done Buffalo no favors and forced it to play so many powerful teams. Also remember that Jack Eichel had been playing hurt since training camp, and he was supposed to be the engine that pulled the offense along.
The problems mount
Then came the two-week Covid break, and then came the injury to No. 1 goalie Linus Ullmark, and then came a bigger, season-ending injury to Eichel, and then came 12 straight losses. Krueger was exiled to Switzerland with little chance of getting a return ticket to the NHL, and Granato was promoted. The switch didn’t show much of an effect right away, as the Sabres lost their next six (technically 0-5-1).
But then Buffalo bounced back somewhat, going 4-3-3 even including Saturday’s loss to Pittsburgh. OK, maybe the Sabres were just due to have some luck for a change. But there’s no denying that different things started happening.
For the past few years, the Sabres have had trouble developing young players. Now under Granato, Casey Mittelstadt and Tage Thompson (they had goals on Saturday) look like NHL players. Rasmus Asplund is not just in the lineup; he’s on the top line. Rasmus Dahlin is playing his best hockey in at least a year, and Henri Jokijarju has stopped regressing.
“It’s very important for the young players to take ownership,” Granato said after Saturday’s game. “You’re going to need everyone to be successful as a franchise. It’s not the star players, it is depth. For us, to have guys that have moved up on the depth chart, it’s a key opportunity for them. They are doing a great job of fighting and scratching and clawing.”
What’s more, the Sabres as a whole have some fight back in them. If there was ever a game that I would have written down a loss in ink beforehand, it was Thursday’s game in Washington. Buffalo had lost Ullmark, the Capitals were the best team in the division, etc. Yet the Sabres won convincingly. Then on Saturday, Pittsburgh dominated the contest in most categories and looked like a Stanley Cup contender in the making. Yet the Sabres were right there the end, a shot off the goal post in the final minutes from sending the game into overtime.
“I think it’s been great,” Thompson said about the team’s revival. “There a big hunger in this group. Everyone has a chip on their shoulder. We have something to prove.”
All of this has come with a roster that has only a slight relationship to the one we thought the team might have three months ago. Four Sabres left town before the trading deadline, with few bodies arriving in return. The carnage caused by injuries has been horrific. Kyle Okposo is the latest to be lost for the season after undergoing surgery.
That’s what we know. We just don’t know why this is happening, at least definitively. We’re too close to it. There are still so many questions out there about this puzzling team. Maybe Krueger’s system was not the best one for the team, but is this just a case of the young players taking advantage of the chance that fate has given them? Granato was an assistant coach under Krueger. If he gets some credit for the team’s play lately, shouldn’t he get a sliver of the blame for what happened before? If the last couple of weeks represent true growth, does that mean Granato should be named as the head coach on a permanent basis? Would the Sabres be willing to gamble on Granato long term and pass over some veteran coaches with a proven track record of success?
Heck, it’s hard to tell just how much a coach matters in professional sports. Talent is the most important ingredient of a winning team, but coaching can play a role too. My simplistic way of judging coaches is to see if they obtain the best possible results for their teams. By that standard, Granato has had a heck of a couple of weeks. He’s lifted a team from the dead and made them competitive again.
In other words, I do know this: Don Granato has given the Sabres and their fans a little hope. And on a night when the team was mathematically eliminated from the playoffs for the 10th straight year, any reason for optimism is appreciated.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)