By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
When Don Granato took over as the Buffalo Sabres’ head coach on Wednesday morning, he might have had a fleeting thought about what he might say to the team at that day’s practice. Then Granato threw that thought away, since the team had a CBA-mandated day off.
Well, there was always “tomorrow.” But when tomorrow came on Thursday, a positive Covid-19 test on a Sabres’ staff member cancelled the morning skate. Therefore, Granato’s first chance to address the troops only took place a couple of hours before the opening faceoff. Speeches are nice, but a little preparation work on the ice would have been better.
Besides, it would have taken something more stirring than the Gettysburg Address to get the Sabres to raise their play up to the standards needed to beat the Boston Bruins. Thursday’s game strongly resembled the other 12 portions of this 13-game stretch without a win, as the Bruins controlled play in a 4-1 win.
“It’s definitely a challenge for sure,” Eric Staal said about the odd circumstances leading up to Granato’s debut. “They were in the same boat as us, so we can’t use that as an excuse. Donny did the best he could with the team he had, implementing some things he wanted. It wasn’t good enough today.”
The coaching change may have a variety of effects down the road, but it didn’t change the basic facts that the Sabres face on most nights of this turbulent stretch. Their current lineup really isn’t competitive against a team like Boston and its 16-8-4 record. The effects of Ralph Krueger’s departure don’t change the equation much when names like Eichel, Ullmark, McCabe and Cozens are on the sidelines.
Granato probably didn’t need a refresher course on what’s been wrong with the Sabres, starting with the lack of offense. He’s seen enough of it as an assistant coach. The power play went a mere 0 for 1 Thursday, making it 12 straight games without a goal on the man-advantage. When the teams were at even strength, Buffalo couldn’t manage a single goal on the Boston defense. That has happened in five of the last six home games, a sure sign of severe problems.
Okposo breaks through
The Sabres would have been blanked on offensive completely on Thursday for the fifth time in those six home games had it not been for Kyle Okposo’s shorthanded goal. It came on a harmless looking shot from the right side that changed direction and fooled goalie Jaroslav Halek. It was Okposo’s first goal of the season, and it was welcome no matter how it went in.
“It was nice to see that one go in,” he said. “The longer the zero sits in that column, the more it weighs on you. It’s nice, but we have a lot of stuff to correct. You have to take a deep dive into what’s going on here, from everybody. It’s systemic.”
Consider one other statistic. The Sabres’ solitary goal actually raised their scoring average in their last nine home games. They have a total of seven goals in that span. I’m waiting for someone to use the old joke about not putting the puck in the ocean from the pier. Granato has one item at the top of his wish list for improving the offense.
“More pace. Simple,” he said. “I felt today we established ourselves in our game, but we didn’t sustain it. You look into that and say, ‘How can we sustain it?’ It might be better puck management. When you mismanage the puck, you expend more energy to recover it. They all tie in. Our guys played with a good pace. We’ll look at it and go back to it at practice.”
A little more offense would be nice, of course, but that’s not enough. The Sabres have showed too few signs of displaying effort and enthusiasm this season. Staal believes that has to change.
“It’s got to be something inside of you,” he said. “It has to be the inner drive, a not-to-lose attitude that you have to find. It’s execution. It’s competing on one-on-one puck battles. There are lots of things we can get better at. You have to take pride in playing in the NHL. We haven’t done it well enough. It’s a tough league. There are lots of great players and great teams. When you aren’t feeling it, these good teams make you pay. We’re seeing that over and over. We’re finding ways to give teams opportunities. … We have been doing that a lot for a good while.”
Placing an imprint
We’ll assume hockey life now will return to something closer to normal, and the Sabres will have the chance to be taught some possible fixes to their problems on Friday. You could even say that Granato’s tenure as interim head coach essentially begins at the first whistle of practice.
“Practice tomorrow will be nice,” he said. “Even a meeting will be nice. The video from tonight will be nice. We didn’t have the three elements in preparation for tonight’s game. … We need to sort through them.
“We will be practicing differently. I say that because I’m a different coach. I have to do what I’m familiar with. There will be quite a difference there, simply just with that. With any team, you want to be sharp and clean things up. … We need to move forward, demand more, push harder – all of us, coaches and players. Practice is an opportunity to do that.”
And we’ll see on Saturday afternoon with the rematch against the Bruins if a new approach can lead to immediate baby steps forward.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)