By Budd Bailey
Buffalo Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams no doubt has been reminded of the most obvious and the most relevant principle in professional sports in the past couple of months.
It’s impossible to know where the next great coach is coming from.
Adams apparently checked the usual boxes in his search for his quest to determine who should the coach of the Sabres next season. He talked to the interim coach, Don Granato. He talked to former coaches, some of which had success with other teams. He talked to assistant coaches. He talked to college coaches. He talked to European coaches. He talked to the Pegulas, who would be signing the new coach’s paycheck. Adams said Thursday that he learned a lot along the way, and that in of itself may prove valuable to someone who only has been a general manager for a year.
When he was done, he came back to where he started … and signed Granato to a three-year contract.
Some of the endless leadership books out there say when a tough decision comes up, make a list to clarify your thinking. Let’s put ourselves in Adams’ skates, er, shoes, and see what the arguments were.
The case for Granato
Stability. The Sabres have gone through a lot of changes during their current dry spell at every level – players, coaches, management. All of that churning usually postpones improvement, since adjustments have to be made as philosophies differ. Having the same coach around means the Sabres won’t be starting over on the first day of training camp. There is something to be said for that.
The rebound. Buffalo was more or less dead in the water when Granato took over from Ralph Krueger. After a few losses, he got the team back to a 9-11-2 finish to the season. Under the circumstances, which included some more injuries to the players, that was impressive. Some of that probably was what the baseball experts call “the dead cat bounce.” That means every piece of matter will rebound slightly after hitting the floor. In other words, the breaks do even out over the long term, more or less. But there were genuine signs of progress, which brings us to …
Player improvement. The young players on the team had been disappointing under Krueger. When Granato took over, many picked up their play. Rasmus Dahlin showed at times why he’s considered such an excellent prospect. Casey Mittelstadt looked rejuvenated, even if took injuries and a trade (Eric Staal) for someone to realize that he’s much more comfortable as a center. Tage Thompson and Rasmus Asplund looked like fits on the NHL roster. When you only have hope to sell tickets, this qualified.
Popularity. Some of the players came out strongly at the end of the season in favor of Granato’s hiring. He did try to install a more uptempo offense, and the goals per game did go up. Don’t underestimate this fact if it is genuine. It’s a players’ league these days, and good coaches are often the ones who can work with the talent they have and motivate it.
Salary. The Pegulas have been willing to throw money at coaches in the past, and it didn’t work. We know they are only a year from a massive housecleaning that sent many members out of the hockey department out the door. We also know they will be paying Krueger a few million dollars not to coach next season, a nice gig if you can get it. Does it matter that Granato came cheaper than, say, Bruce Boudreau? It’s hard to get a straight answer out of anyone about that.
Players’ comments: Let’s face it – how many times does anyone say in public that he or she is not happy with a boss? Almost never. It’s either done anonymously or not at all – particularly in a Covid-19 environment where casual conversations with those with knowledge about a situation only happen on mass Zoom calls. Sometimes pro athletes go public after a particular coach is gone, but even that’s unusual. You’d hope Adams has read the locker room accurately about what the mood of the locker room really is.
And how important is popularity anyway? Care to guess who had the best winning percentage of a Sabres’ coach in a season in the past eight years? Give yourself a gold star if you said Dan Bylsma (.494 in 2015-16). The players couldn’t wait to push him out the door, according to credible reports. By the way, second on that list was Krueger (.493 in 2019-20).
Part of the problem: If you didn’t think the Sabres were going in the right direction in the past two years, well, Granato might deserve at least a small share of the blame. After all, he was one of the assistant coaches of the team during that span until he took over as head coach. Admittedly, we all might do things a little different if given the keys to the office.
Goaltending: This is the most obvious way to improve the Sabres next season. Linus Ullmark finished 9-6-3 in 2020-21. The rest of the team was 6-28-4. When Granato was here, the team was 4-2-2 with Ullmark in goal, 5-14-1 with someone else in the net. Sign Ullmark to a new contract (he’s a free agent), find someone who can play alongside of Ullmark, and the team will be better next season – no matter who is coaching.
The hiring of Granato as head coach comes across as a reasonable, rational choice. We probably could have guessed that Adams liked Granato personally, simply because he was asked to take over as head coach once Krueger and assistant coach Steve Smith were let go. That relationship is always important; ask Tim Murray and Ted Nolan. Besides, the Sabres tried going way outside of the box by picking Krueger, and I would guess that few have the willingness to try something along those lines again.
Yes, it would be nice to bring in some sort of proven winner at this level to become head coach. Those guys usually don’t walk through the door for an interview though – especially for teams that haven’t won a playoff series in what seems like a generation. Even then, there’s no guarantee of success even with that sort of pick – as the Maple Leafs found out with Mike Babcock. Granato would not have been my first pick for the job in, say, early March. He elevated his chances with his work as the interim head coach. If Granato can help some of the young players reach their presumed potential, then he’ll be a success.
Granato said the right things at Thursday’s morning news conference, and he walks into a good situation under the circumstances. Expectations for the Sabres are quite low right now, but even normal NHL goaltending should move the team closer to the .500 mark next season. That could give him a bit of a honeymoon period from a fanbase that is rightfully discouraged these days.
The bigger determining factor about Buffalo’s chances for long-term success centers on the future of Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. If those two players are moved in the offseason, the rebuilding plan will have to take a step backwards. In other words, they’d better be right on what to do with their two of their best players. Otherwise, no coach in the hockey universe will be able to help them end this playoff drought in the near future.
(Follow Budd on Twitter at @WDX2BB)