BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Jack Eichel, now stripped of his captaincy, has likely played his final game for the Sabres because of a rift with the team over how to treat a herniated disk. Forward Sam Reinhart and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen got their wish to escape Buffalo after being traded in July.
Despite another offseason of headaches and negative headlines, veteran forward Kyle Okposo chose his words carefully in assessing why he believes the Sabres might be finally pointed in the right direction after spending the past decade dwelling mostly in dysfunction.
“I wasn’t naïve going into it. I just didn’t know the situation I was going into. There were some definite things that needed to be cleaned up,” the 33-year-old said, referring to the belief he was joining a contender upon signing with Buffalo in the summer of 2016.
“There were a lot of things, different dynamics before that factored into the equation of us being successful,” Okposo added. “I hope that we’re in a place where some of those things have been alleviated, and now we can focus on playing hockey and teaching these young guys how to be pros.”
Okposo declined to get into specifics, but it’s no secret the Sabres’ culture has been abysmal and a major reason behind the team’s failings. Buffalo is coming off a season in which it finished last in the NHL standings for the fourth time in eight years, and matched a league record in missing the playoffs for a 10th consecutive year.
Management’s response was to essentially start from scratch by purging an over-priced, under-producing roster and focusing on rebuilding through a youth-laden core that showed signs of gelling over the final half of last season under new coach Don Granato.
“We need to build around people that want to be here for the right reasons,” general manager Kevyn Adams said.
It’s an approach which led to Adams trading Reinhart to Florida and Ristolainen to Philadelphia, after both players questioned their long-term future with the team in May. And it’s why Eichel would have been traded, too, if not for the unrepaired injury that has sidelined him since March.
The future of the team is now in the hands of players with three or fewer full seasons of NHL experience, including centers Dylan Cozens and Casey Mittelstadt, fowards Victor Olofsson and Tage Thompson, defensemen Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju, and goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen.
The disparity of experienced talent between the Sabres and many of their opponents doesn’t worry Granato. Sticking with the up-tempo style he introduced upon replacing Ralph Krueger in March, Granato is not going to compromise developing his youngsters at the expense of being tentative.
“It’s important for me to be fearless. We can’t sit back. We can’t step back. You’re not going to learn being conservative,” he said. “I’m OK with mistakes.”
Buffalo’s goaltending plans was derailed after failing to re-sign returning starter Linus Ullmark, who signed with Boston in free agency. Buffalo scrambled to sign Aaron Dell and journeyman Craig Anderson, who may prove important if Luukkonen opens the season in the minors.
THE OLD MAN
Forward Zemgus Girgensons is now the current team’s longest-tenured player following Ristolainen’s departure. He’s entering his eighth season, and returns healthy after missing last year with a torn hamstring.
“I was talking to my wife, she was saying that I’m the old guy. I was like, ‘No way, I’m still 27,’’ he said. “Then I looked back. When I was 19, I was calling the 27-year-olds old guys.”
Granato is counting on Jeff Skinner to regain his spark after struggling under Krueger. After scoring a career-best 40 goals in 2018-19, his first season in Buffalo, the forward combined for 21 in 112 games the past two years.
“I talked to Jeff about the style we want to play and how it fits the style he likes to play,” Granato said. “I take that as a coaching challenge. I know he has lots of talent.”
The 20-year-old Cozens said he and his fellow youngsters can benefit because they have few ties to the Sabres’ losing history.
“I never experienced those years so I don’t know quite what it was like,” said Cozens, who had four goals and 13 points in 41 games as a rookie last year. “We’re not going to accept losing.”
THE LONG ROAD
The NHL’s All-Star break coupled with its Olympic break means the Sabres will go 40 days between home games. Buffalo hosts Philadelphia on Jan. 22, and doesn’t play its next home game until facing Minnesota on March 4.
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