This season has a different feeling to it. There’s no real expectations for success but it’s not a season where “tanking” is the idea either. Don Granato doesn’t work that way. After watching the new look Buffalo Sabres, it’s apparent that this team, this group of players, has a drastically different feel than teams of the past few years. They’re uptempo, they’re wild, and they’re well balanced. And it’s refreshing to see.
I should first mention when it comes to “culture,” for people who maybe never played hockey, or any sport really, it truly does matter. When you have a team from top to bottom, GM to players, bought in on the same vision, goals, beliefs in the locker room, it has a positive effect. With the trading of players like Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen and of course, Jack Eichel, it closed the door on a chapter many Sabres fans would like to forget. An era of constant change and constant failure, plagued by a tank for Connor McDavid that ultimately also failed. But I digress, this is about the present, the future. While right now things aren’t the greatest either, it’s very clear this team has an identity and goals it’s trying to achieve. And I think Sabres fans this time around have a lot more to look forward to.
Let’s start with the golden boy, Rasmus Dahlin. Lately with some stretches of rough play, some fans have resorted to scratching him for a game or even the absurd idea of sending him down to Rochester. Let’s shut that down immediately. Dahlin may not be the absolute show stopper he was sold to be in his draft year, but he’s certainly one of the best defensemen on this team. You can see some of the things that make him special; he plays with such control, flow, creativity, and every game you can see his confidence start to grow. Playing in a sheltered system under former coach Ralph Krueger, he’s starting to adjust back to his style of game. You can see that with his offensive ability in the offensive zone, when he’s getting past the first player walking into the slot creating offense for the team. This is his first year being THE guy, to no fault of his own. Remember, he’s only 21 years old. He just became one of the first defensemen to reach 100 assists before turning 22. One of the only others? Erik Karlsson. Give him some adjustment time, because he’s only getting better with time and more confidence under Don Granato.
How about Dylan Cozens? He seems to be everyone’s new favorite and the heir apparent to Jack Eichel for the captaincy. While I think we’ve learned not to rush anybody into that role, it is something intriguing to watch. Cozens truly lays it on the line for his team. For example, in the Blue Jackets game, he played goalie while Aaron Dell was out of position, paying the price for his goaltender, blocking a shot on his knees in the crease. He’s fought on numerous occasions whether it be for a spark or defending one of his teammates. He’s the kind of player Sabres fans love to watch; he’s talented, but humble. He’s aggressive, but dependable. He’s a two-way player, understanding the importance of defense in today’s game. But when you watch him play, he’s a blue-collar worker, which serves him right as the Workhorse from Whitehorse. He’s a Buffalo guy through and through, and that’s why fans are going to love to watch him play for years to come.
And what a start it’s been for Tage Thompson. Leading the team with 16 points (as of 11/30/21) he has been a player changed since moving to center. Maybe it’s the freedom it allows in the NHL game, maybe it’s just more comfortable for him, maybe it’s confidence instilled through Don Granato. He seems to have taken all the hate Sabres fans unfairly threw at him after the Ryan O’Reilly trade and let that fuel his growth. Seeing him shoot is fascinating as he consistently delivers goals with accuracy and power, and his ability to get to spots on the ice to take those shots is improving as well. He is developing into one of the top shooters on this team, and perhaps one of the best forwards as well. His development has begun to jumpstart the Sabres into a formidable opponent every night of the week, win or lose.
Casey Mittelstadt has had a rough start to the season undergoing injury in the first game of the season. He was supposed to be the Sabres top line center going into the season and now that he’s returned, he may be, even with Cozens’ growing ability and talent. Mittelstadt thrived under Granato last season, putting up numbers equaling that of the rest of the season with Ralph Krueger. He’s just returning from injury, and posted a goal in his first game back against the Florida Panthers. He is a guy that during the second half of the year will be crucial to seeing if his development continues into one of THE guys on this roster.
I also want to mention Alex Tuch here, as I believe he is going to be a major player on this team moving forward. While a bit older than others on this list (25), he is now one of the faces of this team. He was one of the centerpieces of the Jack Eichel deal, and as someone who grew up close by in Syracuse, he has the desire to be a part of the change. As a former fan of the Sabres himself, he knows what this city can be like when the team is successful. With his combination of size and speed, he is going to be a real impact player when he returns to the ice in 2022.
Don Granato shouldn’t be left off the list of the new core either. While not a player, he’s begun to undergo a culture change as well. And you can see it on the players faces. No player ever is giving up or lamenting losing a battle. They are focused, determined to make up for any mistakes they make throughout the course of a game. His team is fun to watch, and the offense it creates is something teams under coaches like Phil Housley and Ralph Krueger struggled to obtain. It’s only the beginning of December, but this system seems to be able to sustain itself throughout the rest of the season with the players thriving under it right now.
But with an eye towards the future, don’t forget what’s happening in Rochester. Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka have been lighting up the AHL, and with the addition of Peyton Krebs, the team is loaded with prospects that will be coming down the thruway to Buffalo in due time. In college, Owen Power is dominating for Michigan and Ryan Johnson has been blossoming for the University of Minnesota. Devon Levi is putting up outstanding numbers in net and Erik Portillo is also manning the net for the University of Michigan. The Sabres prospect pool has been improving, and with help from Kevyn Adams, this team is starting to build a team that utilizes Rochester as a development ground for players in a way that it hasn’t in quite a while.
So, while this season may not end up being anything special, don’t be surprised to see this team outwork opponents to victories the way teams in years past may have packed it in. We’ve seen goaltending be a problem over the first chunk of this season, but as we’ve seen, that should take care of itself in time. Granato has begun a culture shift, and his ability to get the most out of his players (see Thompson/Mittelstadt) has the team playing at a high level, given the amount of talent this roster has. This “rebuild” has a stable foundation with the players already in Buffalo, and as players start to develop here in the 716, move up from Rochester, and come out of the college ranks, you’re going to start to see this team improve into a team this city and this fanbase both craves and deserves: A winner.