That’s all Don Granato got during his time as interim head coach of the Buffalo Sabres; twelve practices, sandwiched between games in an already-challenging NHL season amid a global pandemic. Now, with his interim tag removed, Granato looks forward to the opportunity of a full season behind the bench & the chance to run his own ship.
Granato spoke with local media shortly after his new title became official; he spoke for about 45 minutes alongside general manager Kevyn Adams. Although both largely tried to avoid addressing the Jack Eichel topic, it was a conversation that showcased Granato’s hope for the team and the poise and experience he hopes to bring to the position in his first full season as head coach for the Sabres. (You can watch the full conference here.)
Having been a part of the organization for the last few years, Granato is no stranger to the perils the team has had recently. It’s exactly that challenge - that opportunity, and as he called it, that obligation - that excites him about his new role.
“The challenge excites me,” he said. “The demand of the challenge is what excites me. I fully believe we have a huge opportunity right in front of us; I think our players have started to grasp that with excitement and energy. The demand of Sabres fans, the demand of our hockey community, is right where I want to be.”
He spoke about the strength and depth of Buffalo’s hockey community, and both he and Adams reflected on the local culture and how that can fuel the players, both on and off the ice. Granato noted that the 2021 team had pride for the city and the community, and how easy it is to feel the city’s pride and feed off that.
“I like the pressure of that,” he added. “I know we can get our players to thrive on that pressure.”
That pride extends not just to the players, Adams said, but to the organization as a whole.
“We need to establish a culture here of people, on the ice, across the staff, of people that are proud,” he said. “It’s just something really special to get up every day and have this opportunity to be a Buffalo Sabre. That’s a really important piece.”
Inspirational anecdotes aside, Granato said he’s looking forward to the coming months and getting the chance to build his team through training camp, preseason and a full season of NHL games. He openly admitted that the team needs to get better (obvious to anyone who’s watched a Sabres game in the last few years) and stressed the importance of not playing conservatively when it comes to offense.
With more time and space, he’s ready to set up his systems and build from there.
“We have lots of practice time,” he said. “The defensive systems are very straightforward and simple. It’s just a question of sacrifice and hard work. The offensive systems are much more complex and they evolve over time. Practice is an integral part of that.”
Granato plans to build on his experience over the years, including several seasons with the United States National Team program, and focus not just on coaching, but also on development. He noted his work with players like Auston Mathews, Matthew Tkachuk and Charlie McAvoy and how to develop & influence players so that they’re ‘excited to come back the next day and invest more’ on an individual basis.
“As a head coach, you set the narrative each day,” he said. “You get to make certain decisions that you can’t in other positions. I love that. I’ve had lots of experience, whether it be with starting franchises or jumping in midstream and replacing people. The vision you have, as long as you can bring some clarity to it, it’s a lot of fun.”
“This game, when it’s played right, is really entertaining. Of course we’re going to win, try to win & play to win, but in that process, it’s gotta be entertaining,” he added. “That means you’re playing with passion and energy. It’s not just, we want to be entertaining for the fans; it’s for us, too. Lay it on the line, play as hard as you can. You will see continual progress of our team.”
Naturally, the next question is: what happens from here?
Amid questions of an Eichel trade, his surgery (or lack thereof), a Reinhart deal & more, Granato was quick to note that he’s very early in the days of actually having the job, and that communications will come. He plans to work on filling out his coaching staff over the next few weeks, which may or may not mean bringing back his assistant coaches (they’re in the mix, though, to be clear.)
As for the other stuff?
“When you prepare for a season, you prepare for a range of what may happen,” he said. “Whatever the scenario is, we’ll be ready for it.”
Noting players like Anders Bjork who just joined the Sabres last season, Jack Quinn, J.J. Peterka and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen as other up-and-comers, Granato said there’s a lot to factor into when building a roster for next season.
“You factor in what we have, and you look at areas we want to target and improve,” he said. “Then you factor in Mattias Samuelsson’s maturing and coming into the league. There’s so many exciting things that will fill & be more capable of filling more areas that you would see on a real, successful roster. And any potential trades we could have.”
“To me, anything and everything is exciting,” he added. “We have a lot of potential in the form of talent that’s in place to make big steps in a very short span.”
Adams did note, quickly, that the team’s stance about Eichel’s surgery hasn’t changed, saying that “it’s in the hands of the medical experts.” He also spoke briefly about the upcoming draft but didn’t really name any specifics, instead disclosing that there’s “a lot of players we feel good about.”
As for Granato, his belief in the team was evident in the smallest, more subtle moments of the conference. At one point when asked about playing in a tough division featuring the two Stanley Cup finalist teams, he began to say “if we are successful,” and quickly corrected himself to say “when we are successful.” It’s a minor thing, but reflects an attitude shift from a team that’s been in the dumps to a team that could actually, you know.... win.
At least right now, Granato appears poised, ready to take the helm and face the upcoming challenges head-on as head coach of the Buffalo Sabres.
Now the question is: can & will he actually do it?