Buffalo Sabres training camp has begun. Prospect tournaments the whole league round are concluding as players return to town for a mercifully-speedy preseason schedule. The organization here in Buffalo dropped a contract renewal for General Manager Kevyn Adams the day before camp began. And so, with ideal timing, the newest episode of Sabres Embedded was posted the same week to display the hard work of said GM. Once again, I will be going over this nifty nine-minute feature on the free agency moves the team made in the offseason and all the subtle choices the video made.
This episode, Behind the Scenes of NHL Free Agency 2022, seems to not have a lot of source material. After 2021 we were bound to have a less eventful offseason this go around. Indeed there were few fully-NHL oriented moves, at least few that were christened (looking at you, Matt Murray), but this video makes a lot with a little. It truly showed us some team dynamics we might not have otherwise known just by showing us the normal wheeling and dealing of Kevyn Adams we have come to expect.
It feels unnecessary to recap this video beat for beat. It is exclusively a Front Office affair with zero player fanfare interspersed. Yes, I passed on a summary of the summertime Embedded episode on Jeff Skinner’s first pitch at a Buffalo Bisons game for the opposite reason. There is some cute player stuff in that similarly brief video, but it didn’t seem worth wasting your time reviewing it here. I like the meat and potatoes stuff: when these closely-manicured team productions actually give us fans something interesting to chew on. The kind of stuff that really says something about the direction of the team.
In that regard, there are two moments that stick out in this feature.
I am a true sucker for drama, so I am going to save the more interesting piece for second. First up is a call Kevyn Adams makes to Kyle Okposo. The call came after the seven minute mark of the video, after all of the major moves had been made. This is a classic closed-door phone conversation Adams has with Okposo. He tells Okposo he has only a minute before an agent call and informs him he has sealed the deal with both Eric Comrie and Ilya Lyubushkin, the team’s targets of this free agency, according to Adams. Comrie had made acquaintance with Okposo in the past as it were. Adams encouraged Okposo to give him a welcome call. This conversation is followed by Adams’ directly discussing his special relationship with Okposo over past footage.
This may seem like an innocuous exchange to the uninitiated viewer, but in context it really clarifies what Adams would say just this week at the opening of Training Camp. The team will be naming a new captain and leadership group before the start of the season. This was not a sure thing. Ever since he-who-shall-not-be-named was stripped of the captaincy in 2021, it seemed like leadership would be done piecemeal, never mind finding a new person to wear the C. This year speculation has ramped up that certain players were showing what the front office might be looking for in the part, including some speculation from yours truly.
While I listed Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo as likely candidates because they wore A’s last season, I underestimated how important the experience piece would be to the front office. Between the vote of confidence this video gives to Okposo and just how frequently he has featured in Sabres marketing, it seems clear that the C will be given to him before the home opener October 13th.
One brief subpoint I will mention before getting to the juicy tenderloin of this episode of Embedded is how it came right out of the beginning title card with Adams asking an analytics question to Sam Ventura, the Sabres VP of Hockey Strategy and Research. In other words, he’s the lead voice in the organization on advanced statistics. Ventura is asked his read on why Eric Comrie is worth it for the team in net. Ventura, to his credit, gives a very analytical answer relating to the goalie’s AHL numbers and how they normally point to a player who makes the jump to starter in the NHL. Adams then recites his reasoning for valuing the way Ventura communicates himself and the importance of the data he’s sharing.
Since the last front office regime change in this organization in the summer of 2020, there has been a clear effort to surround the first-time GM with smart voices including those like Ventura on advanced stats. The most vocal fans, particularly younger fans who go as far as to write blogs and start podcasts, had been hoping for such insights to be brought in after the relative chaos of the last two regimes on the topic. It takes a certain kind of perspective to keep an analytical blackhole like Rasmus Ristolainen on the roster as long as they did. While many team-produced videos like Embedded choose to dive into a more exciting topic off the hop the choice to go right into the advanced stats angle right away seems like a clear overture the team wants to appear like it’s listening.
Finally we arrive at the Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen call. After recounting the jubilant acquisition of Eric Comrie we arrive at the midpoint of the episode with Kevyn Adams once again disappearing behind an office door to talk to UPL over the phone. He restates the organization’s commitment to the Finnish goalie after informing him of the Comrie move. It’s clear Adams is trying to get ahead of the story for UPL to make sure he is not dispirited by the move as he affirms the importance of the goalie playing games in the coming season. It’s safe to assume UPL was expecting to take over the Sabres net or at least have the lion’s share of starts when the aged Craig Anderson was brought back as his only competition. UPL was recently signed to a two year prove-it contract in the offseason with a very flexible second year if you know what I mean; when this move was made, UPL had not yet received that contract. What happens next is very interesting.
Adams smirks when he exits the office. I am no expert in body language but then he told Head Coach Don Granato to give UPL a call as well. Adams tells Granato UPL stated his trust for the front office decision making. As soon as you the viewer begin to start contemplating what just happened there the episode quickly transitions to talk of Victor Olofsson. Again we can consider some further context as to why this call was included like this.
Rumor has been, for approaching a year, that the organization does not have the trust in UPL’s potential as it once did. While the rift between organization and player couldn’t be separated from the mere noise of media and fan annoyance at the goalie’s frequent injury problems, it’s safe to say this approaching season will be UPL’s final test in the organization. With the Comrie signing UPL is now in the position where he needs to take the net for himself or start packing his things for wherever his next NHL franchise is located. This is a competition for the net and the 27-year-old Eric Comrie has merely 28 NHL games to his name. That’s 15 more than UPL’s 13, who is only 23 years old. While Adams’ niceties say otherwise, the front office is hoping the goaltending position might benefit from seeing whose hungrier for a breakthrough NHL season. This will be an interesting subplot to watch this season.
As many fans have reset their progress expectations of the Sabres for the third time in a decade there has clearly been one major thing missing all the while. Since Ryan Miller was shipped out in 2014 there has been no clear franchise goaltender. In an alternate universe somewhere things went different for Robin Lehner and he’s the guy, but in this universe it was the biggest question going into the offseason. Many of us said we couldn’t seriously see the Sabres competing in the division in any meaningful way without an upgrade in net. The Comrie signing would have been underwhelming in that regard if it weren’t for the competition it might inspire in UPL. If those two are both trying to out-goaltend each other in net there might just be enough here to at least hold our own in this improving division if not sneak into a wildcard spot if business elsewhere breaks a certain way.
Expectations aside the deliberate inclusion of this particular part of the episode could be the first hint of justification for the organization moving on from UPL in the 2023-2024 season, if not sooner, if he can’t prove himself at all. The Sabres did draft UPL in 2017 when one Jason Botterill had just recently been named general manager. Kevyn Adams has no loyalty to a pick he didn’t make but suffice to say Luukkonen was viewed as the future of the Sabres net from his drafting until at least the first COVID-shortened season. Injury has not been good to him, but such a move would pave the way for Erik Portillo or Devon Levi, prospects a few years off still, to find themselves burdened with the title of the future franchise goalie.
Altogether this episode of Embedded flies by. Me not going into any depth with the Ilya Lyubushkin move is no slight against him, it was just briefly discussed in the video. As with all these team produced videos it’s a picture of what the front office wants you to think about the team.
The club’s six preseason games over the next fifteen days will give us a fleeting image of what to actually expect for a club eleven seasons without a playoff appearance. While that fact may hang over Sabres fans, it’s hard to imagine the Pegula Sports and Entertainment goals of this production weren’t acutely aware the football team is a Super Bowl favorite. Perhaps my biggest surprise in this video was simply not seeing the tiniest piece of Buffalo Bills merchandise to remind us where the money printer is.