Don Granato Brings Light to Struggling Sabres

As the Buffalo Sabres enter yet another losing streak, fans are quick to place the blame on head coach Don Granato. However, when you consider everything going wrong, Granato appears to be one thing going right. 

Granato Has Relevant Experience 

Granato has a long history of developing young talent. He was the head coach of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program Under 17 team in the 2013-14 and 2015-16 seasons and the head coach of the under 18 team in 2014-15. In his time there, he coached several future NHL players like Auston Matthews, Zach Werenski, Matthew Tkachuk, Brady Tkachuk, Adam Fox and Quinn Hughes. He also coached current Sabres Tage Thompson and Casey Fitzgerald. 

Don Granato, Head Coach of the Buffalo Sabres
Don Granato, Head Coach of the Buffalo Sabres (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

Granato has long been praised for his work with young players, an attribute many were hoping would translate to a young Sabres team when he took over from the previous coach Ralph Krueger in 2021. Since then, many Sabres players have taken strong strides in their development, despite little team success. 

Tage Thompson’s Breakout

When looking at recent improvement among young Sabres, one of the first names that come to mind is Tage Thompson. Thompson was a 2016 first-round draft pick by the St. Louis Blues and was brought over to the Sabres in 2018 as part of the Ryan O’Reilly trade. With both clubs, Thompson struggled to contribute, spending significant time in the AHL.

His first season with the Sabres was 2018-19 under head coach Phil Housley. Under Housley, Thompson only recorded 12 points in 65 games, spending eight games in the AHL with the Rochester Americans. 

The following year saw the Sabres make a coaching change after another brutal end to the 2018-19 season. For the 2019-20 season, they hired Krueger. Thompson missed the NHL season after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in his first game with the Sabres, though he di play in 16 games with the Americans. 

Krueger remained the head coach of the Sabres until 2021, when he was fired 12 games into an 18-game losing streak, getting replaced by Granato. 

Tage Thompson Buffalo Sabres
Tage Thompson, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Thompson, like the rest of the team, did not play well under Krueger. Through 38 games in the 2020-21 season, he recorded only 14 points. Krueger, who was once a fan favorite, started to fall from grace amid questionable lineup decisions and insistence on a certain style of play that just wasn’t working for young players like Thompson. 

Upon the start of Granato’s first full season as head coach, Thompson exploded into a first-line player, exceeding any and all expectations people had placed on him for the season. By the end, he had 68 points, with 38 goals, almost doubling all his previous point totals combined. 

Related: Rasmus Dahlin’s Journey From The Dog House to All-Star

Much of his success was because of Granato’s coaching style. Thompson received top-line minutes and moved to the center position during training camp. He received a chance to grow and make mistakes in a rather forgiving system being rebuilt around young players. 

Following the 2021-22 season, Thompson signed a 7-year $50 million contract. Granato signed a multi-year extension a month later, with Sabres leadership noting the impact he had on Thompson and the want for consistency as deciding factors. 

Dahlin Builds Confidence

Another player having great improvement under Granato’s leadership has been the 2018 first-overall pick, Rasmus Dahlin. Dahlin showed a noticeable increase in confidence following Granato’s taking over from Krueger. He had a record-breaking rookie year, putting up 44 points and making him second all-time for teenage defensemen. He saw a sharp decline in production under Kruger’s system, however, putting up 23 points in 56 games. But under Granato, Dahlin bounced back to a career-high 53 points in the 2021-22 season. 

Rasmus Dahlin Buffalo Sabres
Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Granato’s lesson of playing fearlessly and with confidence has been most clearly evident in Dahlin, who already has 20 points through 17 games this season. He was awarded the alternate captaincy this season, with Granato citing his leadership qualities as improving as well. 

Where Are We Now

Currently, the Sabres aren’t doing so well. They’re in the midst of a seven-game losing streak and have seemed to hit a wall as a group. Messy games and mistakes have plagued the team since the beginning of November, following a fairly impressive start to the season during October. 

The downward trend has everyone pointing fingers at who is to blame, and the coach is always one of the first to be named. 

However, it’s worth remembering that this group of players is one of the youngest in the NHL. Thompson just turned 25 on Oct. 30, and Dahlin is only 22. Dahlin has also been playing most of his minutes with 19-year-old NHL rookie Owen Power due to injuries within the defensive core. It’s expected for young players to go through slumps, and Granato has noted this as a learning experience for the team. 

Overall, the biggest challenges appear to be a lack of depth in all positions, which is not something the coach can control. The team looks like it will remain young for a while, with the first crop of new rookies in Power, Jack Quinn, and JJ Peterka making their debuts this year. There are young prospects like Jiří Kulich and Isak Rosén currently in Rochester, who are expected to make the jump to Buffalo in the next season or two and who would absolutely benefit from Granato’s experience with young players.