Graduates of the School of Hardknocks often find themselves in the upper echelons of greatness. But sometimes, the rocky road doesn’t always lead to success. The 2021-22 Buffalo Sabres are about to embark on an NHL season of low expectations for the present. But if that doesn’t transfer into future winning, it could be a dire situation for the franchise.
If we believe that the Sabres plan on letting their young core lose to learn, then head coach Don Granato’s message of green-lighting all defensemen in the preseason for offensive rushes could be transposed to the entire team. He also joked there was hopefully also a yellow light in there somewhere during a post-scrimmage press conference on Sept. 26. “That’s discretion. Discretion is everything. There’s so much we can’t teach them. They have to learn by that experience. It’s tough to teach or help a guy develop if you can’t see how they’re reading and reacting to plays. If we’re constraining them all the time and they’re worried about pleasing us, it’s really difficult to even coach them at that point.”
So, let the floodgates open and come what may. However, if this method translates to the whole team in the exhibition rounds or into the regular season and isn’t practical—forget successful for now—what will the coach pivot to as his next option? Another season of failure without growth seems implausible for a rabid fan base that is desperate for some signs of progression.
“If we want to get to where we want to be, unfortunately, there’s going to be mistakes along the way. We just have to be better than others at correcting faster,” Granato added. That’s a different way of saying that there is no perfection in this league, only admiration towards that as a goal.
But where other teams like, say, the Toronto Maple Leafs are like established corporations, in this analogy, the Sabres are a burgeoning startup fueled mainly by imagination and pride, coupled with a healthy dose of optimism that is destined to encounter reality eventually.
Potential Winners and Losers of the Sabres’ Experiment
To be clear, an experiment is what this season really is. But whether or not the training wheels will come off completely or are just removed for booster sessions is hard to say. For newly projected No. 1 goaltender Craig Anderson, this season is an experiment with coaching as much as it is a chance to see what he has left in the tank. Maybe we see him behind the bench in his post-playing career. For Granato, in his first full season behind an NHL team as the commanding general, it’s about taking all the things he’s learned in his career in various leagues and as an assistant at this level and alchemizing a successful system.
Some players stand to benefit from this research and development approach, while some, like all of the goaltenders, who historically benefit from more structured play in front of them, could struggle. For example, suppose their defenders are given the go-ahead to jump into the fray offensively and learn from their success and mistakes in this endeavour. In that case, they could be left with some sticky situations to deal with as the opposing team’s snipers bear down on them at times with clear chances. This is why it’s likely that Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, despite his newfound confidence, will benefit more from time in the American Hockey League.
Some veterans, too, could find themselves with less ice time if the experiment I outline is allowed to play itself out. Kyle Okposo will be on a short leash and on the blue line, while there are obvious upsides to this style for Rasmus Dahlin, Henri Jokiharju and Will Butcher, more defensive-minded vets like Mark Pysyk and Colin Miller might have to pick up the slack. There may be too much of it at times than any NHL defender could handle.
On the flip side, the most obvious players who stand to gain from the grand experiment form the young core that the Sabres hope to have future success with. Dahlin and Jokiharu fit this description, while on the front end, this cadre is highlighted by Dylan Cozens, Casey Mittelstadt and Arttu Routsalainen. You could also include Anders Bjork in that conversation. If we extend it to the forwards who are not likely to make the opening night roster, but who could be a part of the Sabres’ future, we also have to mention Brett Murray, Linus Weissbach, Jack Quinn and J-J Peterka. We’ll include those names on the heavy assumption that the Rochester Americans’ coach will follow Granato’s lead.
Sabres Glory Could be Years in the Making
Whether the “let them play” attitude is the season’s mantra is not high on the list of things Sabres fans should pay attention to this season. If an NHL team wants success, it needs to be nimble. What the team did yesterday isn’t necessarily what is right for today. Still, the results of this grand experiment form the basis of what is, yet again, another rebuild—though it will be harshly evaluated at the end of the season if growth among the young core is not evident this spring, or in the following season.
Sometimes the only way forward from the brink of obscurity is to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. If nothing does, it will slide down the wall and land exactly where expectations for this team lie: at the bottom. But for Granato and the Sabres, what have they got to lose? The entertainment value from this group should be good this season, just don’t expect much glory for the Blue and Gold anytime soon.
Mike Carter is a freelance writer and contributor for the Buffalo Sabres with The Hockey Writers and NHLTradeRumors.Me He is @mikecarterlives on Twitter. Mike has been writing professionally since 2012, with stints as a reporter in northern British Columbia and Edmonton, Alberta. He now calls Salmon Arm, B.C. home.