A month ago, as losses piled up and injuries sidelined key players at every position and as lip service about playing a system spewed from head coach Ralph Krueger, it felt like there was no hope on the horizon for the Buffalo Sabres. Mired in a 12-game losing skid, the hapless team was unwatchable. They couldn’t establish a forecheck, let alone play a full 60-minute game. It wasn’t if they’d lose, but instead by how many goals.
On March 17, Don Granato replaced Krueger as the interim head coach. Formerly an assistant coach on Krueger’s staff, Granato has already started to turn the Sabres around.
How Low Is the Bar for Success in Buffalo?
After years of futility, how low is the bar for the Granato-led Sabres? Is not getting shutout worth celebrating? Is losing by one or two goals better than losing by three or four? Is having a watchable team that competes nightly enough for general manager Kevyn Adams to remove the “interim” label from Granato’s title?
In his first month as a head coach, Granato has already given hope to the Blue and Gold faithful. His approach is landing with players and earning wins. Krueger’s Sabres had four regulation wins in his final 35 games. Granato’s Sabres have five regulation wins their last 11 games and 6-3-2 record.
While that statistic isn’t going to earn Granato any votes for the Jack Adams Award, he is making an impact. He’s stopped the hemorrhaging and has brought a sense of pride to a struggling franchise. Fans were apathetic as of March, but that’s been replaced with a newfound sense of optimism.
Granato Doing More with Less
Granato is also finding success without the benefit of his captain, Jack Eichel, whose last game was Mar. 7 against the New York Islanders (loss no. 5 of the 18-game disaster) and who won’t return this season. He hasn’t had defenseman Jake McCabe either. His lead netminder, Dustin Tokarski, hadn’t played an NHL game since appearing in a single game during the 2016-17 season for the Anaheim Ducks. Before donning a Sabres jersey, he had 34 NHL games on his bio.
Good coaches get good results with the players they have. Granato’s impact can be seen on Rasmus Dahlin, Tage Thompson (five goals in his last nine games), Casey Mittelstadt (six goals in his last 10 games), and many others. He’s freed the team of Krueger’s defensive shackles and is demanding they play the game with tempo and an eye for offense.
“I love him as a coach,” said Dahlin. “We do all the things he says, and it works. He makes all the players very confident. Yeah, he’s doing something special.”
For those who say there’s nothing left to play for, that the players can just freewheel, couldn’t be farther from the truth. These players, many of them young, are benefitting from increased ice time and taking advantage of their opportunity to grow. There’s a hustle on the ice that wasn’t there before, the transition game is better, and the team is scoring goals again. The team is playing with purpose.
Granato Is the Anti-Krueger
Krueger believed that confidence would come from winning. He demanded his team play a structured defensive game. He relentlessly pounded a square peg into a round hole, thereby neutering his team’s talent.
On the flip side, Granato preaches that players have to be confident before they can win. He loves offense and wants his Sabres to focus on it and not be afraid to take chances. He’s not just preaching that he wants to play with pace, he’s demanding it. As a result, passes are hitting sticks instead of skates and his team is possessing the puck more often.
“A big part of coaching is knowing when to get out of the way,” said Granato. “We want our guys to become independently strong, we want to empower them. That’s a process. Any time you can hand that off to the group, that helps that process.”
Granato’s Job to Lose
Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the Sabres have burned through five coaches: Ron Rolston, Ted Nolan, Dan Bylsma, Phil Housley and Krueger. There’s no job security for a losing coach in a win-now league that demands success. That’s especially true of a franchise that hasn’t had a trip to the playoffs in nearly a decade.
Coaching is not a science; it’s not all Xs and Os. There’s a human element to it, and that Granato’s team is having success without their captain is no small achievement. Then again, Granato, 53, is far from a coaching newbie. He has 17 seasons of head coaching experience in his career, with stints at every level – the USHL, the ECHL, and the AHL. At the NHL level, he’s been an assistant coach with the St. Louis Blues and the Chicago Blackhawks.
While names like Bruce Boudreau, Gerard Gallant, and even John Tortorella have been tossed around on social media, there’s no telling how they’d shape the Sabres. Big names don’t matter; results do. And lately, Buffalo has been hanging tough with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. It’s been night and day since Granato took over. What more could you ask for from a head coach?
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”