It’s official: after months of being the frontrunner for a full-time replacement to Ralph Krueger, Don Granato has been named the newest head coach of the Buffalo Sabres. The 53-year-old, who was previously an assistant coach under Krueger, spent the second half of the 2020-21 season as interim head coach of the team, and was given a fair shot during general manager Kevyn Adams’ extensive coaching search, ultimately landing him the job and earning him a multi-year deal to stay behind the Sabres’ bench.
Sabres Hire Don Granato As Head Coach
Rumors circulated by Sabres reporters Tuesday morning indicated that Adams had reached a point in the interview process where he was informing coaches who he was not going to hire that they were out of the running, and it didn’t take long for rumors of an official hiring announcement to follow. Early Tuesday afternoon, the Sabres officially announced Granato had shed his interim status and become the 20th head coach in franchise history. He is the seventh head coach to be hired since Terry and Kim Pegula bought the team back in 2011.
Granato was hired by the Sabres in 2019 as an assistant coach under Krueger, who was hired in the summer following former head coach Phil Housley’s firing after the 2018-19 NHL season. It didn’t take long for the Sabres’ front office to pull the plug on Krueger, though, as he was unable to last even two seasons with the organization, coaching the Sabres to the bottom of the NHL standings at the halfway point of this season. After Krueger’s firing in March 2021, Granato took over as interim, and the Sabres finished with a respectable record, considering the situation and what he was given.
In the 28 games he coached to close out the season, Granato led the Sabres to a 9-16-3 record, and a 9-10-3 record over the final 22 games, once the franchise record 18-game winless streak was snapped six games into his tenure as interim. Granato was able to accomplish all this without his star forward and captain, Jack Eichel, as well as without starting goalie Linus Ullmark for most of the games. All things considered, the Sabres actually made positive strides under Granato’s leadership.
Sabres Improved With Granato After Ralph Krueger Firing
When Adams announced that the Sabres had fired Krueger back in March, the team had just lost their 12th straight game, had a 6-18-4 record through 28 games, and sat at dead last in the entire NHL. It goes without saying, then, that the only way the Sabres could go was up, and that any new voice behind the bench could have coached them to a better record over the second half of the season. But it’s not fair to take Granato’s success away from him — just ask the team’s young players.
“I think a lot of guys, including myself, owe Donnie quite a bit,” said Casey Mittelstadt, the Sabres’ eighth-overall pick from the 2017 Draft, and one of the players who improved the most under Granato. “He challenged me when he took over and pushed me to become a better player. I think it’s that simple. A lot of the strides I made are partly because of him pushing me or had a lot to do with him pushing me.” (From ‘5 things to know about Sabres head coach Don Granato’ NHL.com, 6/29/2021)
Mittelstadt posted nine goals and 17 points in his final 23 games, while winger Tage Thompson, the last remaining piece from the trade with the St. Louis Blues that sent Ryan O’Reilly packing, posted seven goals and 12 points, effectively marking the most productive stretches of games in both of their young careers. Sabres rookie Dylan Cozens, the team’s first-round draft choice from 2019, also excelled under Granato, when in one stretch he put up seven assists over eight games.
If there was one reason the young core on the Sabres excelled so much during the second half of the season, it’s because of Granato’s willingness to trust them with increased roles on the roster.
“Behind the scenes, we were challenging these guys very, very much, which is a big part of it, because we need them to be better,” Granato said. “And again, I coached as if I would be here next season. Obviously, I wouldn’t want to be standing behind a bench in October and not have taken advantage of this opportunity to get these players valuable experience playing against top teams.”
It looks like Granato’s philosophy of coaching as if he wouldn’t be going anywhere paid off.
Adams’ Coaching Search Was Extensive
In his press conference appearances since the end of the season when he announced he would be conducting a search for a new head coach, Adams called his interview process “extensive,” and considering how long it took for him to make a final decision, I’m inclined to believe he truly did his due diligence in making the right hire. I speculated some veteran NHL coaches could be in the conversation, including Bruce Boudreau, Rick Tocchet, John Tortorella, and Bob Hartley, but Granato has earned his chance as a first-time NHL coach, and his record at different levels of hockey speaks for itself.
Before joining the Sabres as an assistant, Granato spent five seasons as the head coach with the United Stated National Team Development Program (USNTDP), where he had the chance to coach several future NHL stars, including some of the best talent currently playing in the NHL. Among some of the players who played for Granato during his time with the USNTDP were Eichel, Auston Matthews, Matthew Tkachuk, Quinn Hughes, Charlie McAvoy, and Zach Werenski.
To say Granato has experience coaching top-end skill players would be an understatement. It’s a shame that Eichel sustained a season-ending injury before Granato took over the Sabres bench, because fans could have potentially seen Eichel’s best effort in the second half of the season. It’s doubtful that the Eichel trade rumors will die down now even after Granato’s hiring, but in another world, it would be nice to see the two of them remain on the same team.
Granato’s Expectations For Next Season Will Be High
Granato might be a first-time head coach at the NHL level, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how to win. After all, he has been coaching since 1993, and has won championships with several of the teams he has coached at different levels. In 1996, he won a United States Hockey League (USHL) championship with the Green Bay Gamblers, after just three seasons of coaching. Four years later, he won a championship in the ECHL coaching the Peoria Rivermen in the 1999-2000 season, an accomplishment that earned him his first AHL head coaching job with the Blues’ affiliate, the Worcester IceCats.
In his first season with the IceCats, Granato won the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL’s best coach, after leading his team to a 108-point season, best in the AHL that season. Granato has also accomplished a great deal on the international stage, where he won a gold medal as head coach of Team USA at the 2015 U-18 World Championship, one year after he led them to a silver medal. As an assistant coach at the men’s World Championship in 2018, he helped to lead Team USA to a bronze medal.
Granato’s track record of winning across many different levels of hockey proves one thing: the expectations are high for him, and they’re high now. Not in two years, not in three years, but now. Adams is tasked with overseeing a team reset without heading into full rebuild mode, and he’s tapped Granato to head to the front line and be the coach that the Sabres organization can count on to lead them into the playoffs.
“What we did that last month or so is just a glimpse of what we know we could do next year,” Cozens said in early May. “We’ve got a good group right now and a lot of guys that are hungry to win.” (From ‘Buffalo Sabres remove interim title, name Don Granato head coach’ WKBW, 6/29/21)
Adams’ Summer To-Do List Isn’t Done
While the foremost task on his summer to-do list is now checked off, the most daunting of Adams’ tasks are not over with quite yet. The general manager still has plenty of tough decisions to make this offseason, and it seems that his window to make them is closing, with the Seattle Expansion Draft and 2021 NHL Entry Draft fast approaching. Among those tough decisions: pulling off (and hopefully winning) an Eichel trade, and a Sam Reinhart trade. These are no easy asks of Adams, but his hand has been forced and he’s been backed into a corner when it comes to those two players’ situations. Hopefully having a permanent head coach will help to ease some of the pressure, at least when it comes to next season.
Brandon is a Buffalo Sabres Contributor for THW and Co-Host of THW’s ‘Sabres Scoop,’ who received his Master of Science in Sport Administration from Canisius College in Buffalo, NY, and founded his website, Seltytending, in 2017. He is an avid hockey writer and podcaster with prior work experience in the OJHL, NWHL, and NCAA. Twitter: @BSalts15