Sabres Need a Head Coach With Proven NHL Success

Since the firing of longtime head coach Lindy Ruff in the shortened 2012-13 season, the Buffalo Sabres have hired and fired five different full-time head coaches, with each averaging a stay of just about two seasons with the organization. I’m no expert on the matter, but I wouldn’t necessarily call that a recipe for success. The last two coaches the team took a shot on, Phil Housley (2017-19) and Ralph Krueger (2019-21), both had one thing in common: neither man had extensive experience as a head coach at the NHL level, and thus no proven track record of success.

When Krueger was fired halfway through the 2020-21 season, assistant coach Don Granato took over as interim head coach, and did a decent job with what he was given to finish out the season. He remains in the conversation for the next full-time coach, but as we move further into this offseason and general manager Kevyn Adams conducts what he’s called “extensive” interviews, I believe the next Sabres bench boss needs to be one with proven NHL success and years of experience coaching teams to the playoffs at this level.

Granato Impressed In Second Half of Season

When Granato took over the Sabres’ bench, the team had just lost their 12th straight game and was on a nosedive to the bottom of the standings, where they ultimately finished at the end of the regular season. Although that streak extended to 18 games without a win, good for the longest winless streak in Sabres’ franchise history and tied for the longest in the NHL’s salary cap era, the players looked like they had finally started to play some inspiring hockey, and much of that is attributed to Granato.

“I commend Donnie a lot for the job that he did,” said Kyle Okposo, one of the Sabres players whose play drastically improved in the second half of the season. “He was fantastic when he took over. He came in in one of the toughest situations that I’ve seen in 14 years of pro hockey and he came in and he did a heck of a job.” (From ‘As coaching search begins, Don Granato reaffirms desire to lead Sabres’ The Buffalo News, 5/12/2021)

Buffalo Sabres Don Granato Dylan Cozens
Buffalo Sabres interim head coach Don Granato talks to Dylan Cozens (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

Okposo isn’t the only player who notably improved under Granato’s leadership. The team’s young players also thrived in the second half of the season, including the Sabres’ 2017 first-round pick Casey Mittelstadt. Mittelstadt posted nine goals and eight assists for 17 points in the final 22 games of the season, and finally looked like the player he was drafted to be.

Rasmus Dahlin, former first-overall pick from 2018, returned to a form we haven’t seen since his rookie season, and said “[Granato’s] way to play was how I learned to play hockey. But the thing I felt was that he trusted me as a player.” Part of the gripe that Sabres fans had with Krueger before he was fired was the way he managed Dahlin’s ice time, and how he forced him to play into his systems instead of letting him be creative in his own way on the ice. Much of that changed under Granato. “He really saw what my potential was and I felt comfortable playing out there. I wasn’t thinking too much.”

The success the team had with Granato calling the shots is undeniable, but it’s not the first time a team has performed better during a stretch after a head coach’s firing, and I believe that much of the success should be attributed to the players instead, many of whom were expecting to be traded by the trade deadline and wanted to impress their potential new clubs. Besides, the Sabres had nowhere to go but up after Krueger was let go.

Granato’s NHL Experience Isn’t Enough

Granato has an extensive coaching history at many different levels of hockey: USHL, ECHL, AHL, NCAA college hockey, and as an assistant in the NHL with the St. Louis Blues, Chicago Blackhawks, and finally, with the Sabres. There is no denying he has tons of coaching experience, and will one day make an impact on an NHL roster. However, for the Sabres, who are eyeing some tough decisions this offseason and considering their future, he is not the right choice for this team.

The 53-year-old Granato coached the Sabres to a 9-16-3 record in his 28 games as interim head coach, including one game he missed due to a false positive COVID-19 test late in the season. Considering that the team had only managed to win six of their first 28 games of the season, Granato’s record doesn’t seem so bad, but it isn’t much better, either.

Krueger coached the team to a 6-18-4 start, and Granato coached the team to a 9-16-3 finish. That is only three more wins in the same number of games, and good for just 21 of a possible 56 points in the standings. So, while I think Granato often gave the “right” answers in post-game interviews and said the things that Sabres fans wanted to hear, the imagined turnaround that the team had in the second half of the season was just that: imagined.

I understand how everything appeared better when looking through blue-and-gold colored glasses after Krueger’s departure, but the truth is the Sabres were still a bad team. Really bad. They finished dead last in the NHL standings for the fourth time in eight seasons, with a final record of 15-34-7. This result can only lead me to one verdict: the Sabres need to move on from Granato and hire a head coach with proven NHL success.

Veteran Coaches the Sabres Could Hire

All things considered, there are worse times to be looking for a new head coach if you’re an NHL general manager. Many high-profile candidates with years of experience at the NHL level are out of jobs and available, looking to make their way back behind an NHL bench again. Here are jut a few of the leading candidates that I think the Sabres might be looking at, or should take a shot at hiring for the next full-time gig.

Bruce Boudreau

Boudreau’s name has shown up in probably every article about a coaching vacancy this season, and if I were Adams, he would be my undisputed frontrunner in the coaching search. His track record as an NHL head coach is one of incredible success, and he’s coached a number of NHL teams to winning seasons.

Bruce Boudreau Minnesota Wild
Bruce Boudreau, former Minnesota Wild head coach (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As coach of the Washington Capitals, Anaheim Ducks, and Minnesota Wild, Boudreau made the playoffs in 10 of his 13 seasons as a head coach, recording four different 50-win seasons. If you’re new to hockey, just know that reaching the 50-win mark in one season is remarkable; doing it four times is something else. Boudreau also won the Jack Adams Award in 2008 as the NHL’s best coach.

Rick Tocchet

Tocchet is another candidate with tons of experience, and carries a bonus of not having been out the game for any time at all; he just mutually agreed to part ways with the Arizona Coyotes after the 2020-21 season, so there wouldn’t be any “getting up to speed” with him behind the bench. In four seasons as the Coyotes’ head coach, he managed a 125-131-34 record, and one playoff appearance last season when the NHL extended its playoffs to 24 teams with the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. Tocchet also had success as a former assistant coach in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization.

John Tortorella

I wouldn’t be doing my due diligence if I didn’t mention Tortorella in this article. By far the most polarizing candidate for head coach available to the Sabres, he is demanding, extremely vocal and honest about his players, sometimes viewed as being unfair, and occasionally gets into public disputes with his star players. However, his track record of success in the NHL is undeniable. In 16 seasons, Tortorella has made the playoffs 11 times, and won the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning back in the 2003-04 season.

John Tortorella Columbus Blue Jackets
John Tortorella, former Columbus Blue Jackets head coach (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

He has won the Jack Adams Award twice, and helped the Columbus Blue Jackets, his most recent team, to their most successful period in team history, making the playoffs in four of the last six seasons and recording the team’s first playoffs series win, sweeping the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Lightning in the 2018-19 season.

Bob Hartley

Hartley is the outlier in this article, since he has been out of the NHL coaching ranks for a number of years now. He had spent the last three seasons overseas since being fired by the Calgary Flames, coaching in the KHL in Russia, where his team just won the championship this past season. Hartley has 13 years of NHL experience, and is no stranger to coaching NHL teams to winning seasons.

Sabres’ Next Head Coach Will Shape The Next Few Seasons

Whoever Adams and the rest of the Sabres’ front office decides to offer the position of head coach to this offseason will have a daunting task ahead of them: coach this team back to relevancy in the NHL, and get them on the right track to being competitive playoffs contenders again. It has been 10 seasons since the Sabres last made the playoffs, and patience is short in the city of Buffalo among the fanbase.

The names I mentioned above – Boudreau, Tocchet, Tortorella, and Hartley – are just a few of the candidates I think the Sabres should consider, and surely don’t make up even half of the list of candidates Adams claims to have interviewed since the conclusion of the regular season. Whoever the choice ultimately is, even if that is Granato, will define what the goal of the Sabres organization is over the next few seasons. Is this a rebuilding team? Is this a redefining of the team’s direction? Is this a team that can contend in a season’s time? All of these questions will rest squarely on the shoulders of the next head coach, and that’s why getting it right is the most important task on Adams’ checklist right now.

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