In a video posted to the Sabres’ social media accounts Saturday afternoon, head coach Don Granato can be seen writing the word “woo” on the team’s video board. He followed it up by asking forward Alex Tuch if they should change the traditional saying “play to win” to “play to woo.” This team has transitioned into one that not only plays to win but plays to woo, a saying that underlines and emphasizes how confident, relaxed and entertaining they’ve been under Granato.
Saturday’s game was the latest example as the Sabres cruised to a 5-3 over the Islanders. The game saw most of their young core contribute to the win, giving the crowd at Key Bank Center a lot to woo about in their second to last home game of the season. They’ve blossomed from their dull, lifeless form under previous head coaches into a high-event, exciting squad. Granato has had a tremendous impact on this team, and their recent resurgence shows why he is the man to lead this team moving forward.
Why Granato’s System Works for the Sabres
Granato’s extensive background coaching younger players gives him a unique advantage with this group. He was the head coach of the USA Hockey National Development Program from 2011 to 2017, and he also has experience in the American Hockey League (AHL), ECHL and NCAA. Working with younger players for so long has undoubtedly played a role in how he has these Sabres playing.
This season, Granato has helped inexperienced players like Dylan Cozens and Peyton Krebs take steps in their development, while Tage Thompson has delivered a breakout season after he moved him to center in the preseason. He also has the Sabres’ more experienced players producing at a high level. Jeff Skinner has had a monumental bounce-back season with 33 goals, Tuch has fit in like a glove and is becoming another leader for this team, and Kyle Okposo is playing a major leadership role while enjoying a 20-goal season.
Perhaps the most impressive has been Rasmus Dahlin. While he showed flashes of the talent that made him a first overall pick in previous seasons, he has become a borderline elite defenseman this season. He has taken major steps to improve his defensive play, and offensively, he has played a significant role on the power play, in transition and sustaining pressure in the offensive zone, all because of the free reign he’s been given under Granato. It seems like Dahlin has the green light to play with his instincts and jump into any play he sees fit, and it is refreshing to see a coach who trusts his players as much as Granato does.
Related: Sabres’ Best Defensive Partner for Owen Power
This is not a coincidence, as Granato has them playing confident and loose, giving them that “woo” factor he talked about. It has helped their play become as dangerous as they’ve been since March. He has not only bought the kids a car, but he’s also handed over the keys to them, and they’ve taken it for a joyride.
Granato’s Impact on Owen Power
Even with the personal successes of the players above, team success has only followed the Sabres for portions of the season. They still have work to do to make the team into a contender, but they’ve built up a deep prospect pool that should contribute sooner rather than later. We have already seen one player Granato’s had an early impact on, and that is Owen Power.
Power has stepped into Granato’s system and looked like he’s played with the Sabres all season. Granato appears to have afforded Power the same green light he gave Dahlin as well. Power jumps into the rush almost every time he’s on the ice, but he’s a smart enough player to read the play and know when to pick his spots. He has played on the team’s penalty kill unit, another example of Granato trusting his players, even someone who’s only played a handful of NHL games.
Sabres Can Carry Their Momentum Into Next Season
There has been some concern that this late-season success from the Sabres may be a blip on the radar and that next season, they will return to their losing ways. These concerns can be put to rest after looking at Granato’s tenure with this team thus far. Last season, as abysmal as it was, they showed signs of improvement after he took over. Under him, they were 9-16-3, which may not seem impressive in the grand scheme of things, but he was able to amass more wins than Ralph Krueger had all season, and he did it in less than two months. There were also signs they were starting to gain confidence, and it continued into the 2021-22 season.
This season, the Sabres started off hot before getting derailed by goaltending issues. They had a 5-3-1 record before Craig Anderson was injured, leaving them with unproven goaltending that ultimately failed the team. With their second-half resurgence, they are playing on another level entirely. They have beaten some impressive teams, given consistent effort in games, and most importantly, they’ve racked up some wins. This momentum they have built is a product of the up-tempo system Granato has them playing, and it is easy to see them transitioning with this energy and enthusiasm into 2022-23. The “play to woo” mentality is alive and well with these Sabres, and Granato is the right man to lead them in their ascent out of the NHL’s basement.