NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Buffalo Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
How have things changed in such a positive direction for the Buffalo Sabres? Consider this: They’re currently 9-6-2 and sitting in the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. They didn’t win their ninth game until Dec. 22 last season and in 2016 they hit that total on Dec 1.
There’s been plenty of pain over the last seven seasons, which all ended without a single playoff appearance. But plenty of change has done the Sabres good, and general manager Jason Botterill was aggressive this summer in upgrading areas that are now beginning to see a pay off.
He stuck with head coach Phil Housley, who experienced a disastrous first season in Buffalo in 2017-18. But with a year under his belt, the Sabres are slowly starting to turnaround and the messages he’s sending are being heard by his players.
“He comes in here, he’s positive between periods, he’s on us to get those goals and he knows that we’re never out of games,” said Sabres captain Jack Eichel, who leads the team with 19 points and is averaging 1.12 points per game. “I think we’re starting to believe in each other. I know that we know we’re never out of games. He’s building an identity for us. I think the more and more we stick to it and believe in what we’re trying to do and believe in him and believe in ourselves it’s working out.”
That lack of success in Housley’s rookie coaching season resulted in Rasmus Dahlin, who’s playing over 18 minutes a night. The summer also brought Conor Sheary, Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and Jeff Skinner via trades. Goaltender Robin Lehner was allowed to walked and was replaced by Carter Hutton in free agency.
Skinner’s been a boon to the Sabres’ offense. Along with Eichel, he’s recorded 19 points and currently leads the team with 12 goals. He’s well on pace to eclipse his career-high 37 goals he scored with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2016-17. He has also scored 10 of his 12 goals this year at even strength.
The culture of losing appears to be over, and what Botterill started to build in Buffalo following his hiring in May 2017 is becoming clearer.
“There’s a lot of proud history that we have being a Sabre,” said forward Kyle Okposo. “We want to make sure that everybody is honoring the people who came before us and the culture that they tried to build here. We want to get back to that, get back to really that pride of being a Sabre. That’s what we’re trying to build is something that people can remember.”