NBC’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Saturday’s matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres. Penguins-Sabres stream coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
It might be an understatement to say the 2020-21 season has been a major disappointment for the Sabres.
After making a couple of big splashes in the offseason to add Taylor Hall and Eric Staal to the lineup, pretty much everything went wrong for the roster once the puck dropped on the season and things quickly devolved into chaos. The Sabres enter Saturday’s game against the Penguins with the league’s worst record and are set to miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 10th year in a row. The organization probably needs a rebuild to recover from its previous rebuild.
Jack Eichel is done for the season. Hall and Staal were traded before the trade deadline. They remaining roster is simply playing out the season for pride.
The funny thing is, they might be currently playing their best hockey of the season. It all started with the coaching change that saw Don Granato replace Ralph Krueger.
While their 5-7-3 mark under Granato might not look all that impressive, keep in mind they only won six out of 28 games under Krueger and were 2-12-1 in his final 15 games with the team. They are also 5-2-3 in their most recent 10 games with wins over the Flyers (two), Rangers, and Capitals during that stretch.
So what has changed under Granato over the past 10-15 games that has prompted such a dramatic turnaround?
A lot of it might come down to the approach and some simple player usage.
For starters, while Krueger had the Sabres’ young players tied down in a defensive-minded system that demolished their creativity, Granato has turned the team loose and has put an emphasis on the team enjoying the way it plays. He said earlier this week that he loves offense and loves to “focus” on offense, while also saying this, via The Athletic (subscription required) regarding players improving their skill: “We know if we just play a system and you focus on trying to play that system, you’re really not improving your skill or your ability at the NHL level.”
That sort of approach would have never happened under Krueger’s watch.
Along with that, certain individual players have been given more responsibility and more freedom to make plays, specifically second-year defenseman Rasmus Dahlin.
Dahlin, the No. 1 overall pick from two years ago, had badly regressed in the first half of the season and seemed nothing like the player he was during his rookie year. That has changed under Granato, with Dahlin responding with three goals and four assists over the past 15 games.
The other major change has involved younger (and more talented) players getting a bigger role.
The centerpiece of that change might be Casey Mittelstadt, who seems to have found his game recently under Granato. Prior to the coaching change Mittelstadt was buried on the roster and playing a minimal role, never really getting any sort of a chance to make an impact. He was averaging just 13 minutes per game and had just one goal and four assists over 13 games.
Under Granato, Mittelstadt has jumped up to nearly 17 minutes per game and already has six goals and two assists while becoming one of their go-to offensive players.
The biggest change though just might be a case of good timing for Granato due to the return of a healthy Linus Ullmark in goal.
Ullmark missed almost all of the games during the Sabres’ losing streak. It was a significant development given how much better the Sabres have been with Ullmark in net. In his 20 games the Sabres have a 9-6-3 record. They are only 2-19-4 without him.
Give Granato a capable NHL goalie (though Ullmark is injured again), combined with his desire to push the offense and give bigger, more stable roles to the team’s most talented players and you suddenly have a more confident, exciting team.
The Sabres still have a long way to go before they can contend, and a 10-game stretch after a coaching change in the middle of a lost season does not do anything to change that. But it is still an encouraging development that this group has not quit, and that Granato has at least given management a reason to seriously consider him as the team’s next full-time coach.