NHL On NBC: How coaching change is helping Sabres finish strong

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.

[PENGUINS-SABRES COVERAGE BEGINS AT 3 P.M. ET – NBC]

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.

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Jeff Skinner and Tage Thompson have also seen increased roles in Granato’s push to improve the offense.

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.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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    Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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    Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

    The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

    Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

    After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

    Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

    Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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    MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

    But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

    “I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

    Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

    “I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

    Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

    Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

    Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

    All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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    SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

    Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

    The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

    Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

    Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.

    Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

    The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

    The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

    Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

    His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

    Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

    He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

    He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

    A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

    Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.