Sabres counting on late-season surge to carry into next year

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The airing of grievances and expressions of frustrations which commonly followed each of the Sabres’ previous 10 losing seasons were notably absent on Saturday.

At a time Buffalo set an NHL record by missing the playoffs for an 11th straight year, the mood was unmistakably upbeat among players gathering one final time.

“It’s definitely a different feeling this year,” said forward Zemgus Girgensons, the team’s longest-tenured player after completing his eighth season in Buffalo.

“Usually in the morning you’re trying to gather thoughts of all the complaints, the issues that are going on,” he added. “This morning, my wife asked me, `What are you going to say?′ And I said, `I don’t have too many complaints.′ It’s weird.”

And refreshing.

A palpable sense of optimism might finally be taking root on a team that showed distinct signs of gelling following a year of upheaval and overhaul.

With a focus on rebuilding through youth and targeting players who wanted to stay in Buffalo, general manager Kevyn Adams’ purge began with forward Sam Reinhart and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen being dealt in separate trades last summer. The process was capped in November when Buffalo ended its lengthy stalemate with Jack Eichel by trading the ex-captain to Vegas.

The Sabres (32-39-11) closed the season by going 16-9-3 over the final two months, with the 16 wins in 28 games equaling their total through the first 54. It was a final stretch in which Buffalo went 8-1-3 in games decided by one goal (as compared to 5-7-8 in its first 54) and scored four or more goals 12 times (as compared to 16 times in its first 54).

“Looking back to what we started the first day of training camp, I think everybody can be proud of where we are,” Kyle Okposo said. “If you look at expectations from the outside, I think we probably exceeded what they were. Internally, we really didn’t set any expectations as far as wins and loses. it was just, `We’re going to win the day.’ ”

With much of the roster returning intact, Jeff Skinner believes the foundation of a culture is in place.

“I think there’s cause to be excited and be encouraged, but its up to us now to take that next step,” Skinner said.

Missing on Saturday were the headline-grabbing comments made during previous exit-meeting interview sessions. There was the time four years ago when Ryan O’Reilly suggested the Sabres had a losing culture. Eichel’s frustrations spilled over during each of the previous two offseasons, capped by him questioning his future with the franchise a year ago.

Perhaps, Girgensons said, both the Sabres and the departing players needed to move on.

“Sometimes that is the way it works. Maybe they needed a fresh start and we needed some fresh faces in here,” Girgensons said. “I think it worked out this year. All of the guys we got, there’s no complaints. I loved every single guy in the room.”

CAREER BESTS

Numerous Sabres had career seasons. Tage Thompson, who began the year with 18 goals in his first 104 NHL games, scored a team-leading 38 times in 78 outings. Rasmus Dahlin’s career-best 53 points were the most by a Sabres defenseman since Garry Galley had 54 in 1995-96. And Owen Power, t he No. 1 pick in last year’s draft, scored twice in eight games after leaving the University of Michigan.

The Sabres’ 229 goals were the most since they scored 240 in 2010-11. Their 287 goals allowed were the most since giving up 297 in 1992-93.

COMING BACK?

Forwards Vinny Hinostroza and Cody Eakin, defenseman Colin Miller and goalie Craig Anderson are among Sabres players eligible to become unrestricted free agents this summer.

Anderson, who turns 41 next month, is split between retiring and being open to re-signing with Buffalo based on how much he enjoyed his first season with the Sabres.

“The mind says, absolutely, I would love to be with these guys and that says a lot as far as the group of guys and the management and staff,” Anderson said. “If I was five years younger, that would be the ideal situation.”

Anderson went 18-12-2 and has 308 career wins, tied for 33rd with Tuukka Rask on the NHL list.

DRAFTING

The Sabres potentially have three first-round picks in this year’s draft. Aside from their own, which will be determined in the draft lottery, they also have Florida’s first-round pick acquired in a trade that sent Reinhart to the Panthers. Buffalo also has Vegas’ first-round pick acquired in the Eichel trade. The Golden Knights, who missed the playoffs, have the option of protecting the pick should it land in the top 10 this year, with Buffalo then guaranteed to land Vegas’ first pick in 2023.

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    Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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    Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports
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    LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

    The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

    This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

    But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

    Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

    Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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    DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

    Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

    The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

    According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

    The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

    Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

    Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

    The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

    The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.

    Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

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    DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

    At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

    “Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

    The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

    There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

    The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

    “Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

    “Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

    The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

    “Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

    Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

    “We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

    The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

    Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

    Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

    Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

    “They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”

    Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

    Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

    Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

    Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.