BUFFALO, N.Y. — Sabres captain Kyle Okposo is one of the oldest players on one of the NHL’s youngest teams, and takes care to present a patient front in the midst of a late-season playoff push.
Though Okposo would like nothing more than to end a league-worst 11-year playoff drought, the soon-to-be 35-year-old understands there are lessons to be learned and steps that can’t be skipped.
Before the Sabres embarked on their current three-game trip, Okposo said the team was close.
“And if you were to say before the year we would be in this spot, most people would have laughed,” he added. “So we’re getting there. We just have to keep pushing and we have to continue to know that what we’re doing works, and we cannot become impatient with the results.”
It’s a challenge for a team on which the majority of players are experiencing an NHL playoff race for the first time.
“It’s a different pressure than last year,” Okposo said, referring to how a team that was already out of contention closed the season on a 14-7-3 run. “Last year, we were trying to build something. So how do you continue to build, and how do you continue to handle the pressure?”
The results so far have been mixed, and reflective of a team featuring three rookies and seven players born in 2000 or later. Plus, just eight players have been in the playoffs for a combined 218 playoff games, led by Alex Tuch‘s 66 appearances with with Vegas.
At 33-28-6, Buffalo is on the fringes of the playoff race – 11th in the Eastern Conference standings with 72 points, and six out of wild-card contention with 15 games remaining.
On the bright side, with three more wins, the Sabres will have the most since 2011-12, which is the last time the team finished with more regulation wins than losses (39-32-11).
The telltale signs of youth have been apparent on Buffalo’s 2-5-2 record in its past nine games.
The Sabres rallied from a 2-0 deficit to beat Toronto 4-3, then they squandered a 4-2 lead in the final 10 minutes of regulation in a 5-4 shootout loss at Washington.
The low point was a 3-2 loss at the New York Islanders – decided on a goal the Sabres questioned for being kicked in, when the puck banked in off Hudson Fasching’s shin. The frustrations carried over into a 10-4 drubbing at home to Dallas two days later.
Following the loss, coach Don Granato joked he couldn’t bench everyone, while shifting the focus ahead by saying “something good has to come of this.”
“Everybody makes mistakes, and the faster you learn, the better,” he said. “Tonight has to be one of those unfortunate negative outcomes, a bad memory, that makes you better.”
Buffalo responded with one of its most efficient defensive outings in a 2-1 shootout loss to the New York Rangers.
General manager Kevyn Adams is being careful in balancing long-term development and short-term success for a franchise that has too often faltered when attempting to rush its process during an 11-year stretch in which Buffalo has finished with the NHL’s worst record four times. That included the pandemic-shortened 2021 season, during which Adams launched his vision by purging the veteran core of his roster.
Though the team has shown signs of growth, Adams felt it important to stick to his plan by mostly standing pat at the trade deadline last month, with the exception of acquiring forward Jordan Greenway from Minnesota.
“What I want to see our guys do is just go and just be themselves, play fearlessly,” Adams said. “I know what it takes to win in this league, and I know we have it. Now I just want to believe in these guys and let them do it.”
Adams never promised there wouldn’t be bumps in the road, and his players understand that.
“I’m not saying we’re going to win right now, but we’re learning and it’s been taking time, as it should” defenseman Rasmus Dahlin said. “It takes time, but when you kind of understand what it takes, it’s a lot of fun. But we’re still on the learning path, and we’re not done yet.”