BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — The Sabres finished 2021 with a final record of 15-34-7 and the best odds for the first overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft. The draft itself begins on July 23rd, but there's plenty to keep an eye on until then.
After two days worth of end-of-season player calls, general manager Kevyn Adams and interim head coach Don Granato spoke on the 2021 NHL season and what could be next for each of them, their star players, and the Sabres as a whole.
Five takeaways from the Sabres' end-of-season press conferences:
"Do you want to be here?"
That question was a recurring theme anytime Kevyn Adams was asked about nearly anything. Whether it was veterans, young players who played under Granato, trade rumors, or regarding the coaching staff, Adams wants players who want to be in Western New York.
"I want players waking up every day thinking, how can I be the best version of myself and help this team go the right way," Adams said. "We are going to get this right with the people that want to be here."
If that's truly the case, some familiar names could very well be gone by October. Rasmus Ristolainen is as "open to anything" as he's been for the last few years. Sam Reinhart seems disgruntled. And Jack Eichel is a whole other story.
Eichel's desired procedure
Adams began Wednesday's zoom with a long opening statement regarding the back-and-forth, and his own perception, surrounding Jack Eichel's injury, recovery, what he expressed on Monday, and everything in between.
"All of the doctors involved agreed on a conservative approach [to Eichel's herniated disc]," Adams said. "It's been discussed by Jack's camp to have a surgery that's never been done on an NHL player before."
After the Sabres' captain clearly voiced his displeasure on Monday, it seems Adams's timeline and thoughts that he shared may very well be the final word. And the general manager trusts his medical team.
"As a player, first of all, I would make sure that I was listening to the doctors," Adams said. "There's going to be hesitation if there's not data to support something like that on a comfort level. And our doctors, like I said, they're not there."
Eichel hasn't played for the Sabres since he sustained an apparent neck injury against the New York Islanders on March 7th.
Granato in the mix for HC
A record of 9-16-3 might not turn a lot of heads. But compared to what Don Granato inherited, there was a clear elevation in the way the Sabres were playing by the time April and May came around.
"I was very comfortable with the process as [Adams] explained it when I took the [interim] position," Granato said. "There's definite signs of progress. I feel like that was obvious... We know we gradually earned more respect."
"Donnie and the coaching staff did an incredible job under very difficult circumstances," Adams said. "I believe that he's capable of being the head coach of this team."
That was the approach Granato took. He said Wednesday that he was coaching as if he was going to still be in control in October. However, with no promotion set in stone yet, another possibility could be former New York Rangers coach David Quinn; he was Eichel's coach at Boston University.
Just about any call-up from Rochester suddenly started playing to their potential, or at least closer to it, once Granato took over. A line of Tage Thompson - Casey Mittelstadt - Rasmus Asplund would've been a line for the Americans a year ago. But instead, the Sabres leaned into getting a new young core experience against some of the league's best.
"I'm comfortable and confident that we have a core of young players who aren't just scratching the surface," Adams said. "Playing the match-ups against Boston, Washington and Pittsburgh, you have to grow up quick."
Several end-of-season calls with players included some sort of thanks for Don Granato. Mittelstadt made it a point to thank him multiple times. But the hope seems to be that the growing pains endured in 2021 to pay off this fall, and that maybe the Sabres' core group on the ice will evolve.
Where to from here?
Along with Quinn, some other big names on the coaching market include Rick Tocchet, John Tortorella, and Bruce Boudreau. But Adams made it very clear what he's looking for in Buffalo's next head coach.
"Certainly we have a lot of young players, so the development is critical. And one of the key messages that came out from players in the end-of-season meetings is that they weren't caught in the middle," Adams said. "They felt they were believed in."
That belief was evident on the ice. A single mistake from a young player didn't see them demoted in the lineup, scratched altogether, or sent down to Rochester. But Granato pointed out one roster hole above all else.
"You need a number one goalie," Granato said. "I don't think anybody's going to deny that's a key to success."
Ullmark is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. The Sabres' restricted free agent class is much more robust, though. Forwards Sam Reinhart, Casey Mittelstadt, and Rasmus Asplund, along with defensemen Rasmus Dahlin, Will Borgen, and Henri Jokiharju, are all restricted free agents.