Oh, no, here we go again. The 4-0-1 Buffalo Sabres are off to a hot start and could emerge as a spoiler in the top-heavy Atlantic Division. Forgive us if you’ve heard this before, then ended the season disappointed. This year, maybe, could it be for real?
This once-proud fanbase is desperate to win. Buffalo routinely ranks among the top TV markets for the Stanley Cup playoffs — despite the Sabres’ most recent appearance coming in the 2010-11 season. The Cup-less Sabres last appeared in a conference championship in 1999. Since winning the Presidents’ Trophy in 2010, Buffalo has posted two winning seasons and has cycled through six coaches. The Sabres lead the league with their eight-season playoff drought.
Then there was last season. Buffalo teased fans with a franchise-record 10-game winning streak in November. For about three weeks, the Sabres were the toast of the league, the first team to finish the previous season with the worst record and lead the NHL outright in points after 25 games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Then they spiraled. The Sabres went 16-33-8 to close the campaign, good for the worst record in the league in that span.
“Last year, we really rode the wave when things were going well,” GM Jason Botterill said. “And then when adversity occurred, we didn’t handle it well.”
Botterill spent the summer working on safeguards so history didn’t repeat itself. The first step was hiring a new coach after parting with Phil Housley, whose stint lasted two seasons. The Sabres landed on Ralph Krueger. After being fired by the Edmonton Oilers (via Skype) after the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, Krueger went overseas and switched sports. He spent the past five years as chairman of Southampton F.C. of the English Premier League.
Coaches across sports are learning to adapt as they try to not only reach millennials and Generation Z but also motivate them. It’s especially important for the Sabres, who have the seventh-youngest roster by average age (26.3) this season. “What drew me to [Krueger] was his communication skills,” Botterill says. “When you sit down with him, you get this clear understanding of what he’s trying to communicate to you. He’s definitely in tuned to you. You feel like you’re the most important person in the world right then and there.”
Botterill knows the team’s youth is both its best asset and a weakness. That was especially so last season, when things unraveled. “You can talk to young players, like a [Rasmus] Dahlin or [Casey] Mittelstadt, about how difficult the 82-game grind is,” Botterill said. “But until they go through it, it’s very difficult.”
That includes franchise center Jack Eichel, who is known as being very competitive but is just 22. “Jack has gone through a full year of being a captain in the NHL now, and I guarantee you he’ll be a better captain this year because now he’s been through it,” Botterill said. “He knows what worked last year and what areas he can be better.”
Boterill notes that three of the most important players on his team — Eichel, No. 2 overall pick in 2014 Sam Reinhart and minutes-eating blueliner Rasmus Ristolainen — have more than 1,000 combined games of NHL experience but are under the age of 24. And none has ever played playoff hockey.
“Something that is kind of forgotten at times is just how young we are,” Botterill said. “We didn’t think after [last season] that we needed an overhaul, but we wanted to add to this group.”
The GM went out to bolster his roster with experience. The Sabres traded for Brandon Montour last season and liked that the 25-year-old had experienced a long playoff run with the Ducks in 2017. The Sabres also traded for defenseman Colin Miller (Stanley Cup Final with the Golden Knights in 2018) and forward Jimmy Vesey (a playoff run with the Rangers in 2017) and inked Marcus Johansson (NHL playoffs in eight of his nine NHL seasons) in free agency.
“If we’re going to have success here and we’re going to turn things around, we have to have people who are excited about being in Buffalo and being part of this organization” Botterill said. “That’s been Marcus. He’s been all-in since day one.”
The Sabres immediately named Johansson an alternate captain. Boterill said Johansson has been great mentoring the young Swedes — there are four on the roster — and spent time in camp working with Mittelstadt and prospect Tage Thompson.
“Yeah, we’re off to a good start, but we know we’re going to face adversity,” Botterill said. “Having that leadership and calmness in the locker room is going to be important for our group going forward.”
In two of the Sabres’ wins so far, they squandered a two-goal third-period lead (including allowing the Panthers to tie the game with 11 seconds left on Friday) but pulled it off. Against the Canadiens, it was Johansson who played overtime hero.
Another important summer addition: goaltending coach Mike Bales, who got the most out of Carolina’s goalie tandem of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney last season. Bales resigned from Carolina in the spring and signed with Buffalo; he worked with Botterill when they were both with the Penguins. Bales has a reputation as the guy who helped revive Marc-Andre Fleury‘s career, and he is now tasked with getting the most out of 33-year-old Carter Hutton while preparing the way for 26-year-old Linus Ullmark, who the Sabres hope can take the reins soon.
The breakout star of the Sabres has been 24-year-old winger Victor Olofsson, who tied an NHL record by scoring his first six goals on the power play. Olofsson, a 2014 seventh-round pick of the previous regime, went to six development camps before he finally got his shot with the big club this season — on a line with Eichel and Reinhart, no less.
Olofsson scored 30 goals in the AHL last season, but the Sabres were pleased with how AHL coach Chris Taylor worked and improved Olofsson’s defensive awareness, and they were impressed with his shot and offensive sense. As a late-season call-up last spring, Olofsson recorded two goals and two assists in six games. “Sometimes those games at the end of the year, it’s not the same intensity, when you’re out of the playoffs and playing other teams out of the playoffs too,” Botterill said. “It can give guys a false security that they’re ready for the National Hockey League. Instead of Victor just thinking it was going to happen, you could tell he worked extremely hard on his body this offseason. He came to camp so serious and focus. We moved him around a lot during training camp, and no matter where he played, he was effective.”
The question, of course, is can the Sabres sustain it this time? The Sabres and the NFL’s Buffalo Bills share ownership in Terry and Kim Pegula, which means Botterill and his staff often interact with their football counterparts. For example, Botterill sat in on the Bills’ war room at last spring’s NFL draft. The 4-1 Bills also have fans cautiously optimistic.
Can you imagine if both teams won at the same time?
“There’s certainly excitement with fans around here with both teams, and we hope we can keep it up,” Botterill said. “These fans definitely deserve it.”
Emptying the notebook
There will be a lot of scrutiny this week on the winless Devils (0-3-2), who are off to a sluggish start. They’ve been outscored 23-9 while being shut out twice. The Devils have been to the playoffs just once since they lost the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, and that was when coach John Hynes led a scrappy, overachieving group in 2018. Has the goodwill worn off? GM Ray Shero is typically loyal and patient with coaches, but let’s remember how much he put into transforming this team this past summer after New Jersey won the draft lottery and the chance to select Jack Hughes.
The biggest priority now is convincing Taylor Hall to stick long-term. Hall has said that his No. 1 factor in deciding where to play next season will be the desire to be on a team close to winning a Stanley Cup. Hall’s quote to me in September: “I’m not really at a point in my career where location matters to me, if I want to be on the West Coast or East Coast or anything like that. You can make any city great if you’re playing well and you’re winning there. So that’s basically my priority.”
Goaltending was a concern for the Devils entering this season, and Cory Schneider, 33, is not off to an inspiring October. In three starts, he has an .897 save percentage and 3.33 goals-against average. Mackenzie Blackwood, who the Devils hope is their goalie of the future, is even worse, at .821 save percentage and 4.90 GAA in three appearances. It was especially interesting in seeing how Schneider would start the season after chatting with him in training camp. “This summer was probably the best I’ve felt in a long time,” Schneider told me. “I know a lot of guys probably say that going into camp. I don’t know if I’m in the best shape of my life — I was in pretty good shape when I was 23 — but physically I feel like I’m the best I’ve felt in terms of aches and pains for the first time in four to five years and not coming off a surgery. That has me excited.”
Schneider said his 2018-19 season was plagued by an unsettling pattern. “It was physical, then it was mental, then it was physical, and then it was mental,” he said of his struggles. “So you sort of get stuck in this cycle, but I finally got out of it and felt comfortable again.”
Schneider also said this in September: “Everyone comes into camp thinking they’re going to win it all. We can see how quickly it can go well or how quickly it can go badly. So for me, especially, a fast start will take a lot of that pressure and a lot of those questions away.”
Patrick Marleau trained this summer as if he were going to an NHL training camp. Then September rolled around, and the 40-year-old was in uncharted territory. After being traded by the Leafs and bought out by the Carolina Hurricanes, Marleau waited for someone to call. And then waited. And then waited some more. He said he never really feared not playing this season, but that didn’t make it any easier.
“Everyone around me kept me pretty grounded. I knew — well, I was hopeful — the right opportunity would come,” he said. “There was interest. It was just a little bit of a weird situation, where everyone was a little too late to get into a training camp, and then most teams have their rosters and wanted to see what they had. I kind of knew that, but at the same time, it was all new to [me], so I didn’t know how to think or approach it.”
Marleau called it “a long summer.” But he knew he needed to be ready. So he kept lifting, which is easy, as gyms are everywhere, but had to put in more work to find chances to skate. Marleau, who spends his offseasons in San Jose, bounced around the Bay Area organizing ice time for himself. He tried to get on the ice every day. He kept calling rinks, “OK, one more week. … OK, one more week.”
Then Sharks GM Doug Wilson called. The early-sputtering Sharks wanted to sign Marleau, their franchise leader in points (1,082), goals (508), power-play goals (160), game-winning goals (98) and games played (1,493). Marleau described it as “an emotional conversation.”
Marleau made a pit stop at the Sharks facility on Tuesday to pick up some gear — “It definitely felt like I should be there again. It felt right to be able to walk into the building,” he said — then joined the team on Wednesday in Chicago. Organizing all of that skating paid off. After the veteran’s first morning skate, Sharks coach Peter DeBoer noted that Marleau didn’t look like he was 40 — and definitely didn’t skate like someone who missed an entire training camp.
Marleau was immediately thrust onto the top line, and he scored two goals as San Jose picked up its first win of the season against the Blackhawks.
I asked Marleau what he thinks of when he reflects on his stint with the Maple Leafs. “Mostly just the friendships,” he said. “I also think of that little bit of adventure, going over there with the family and spurring a little adventure in them and a little uneasiness, too. But the friendships I made there will always be something special to me.”
Marleau became very close with two of the team’s young stars: Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. The 20-somethings became frequent guests at Patrick and Christina Marleau’s home for dinner, Christmas and basement hockey with the Marleaus’ four sons: Brody, Caleb, Landon and Jagger. Marleau mentioned both players by name in a message posted to Christina’s Twitter account:
— Christina Marleau (@c_marleau) June 22, 2019
Marleau said both Marner and Matthews immediately texted him after he signed. “They were both really happy for me,” he said.
Three stars of the week
Neal had five goals in three games this week to give him seven goals on the season — matching his total from all of last season in Calgary. This change-of-scenery trade was a big deal. Instead of lamenting what was lost for the Flames last season, let’s consider how Neal could elevate the Oilers to a playoff team.
The 21-year-old continues to convince us that he is the answer to Philly’s decades-long goaltending woes. He has allowed five goals in three starts this season, and this week alone, he stopped 47 of 49 shots (.959 save percentage, 0.96 GAA), which includes his first career shutout against the Devils. We also have an early front-runner for save of the year:
The Canes made it to 5-0 for the first time in franchise history — yes, even including the Whalers — and in the process, Hamilton had a week, scoring three goals and adding an assist. He has scored in each of Carolina’s past four games.
Honorable mention: Patrik Laine, RW, Winnipeg Jets. The Finn is finally playing on Winnipeg’s top line, and does he ever look good alongside Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. Laine, who signed a two-year, prove-it bridge deal to end his RFA standoff, has seven points (two goals) in three games this week.
What we liked this past week
The emotion says it all.
Career goal No. 1 for Kaapo Kakko! pic.twitter.com/XAY2WGedk8
— NHL (@NHL) October 12, 2019
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) October 13, 2019
Drouin, by the way, is off to a terrific start after a rocky first two years in Montreal. The Quebec native has six points through his first five games and seems to be winning over Habs fans.
There was a sweet story on the Today Show this week about Simon and Sawyer Seidl, brothers adopted from Congo who are budding hockey stars in Minnesota. P.K. Subban took notice of the story, which led to this very cool shout-out by their sister, Rylie.
What we didn’t like this past week
The Avalanche are off to a 4-0 start, and fans around Colorado have to be excited about this young team poised to contend now and for the foreseeable future. The only problem? Most fans can’t watch them on TV.
In an infuriating standoff that has dragged into the season, Altitude TV (which carries Avalanche games, as well as Nuggets games) is in dispute with three major TV providers, leaving games off-air for anyone who has Comcast, DirecTV or DISH.
To make things worse, if fans purchase a league-wide NHL streaming subscription, home games are blacked out in the local market.
The Avs are one of the youngest teams in the league. They skate well, have a strong work ethic and feature world-class talent on the top line. They also have an endearing young star in Cale Makar, the Calder Trophy favorite, who has a point in each of his four games and should probably treat himself to a Slurpee or two.
Makar was a key figure in the thrilling, come-from-behind win against the defending Eastern Conference champion Bruins last week. It’s a shame so many weren’t able to see it.
Games of the week
We just wrapped up the second week of the season, but the 1-4-1 Stars are already preaching the importance of the upcoming four-game road swing. “Everyone in here, including myself, needs to have a playoff mentality going on this road trip,” Tyler Seguin told a reporter this week. “If you’re chasing behind in this league, like everyone knows, that St. Louis season doesn’t happen every year. ” Meanwhile, you just read plenty of words about the Sabres’ hot start.
Two powers of the Western Conference clash Tuesday in what should be a fun heavyweight match. While Vegas is looking like the class of the conference, Nashville has arguably been a more compelling team to watch early. Just this week, the Predators took down the Caps in a 6-5 win, then stormed back from a three-goal deficit against the Kings, only to fall 7-4.
Follow Tuesday’s Western showdown with a matchup between two of the most talented teams in the East. This game sets up a stretch of three straight games against Atlantic Division rivals for the Bruins, as they’ll subsequently have a home-and-home against the Toronto Maple Leafs. After that, the early pecking order in the Atlantic Division might be clarified a bit.
Quote of the week
“It’s loud. It’s electric. But they just have louder speakers than everybody else. That’s all it is.”
— Brad Marchand in an interview with NESN, chirping about the Vegas Golden Knights’ home-ice advantage