Sabres General Manager Kevyn Adams talks to left wing Thomas Vanek (26) on the bench during the game against the New York Islanders at the First Niagara Center. Photo: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
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THE MOST ANTICIPATED SEASON IN YEARS

Sabres take to the ice with heightened expectations

By Andrew Kulyk

Buffalo Sabres General Manager Kevyn Adams sounds off a familiar refrain every time he holds court with the media. “We want guys here who are proud to wear a Buffalo Sabres uniform.” “You need to want to be on this team.” “We are building a culture.” 

And so it goes. This is now Adam’s team. The team and the plan he has built. And this season will dictate whether the most unlikely of General Managers will finally be the one to lead this tortured hockey franchise out of the abyss and bring the Sabres back to hockey relevancy.

Adam’s trek through the Sabres organization started in 2011, when he served as an assistant coach, before moving on to HarborCenter, where he took on various administrative roles, including as President of the Buffalo Jr. Sabres.

He was promoted to General Manager of HarborCenter in fall of 2019, then given the post of Vice President of business administration. That is the job he held until June of 2020.

That is when, in the teeth of the Covid-19 pandemic, and an interrupted NHL season, Sabres ownership pulled the shocking move of firing then General Manager Jason Botterill, and installing Adams as his replacement. This came amidst many personnel moves within the organization, as the Sabres, along with the rest of the world, had to cope with the pandemic and all that came with it.

In the roughly year and a half with Adams at the helm, he has remade the Sabres roster and changed the entire trajectory of the organization. The biggest move, of course, was engineering the massive trade to the Vegas Golden Knights which dispatched Jack Eichel. The concept of “The Tank”, where Buffalo deliberately set out to fail for two straight seasons in order to get a shot at coveted draft prize Conor McDavid, is now regarded as a failed strategy. Eichel’s presence here over the seasons did little in the clubhouse, if anything, was a deterrent for success. He had to go.

What Buffalo got in return is already being heralded as a treasure trove. Alex Tuch, Syracuse native who grew up cheering the Buffalo Sabres, is the Kevyn Adams poster child as far as players in the clubhouse who want to be here. From the get go, he has stepped up to the podium with his big toothy grin and exuded just the exact words that Adams wants to hear from all his players. Tuch is a Captain In Waiting and, even though he will not be wearing a letter on his jersey, is already displaying that desperately needed leadership.

As if getting Tuch wasn’t enough, the Sabres also got a steal in acquiring Peyton Krebs, who will be on the Opening Night roster against Ottawa. Want more? How about Noah Ostlund, selected 15th in the 2022 NHL Draft courtesy of the Golden Knights. Still a young 18, Ostlund is turning heads with his superior skating and highlight real playmaking in the Swedish League, where he will continue to develop before making his way to play here. And the last page of this blockbuster trade plays out in 2023, where the Sabres get Vegas’ second round pick and surrender their third round pick in exchange. So score there.

Adam’s drafts since taking over as General Manager are looking to be winners. Owen Power, selected in 2021, has made an immediate mark on the blue line since his debut with the Sabres late last season. Both J.J. Peterka and Jack Quinn, selected in 2020, look to be ready to play at the NHL level.

Adams pulled the trigger in March of 2021 when he fired failed head coach Ralph Krueger, installing coach Don Granato as the “interim” coach. That move, and that bet on Granato, has paid off handsomely, as he has carried this team to that new culture that Adams so much wants to instill. This past week, Granato was given a multi year contract extension with the Sabres. No more “interim”. He is their guy, and he seems to have the full throated support of the players in the clubhouse, as evidenced by the many words of support.

Any hiccups during this run of Adam’s golden ride? The goaltending.

Adams desperately wanted to sign their veteran netminder Linus Ullmark to a contract extension in summer of 2021 and all signs were pointing in that direction. Ullmark then pulled the surprise by turning around and signing instead a four year deal with the Boston Bruins. That left the Sabres scrambling to find a starting goalie.

Adams turned to the old veteran, Craig Anderson. This past season the team endured a horrid spate of goaltender injuries, which almost had Adams searching through the rosters of beer leagues trying to find anyone who could play in goal. 

While heralded prospect Ukko Pekka-Luukonen still remains as the next projected great one to lead the Sabres to the promised land, UPL will again begin his season in Rochester. The Sabres are going with the tandem of Anderson and newcomer Eric Comrie, who was signed over the summer.

Comrie has had a shaky preseason, but Granato is confident that his new netminder will be fine once the real games begin. At age 27, he has had a long hockey career but with just a few NHL starts.

And that begs the question. Despite all the veteran presence (Tuch, Zemgus Girgensens and now captain Kyle Okposo), the potential of the defense (Rasmus Dahlin, Power and Matias Samuelson), and all the prospects ready to do damage in this league. The Sabres will only be as good as the ability of their goaltender duo to stop pucks, win games and steal games.

Adams is undeterred as he steadfastly refuses to set timetables or predictions for a return to the playoffs. The team is now 11 seasons without a trip to the postseason.

“I love this time of year,” said Adams this past Monday. The leaves are turning, the air is crisp, and it’s time for hockey.” He is looking forward to this season. The fans are back. The border to Canada is just about fully reopened as normal can be (Canadians still need to display proof of Covid vaccinations when entering the United States).

Give Adams a grade of “B” for stepping into an untenable situation and turning this franchise around. But don’t expect too much. If the goalies outperform we may be seeing hockey in Buffalo come May. Otherwise, it will be 12 straight years of disappointment.

TARO SEZ…

Two noteworthy losses from the Taro Era have rocked the Sabres family.

Dave Dryden passed away this past week at the age of 1981. He was the third goalie on the roster during the Sabres historic opening season in 1970-71, along with Roger Crozier and Joe Daley. The Dryden brothers, Dave and Ken, actually made history, appearing in their first game in net opposite each other March of 1971. Ken of course played for the Montreal Canadiens and won multiple Stanley Cups there.  The two brothers would compete in games on six separate times, with brother Ken holding a 4-1-1 edge in family bragging rights.

After he retired, Dryden was instrumental in the early development of the cage construction modern goalie mask, now widely in use across the spectrum of the sport.

Then we learned of the death of coach Joe Crozier at age 93. Crozier was thrust into the “interim” role in 1973 when then GM/Coach Punch Imlach fell ill and could not perform his full duties. Who could forget the joy and energy of that 1973 squad, making their first playoff appearance against the powerhouse Montreal Canadiens. Who will ever forget Rene Robert’s exciting overtime goal in game 5 of that series at the Montreal Forum, sending the series back to Buffalo.

Stand at the corner of Main Street and Lower Terrace today, steps away from what was then the doors to Memorial Auditorium. Listen to the wind and you might hear the strains of “Ooh Ahh, Sabres on the warpath”, and “Thank you Sabres. Thank you Sabres”. Crozier’s spirit, and what he did for this franchise, is beyond measurement.

Thank you coach Granato, for opening your remarks yesterday with a tribute to Crozier.