After missing the NHL’s expanded 24-team playoff last season, the Sabres enter 2021, having endured a nine-year postseason drought, which is the longest active drought in the NHL. Only two teams in league history have missed the playoffs for 10 consecutive seasons, the Florida Panthers (‘99-’12) and the Edmonton Oilers (‘05-’17), and Buffalo hopes to avoid joining that list after this season.
“It drives all of us every day,” said Buffalo GM Kevyn Adams on Tuesday. “It’s about doing this the right way with the right people to put ourselves in a position to have sustainable success and set us up, year after year, to compete and to ultimately put ourselves in a position to compete for a Stanley Cup.”
Despite the team’s recent ineptitude, Adams and the Sabres don’t appear to be focused on the past, but rather what awaits them in the future as they move ahead with a restocked roster and their first-year general manager.
“I don’t wake up every day thinking about the past. I don’t think about the nine-year (drought),” said Adams. “But I do have an understanding of asking questions about why things didn’t work out the way before or what decisions we can learn from.”
Six coaches and three general managers in nine years, multiple stars (see Evander Kane, Ryan O’Reilly) traded away for little to nothing in return, numerous acquisitions that turned bad (see Marco Scandella). There is plenty of past failures from which Adams can learn.
Before this drought, the Sabres had never missed the postseason for more than three consecutive seasons, making what the team is currently enduring the Dark Age of hockey in Buffalo. Adams and the Sabres have a tall task in front of them. But instead of focusing on what’s gone wrong over the past decade, Buffalo seems focused on finding a way to make things go right for the next decade.
“You always need to look at your past,” said Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger on Tuesday. “(But it’s as important to) have the players, yes frustrated and angry (about) the final result, but excited and confident for those moments of confirmation. And we will be driving that much more into their mind than the failures of last year.
“We all know that our special teams need to go to a higher level, and there were sections of the game that need improvement, but there was a confirmation that all of us here (improved at times). (We) could feel the game that we need to play, we just weren’t doing it consistently enough.”
Krueger says his coaching style strays toward hammering home those moments of strength rather than harping on his team’s weaknesses and where they went wrong in the past.
“My style is much more to confirm and to have players think about how to play, not how not to play,” said Krueger. “I think that you always need to take that pain and put it out there - the end result was we weren’t in the playoffs. But the end result was also 69 games where we did see signs of the team we want to be.”
Buffalo finished last season 30-31-8 and just three points behind the last playoff team, the Montreal Canadiens. The Sabres’ central bright spot in ‘19-’20 was the play of captain Jack Eichel, who finished the year with 78 points in 68 games.
“The final destination is very clear for all of us. What we’re reaching for is the playoffs, but the pathway to do that is being outstanding in the steps along the way,” added Krueger. “That’s what we need to concentrate on as coaches. We can’t be distracted by that big picture in a negative way.”
While not focused on the past, the Sabres are undoubtedly aware of what has taken place in Buffalo the last 10 years and remain driven by the prospect of giving their fans something to cheer about.
“I’m a Western New York native, I understand the DNA of this community of our fan base,” said Adams. “Of the passion of what this town can and will be like when we get this team to where it needs to get to.”
Krueger says, rather than focusing on the pressure of ending the nine-year playoff drought, the Sabres instead need to view what lies in front of them as a great chance to end the suffering of their faithful fan base.
“In pain, there is always opportunity, and the pain of the fans would be our opportunity,” said Buffalo’s head coach. “Should we have success, we know what will happen here in Buffalo and how exciting that will be.”
Talking about it is one thing, but Kreuger says that his team remains focused on the task at hand.
“We will be doing everything we (can) from the first of January when we go on the ice,” he said. “You will feel the passion from the players, from the coaching staff, the supporting staff, the management - we feel we are a much better team than we were when we left the ice in March.”
Returning a solid core highlighted by Eichel, and after making several high-profile acquisitions in the offseason, the Sabres appear confident in their ability to bring their fans a winner as soon as this season.