Glimpses of hope begin to shine on young, maturing Sabres
BUFFALO — Rasmus Dahlin is done trying to impress others, or care what they think.
Once shy and timid, the Sabres 22-year-old defenseman and No. 1 overall draft pick in 2018 arrived in Buffalo for his fifth training camp brimming with confidence. No longer guarded when addressing reporters, Dahlin stood at the podium with a hand resting casually on his hip, discussing various topics: From how angry he was watching the playoffs on TV for yet another spring to revealing how much more assertive he’s become.
“I realized early last season that if I’m myself and not trying to be anyone, that’s going to help me on the ice,” said Dahlin, referring to a season in which he made his first NHL All-Star Game appearance, and finished with career-bests in goals (13) and points (68).
“Some guys are probably not going to like it. Some guys love it. I don’t really care,” he added, of his new approach. “I’ve always been like that. I was kind of hiding it for a few years. But it’s coming back. I really enjoy competing. That’s who I am.”
The maturation growth-spurt Dahlin experienced could well be reflective of a young Sabres team showing glimpses of finally being on an upward trajectory.
“He exemplifies what we hope,” coach Don Granato said.
Hope is on the rise in Buffalo, where the Sabres endured a revolving door of general managers, coaches and high-priced players in becoming the first team to miss the playoffs for 11 straight seasons last year.
Granato, entering his second full season, has introduced an aggressive style while insisting his players compete without fear of making mistakes. Third-year general manager Kevyn Adams, meantime, has brought in a vision of rebuilding the team around those who enjoy playing in Buffalo.
It’s a philosophy that led to Adams cleaning house a year ago with a series of trades that sent former captain Jack Eichel to Vegas, forward Sam Reinhart to Florida and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen to Philadelphia. In return, Buffalo acquired a sizable amount of high draft picks, as well as forward Alex Tuch — who, not coincidentally, grew up a Sabres fan outside of Syracuse, New York — and Peyton Krebs in the deal for Eichel.
The upheaval led to numerous players, Dahlin included, to grow into leadership roles.
The sample size is small, but the Sabres took heart in how they gelled by closing last season 12-6-3 to finish with a 32-39-11 record. Buffalo finished fifth in the Atlantic Division, matching the team’s best since it was third in 2011-12.
Making sure not to mention the word “playoffs,” forward Kyle Okposo was cautiously optimistic in assessing Buffalo’s potential by noting there are surprise teams that emerge every season.
“You’ve got to have a little bit of luck, but you have to make sure that you’re in it every day,” Okposo said. “And that’s something with the young guys in here, they’re learning how to be pros. And that potential is only going to be greater as they mature and develop.”
Much of the roster returns intact, with the only key offseason additions being goalie Eric Comrie and defensemen Ilya Lyubushkin and Lawrence Pilut, who returns after spending two seasons playing in Russia. Among the youngsters in position to crack the lineup are forwards Jack Quinn, selected eighth in the 2020 draft, and JJ Peterka, a 2020 second-round pick.
DEEP ON DEFENSE
Buffalo’s strength is a blue line featuring two No. 1 draft picks in Dahlin and Owen Power (2021), a preseason NHL rookie of the year candidate. Rounding out the expected top seven are Pilut, Lyubushkin, Henri Jokiharju, Mattias Samuelsson and either Casey Fitzgerald or Jacob Bryson.
BETWEEN THE PIPES
The Sabres expect to open the season with a tandem comprising of Craig Anderson, who returns for a 20th NHL season after contemplating retirement, and Comrie, a journeyman backup, who appeared in a career-best 19 games with Winnipeg last year. The initial plan is having Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen continue his development in the minors.
The Sabres intend to name a captain after going without one last season. Okposo is a leading candidate to wear the C, with Dahlin, Tuch, Zemgus Girgensons and Dylan Cozens in consideration to be the assistants.
Buffalo’s longest homestands are a pair of four-gamers over a three-week span from late October and November. The team’s longest road trips are also four-gamers, coming in October and January. The Sabres will get an eight-day break from Feb. 2-10. The season opener is at home Oct. 13 against Ottawa.