BUFFALO – The open communication among the Sabres and the accountability it has generated is new and welcome.
In the recent past, problems often festered and the Sabres usually imploded at the first hint of adversity. Some players clearly felt uncomfortable discussing any issues with each other.
Then following last season’s dreadful 31st-place finish, coach Phil Housley challenged the Sabres. He wanted self-reflection. He wanted them to change before the new season, which kicked off Thursday morning, when veterans reported for their training camp physicals.
“In that change, they held each other accountable,” Housley said inside KeyBank Center. “They had to get things out on the table. I give all them the credit, because they have had to put themselves in a vulnerable position at times, they’ve had to listen to feedback and a lot of criticism that I think they might not like to hear.
“But if you are gonna make a difference and you want to change the direction of this franchise, we have to change as people.”
Sabres center Jack Eichel said in his four seasons, the lines of communication – that includes coaches and management – have never been so open.
“You feel like if you have something bothering you, you can get it off your chest, if you think that we have to change something around the room – whatever it may be,” he said. “Phil’s been great for the last few weeks with us, having our input, seeing what we think.
“So I think it’s sort of a bit of a change for us. It’s a good one. That’s how it needs to be. You look at the teams that are successful year after year, it’s that open line, it’s that player-coach relationship instead of battling with them.”
Defenseman Zach Bogosian, one of the longest-tenured Sabres, said the players who have spent the last few years together “broke down some barriers, had some conversations we haven’t had in the past” during the offseason.
Bogosian believes maturity forced the Sabres to change.
“You get more and more experience, you’ve learned what has worked in the past and what hasn’t,” he said. “You’ve got to come together as a group and have those conversations. There’s been a lot of good conversations.”
Eichel was loose during his conversation with reporters Thursday, smiling and joking around. At one point, he cracked hockey players are “professional complainers.”
“He is human, eh?” Housley said. “He can crack some jokes and feel good.”
The Sabres’ busy offseason recharged Eichel, who talked about the “good energy in the building” and the excitement for the new season even trickling down to the trainers.
With first overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, a youngster some believe is the best defense prospect in decades, in their arsenal, and other new additions, including wingers Conor Sheary and Jeff Skinner it’s easy to understand the Sabres’ enthusiasm.
“I think everyone knows how we can be a much better team, much different team,” said Eichel, whose eight-year, $80 million contract extension kicks in this season. “It’s not going to happen overnight. But I think we see our potential.”
Eichel, the Sabres’ only NHL All-Star, still has plenty of untapped potential. He often looked dynamic last season, compiling 25 goals and 64 points in 67 games.
This year, he could surpass the 30-goal or 80-point marks.
Housley said he sees “a maturity in Jack” and feels a “different vibe” around the team.
“With our leadership group being able to speak their hearts to each other and feel vulnerable, not have all these defensive mechanisms come up,” Housley said. “That’s part of the change. It’s good to see Jack in a good spot.”
Bogosian said: “I think everyone kind of took a long, hard look in the mirror, got a chance to clear their head over the summer and come back with a positive mindset, a fresh mindset and get excited for the season.”
Of course, optimism runs rampant everywhere on the first day of training camp. The Sabres haven’t even been on the ice yet. They have their first two sessions today inside HarborCenter.
“We haven’t been tested and we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Housley said. “There’s going to be adversity. It’s going to be interesting to see how we handle that. I know last year it really affected us.
“But I think – and I can only speak from this day – that there’s a good vibe going on in that room with all the players and there’s going to be a lot of competition, which is healthy for us.”