The contrast was stark. A day after Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen all essentially said they’d welcome a change of scenery after enduring years of losing and turmoil, several of the Sabres’ top young players spoke optimistically about their futures in Buffalo.
“Nothing but excitement,” winger Tage Thompson, 23, said on a Zoom call Tuesday as the Sabres held end-of-season meetings inside KeyBank Center after finishing dead last. “Obviously, we have a young core right now. … We have a lot of guys like that right now that are hungry to win and take over games and I think that’s a dangerous thing when you have a core group like that. We saw it the last part of the season there.”
Rookie center Dylan Cozens, 20, said he considers the final weeks of the Sabres’ disappointing season a preview of sorts. While they only finished on a 9-11-2 run, they beat every East Division heavyweight and showcased a faster, more competitive brand of hockey most games.
Cozens and other members of the Sabres’ young core helped spearhead the late-season revival, grabbing leading roles under interim coach Don Granato.
“What we did that last month or so was just a glimpse of what we know we can do next year,” Cozens said. “We’ve got a real good group here right now and a lot of guys that are hungry to win. I think we’re all really excited to have a fresh start next season. We’re all just going to work as hard as we can this offseason to come back and be a winning team.”
How next season’s team might look remains a mystery. Given their strong words Monday, Eichel, Reinhart and Ristolainen could all be jettisoned.
“It’s out of my control, but it’s definitely tough to hear,” Sabres center Casey Mittelstadt said of some of the stars possibly wanting out.
Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams plans to hold a virtual end-of-season news conference this morning, so he could provide more insight into their futures.
Whatever happens this offseason, several talent young players feel ready to seize more opportunities. If Eichel, the Sabres’ captain and top center, and Reinhart, their leading scorer, get traded, Cozens and Mittelstadt could be thrust into larger roles.
“We’d love to have them both back,” Cozens said of Eichel and Reinhart. “They’re both great players, so if they’re not, I do think there will be room for me to kind of step up and be more of a leader, for sure. I want to be here for a long time and I’d definitely like to be a leader on this team for a long time.”
Mittelstadt, 22, looked terrific down the stretch, compiling nine goals and 17 points in the final 22 games. Remember, he started the season on the taxi squad and skated as a third-or fourth-line winger during his sporadic appearances.
Granato’s promotion energized many of the Sabres’ underachieving young players, including Mittelstadt.
“He challenged me to be better, challenged me to take a step and play a bigger role,” Mittelstadt said. “Sometimes, obviously, guys need that. And it’s good for me to come into the game and know that I was going to play, and play against the other teams’ top players usually.”
Meanwhile, Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, 21, often earned the same assignment under Granato, facing the opposition’s best players.
Dahlin looked overwhelmed early in the season, losing his confidence and aggressiveness while compiling a ghastly, league-worst minus-34 rating under ex-coach Ralph Krueger. The Swede recaptured his slick form after Granato’s promotion.
“He came in with a great positive attitude,” Dahlin said of Granato. “He made everyone play very well. He made us feel confident. Every day we came to the rink we were in a good mood. And we always knew he had our back, so that’s a huge key for having success.”
The up-tempo system Granato installed played to Dahlin’s strengths as a puck-moving defenseman.
“His way to play was how I learned to play hockey,” Dahlin said. “But the thing I felt was that he trusted me as a player. He really saw what my potential was and I felt comfortable playing out there. I wasn’t thinking too much.”
Granato, who replaced Krueger on March 17, also plans to talk to the media this morning. Adams has said he’s in the mix for the permanent coaching job.
Cozens and others clearly feel comfortable with Granato behind the bench.
“He was great,” Cozens said. “I know a lot of us here loved playing for him and a lot of guys really shined under him.”
He added: “I know it’s not the season we wanted, but I think the team is buying into what we are capable of. I think that’s an exciting thing going into an offseason.”