BUFFALO – The Sabres have arrived about a year ahead of schedule, moving themselves in the into the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff chase and putting general manager Kevyn Adams in an interesting situation.
So far, his plan to reshape the Sabres through drafting and development has paid off, as they began Thursday’s slate of games three points out of the final playoff spot. They have three games in hand on the New York Islanders, the only team separating them between the Pittsburgh Penguins, who own the last wild card.
Since he began rebuilding the Sabres almost two years ago, Adams has refused to take any shortcuts and make moves for a quick fix. He wants to construct his team into a perennial contender. Giving up young assets or draft picks could hurt his strategy.
Still, the Sabres, who host the Calgary Flames on Saturday afternoon, have climbed to the cusp of a playoff spot, a position very few expected they would reach this season. The Islanders just made a blockbuster trade and improved in a hurry, acquiring 30-goal scorer Bo Horvat from the Vancouver Canucks.
So, what might Adams do before the March 3 trade deadline? Could he deviate from his plan a little and add reinforcements?
“We will not compromise short-term, today success for the vision in the longer-term, and the reason I believe in that so much is because we want to set this organization up for sustainable success year after year, giving yourself a chance to be there,” Adams said Thursday as the Sabres assembled for practice following their bye week. “You get in and anything can happen, but you have to have that sustainable success year after year to give yourself a shot. So it’s all stuff we’ll balance and talk about.
“I’m proud of the position that our players have put themselves in through their work and their commitment and their care, and now we’ll do everything we can inside a room to help them.”
The Sabres, of course, find themselves in an unusual situation. While they loaded up a bit for a playoff push in 2020 that quickly fizzled – they stood six points out at the deadline – they haven’t been a true postseason contender this late in the season since 2012.
Clearly, Adams believes the team he has assembled will keep progressing and taking notable steps. In centers Dylan Cozens and Tage Thompson, and defensemen Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power, they possess some of the league’s elite young talent.
The team has come this far, why not let the group ride it out without any tinkering?
“I really believe the talent we have in our room is real and if we get better every day, we’ll put ourselves in a position to have that opportunity,” Adams said in KeyBank Center. “What we don’t want to do is compromise on the vision … because I do think you can get away from the sustainable long-term success that we’re trying to build if you make emotional decisions or you do something trying to just squeeze a few extra points right now.
“We have to stick to it and … (I) completely believe in our guys in the room. They’ve earned the right to be in this battle now and now let’s go have fun with it.”
Adams illustrated his belief in Cozens on Tuesday by awarding him a seven-year, $49.7 million contract.
Cozens, who turned 22 on Thursday, became the third member of the Sabres’ young core to recently sign a seven-year extension, joining Thompson and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson.
In his third NHL season, Cozens has emerged as a versatile second-line center, playing in every situation and producing 17 goals and 43 points in 49 games.
“We wanted to make sure we were in a position of identifying the core, how we were going to move forward,” Adams said. “Make sure we develop those players and then we retain those players, and that’s what we’ve kind of been (moving forward with) the plan and what we’ve been sticking to. …
“What I go back to is, do we believe this player truly wants to be here for the right reason? Wants to be a Buffalo Sabre, loves playing in this organization and then do we believe they have an opportunity to continue to get better?” Obviously, that was the case with Dylan and the others we signed as well.”
Cozens said: “I wanted to sign a long-term extension. To be here, and to know I’m going to be here for the next seven years, it’s exciting.”
Sabres coach Don Granato said Cozens’ deal “dispels the myth … players don’t want to play in Buffalo.”
“You can see now there’s no truth to that,” he said. “These guys love this place and they want to be here, and they have sacrificed to be here.”
Cozens, the seventh overall pick in 2019, has formed close bonds on the Sabres. He spent part of the NHL All-Star break and bye week vacationing with Thompson.
“That’s what makes this group so unique, how we’re friends off the ice, in the dressing room,” the Yukon native said. “Always hanging out together, always having fun together. I think that’s what makes this group so special. When we leave the rink, we still want to hang out with each other. We just have so much fun. I think everybody here as the same goals in mind, so it makes it easy to be on this team.”