BUFFALO – It took nearly 12 years for the Sabres to reach this point. They endured failed rebuilds, regime changes and what felt like constant turmoil.
On Thursday, for the first time since 2011, the Sabres opened training camp feeling like they’re a legitimate contender for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
“Now it’s time,” Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams said prior to the first session of camp in KeyBank Center. “Look, I think our window’s open right now.”
Given youthfulness and talent the confident Sabres possess, it might be wide open for a long time.
“We have really high expectations on ourselves,” Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin said. “That’s the main thing. And to have the window open, it’s go time. I mean, we don’t have excuses anymore. We’ve shown that we can play against the best teams in this league. And at the end of last year, we were playing really good hockey when we had to.
“So, yeah, now we’ve just got to push and see where this thing can go. … I want to have a longer season this year.”
Just one day into the season, Sabres forward Casey Mittelstadt said he could feel “a bit of a different vibe around the room this year.”
“We all think we’re ready to push,” he said.
The Sabres sent notice this day would be coming, morphing from a team that won just 15 of its 56 games in 2020-21 into one that earned 91 points last season and fell one win shy of its first playoff berth since 2011.
“From two years ago to now, the group itself has moved along quite a ways and built and learned and progressed to the point where even at the end of last season we could start talking about playoffs as an expectation, as a legitimate goal,” Sabres coach Don Granato said.
Granato said two years ago, as the Sabres emerged from a dreadful last-place finish and began rebuilding, they weren’t in a position to go after wins. First, they needed to grow and gain experience.
Now, they’ve matured enough they should expect to win on a nightly basis.
“Last season moved us toward that point of having a greater conviction about the final result,” Granato said.
To captain, Kyle Okposo, who’s beginning his eighth season in Buffalo, the Sabres have recently experienced “a natural progression.”
“We’ve had a bit of an unnatural progression over the last 12 years or so,” he said. “Like, it’s been we tried to tear it down and build it up and it didn’t work. Then we tore it down again and now this is kind of how it’s supposed to be. I know it’s taken a lot longer than our fans would have liked and our organization would have liked but I think we’re right there.”
Okposo said he’s happy Adams declared the Sabres’ window is open. Of course, that will make the GM’s job tougher.
“When your window is open guys are going to excel, guys are going to demand higher contracts, and then he’s going to have to make some different decisions,” Okposo said. “But that’s on his plate.”
There’s a lot on everyone’s plate now. Naturally, Adams wants his players to embrace the expectations.
When he addressed them at the beginning of camp, he told them “pressure is a privilege,” a message he reiterated Thursday.
“I really believe in the group in that room,” he said. “I believe last year was critically important for us as we matured down the stretch. I truly believe we’re just scratching the surface in terms of the team we can be. There’s extremely high expectations within our walls, and that’s the way it should be. And that’s what I talked to our team about yesterday. Continuity’s important.
“We have the majority of the group similar from a staffing perspective the same way, and so our guys are ready, they’re excited. They were back here a while, a few weeks now, kind of preparing. I can just sense a businesslike approach, which I really like.”
Well, there are two notable new faces: defensemen Connor Clifton and Erik Johnson.
For years, the Sabres had problems recruiting players in free agency. Who wants to join a perennial loser? But Okposo has learned the perception of the team has changed.
“It’s definitely something that’s new,” he said. “I interact with quite a few players in the summer and the tone of the conversation and the substance of the conversation has definitely changed. It’s a very special thing. It’s not something I take lightly or this organization takes lightly. That’s a credit to everybody in our organization. … It shows where we’re going.”