Sabres GM confident core can help them end playoff drought

BUFFALO — Though this was a season well below expectations for the Buffalo Sabres, general manager Kevyn Adams said he believes the team’s core can help them take the next step.

That will come under a different coach after the Sabres fired Don Granato on Tuesday following a sixth-place finish in the Atlantic Division. Buffalo (39-37-6) failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for an NHL-record 13th straight season.

Entering the season, the Sabres appeared to be on the path toward ending their drought after going 42-33-7 in 2022-23 and finishing one point behind the Florida Panthers for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference.

“In terms of our core, I believe in these guys,” Adams said. “I completely trust that this is a group of people that will get this right and want to make this team great and want to be here in Buffalo and believe in what we’re doing and hold themselves accountable. There’s many conversations through the year with some of the guys that … felt like they were letting the team down and letting the city down.

“You’d rather have that because they care. I have no concern that these guys are not going to be excellent players for us moving forward. Big picture with the core, I’m excited and believe that they’re going to take a step and they’ll do it now.”

Several forwards took a step back offensively this season. Tage Thompson had 29 goals and 56 points in 71 games after he had 47 goals and 94 points in 78 games last season; Alex Tuch had 59 points (22 goals, 37 assists) in 75 games after finishing with 79 points (36 goals, 43 assists) in 74 last season; Dylan Cozens had 18 goals and 47 points in 79 games after totaling 31 goals and 68 points in 81 games in 2022-23; and Jeff Skinner finished with 46 points (24 goals, 22 assists) in 74 games after having 82 points (35 goals, 47 assists) in 79 games last season.

“I think you have to be a little careful with the word regression,” Adams said. “If you take a step back and look at everything there was some great progress this year from goaltending and what [Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen] did and JJ Peterka, so there’s some of that.

“Regression-wise, yeah, even guys who are a little more experienced in their career, when you’re coming off a career year, it’s challenging to duplicate that. So the challenge that we had was we had a number of players fall off and regress. Now the question is why? That’s what I’ve touched on a little bit, and we’ll fix it.”

Luukkonen was 27-22-4 with a 2.57 goals-against average and .910 save percentage and five shutouts in 54 games (51 starts), emerging as the No. 1 goalie. Peterka, a forward, had 50 points (28 goals, 22 assists) in 82 games after finishing with 32 points (12 goals, 20 assists) in 77 games last season.

Adams had said in October that the team’s window for contention had opened. He still feels that way.

“We have a team that’s competitive enough to be right there, fighting in the playoffs and giving ourselves a chance,” he said. “… I would say it again now. I believe we have a talented group of players that now we need to take the next step, which is obviously getting in the playoffs and going from there.”

The Sabres are the youngest team in the League, with average age of 26 years old, but despite their youth they have NHL experience. Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, 24, has played 436 games; Thompson, 26, has played 372; Cozens, 23, has played 280; defenseman Owen Power, 21, has played 163; and Peterka, 22, has played 161.

Adams said the Sabres are craving accountability and structure, and that they have matured enough to handle such things.

“The time is now,” he said. “I think coming into this year there was still, ‘Where do we fit within the League?’ and with some of our players, ‘Where do I fit in the lineup and what is this going to be?’ It’s go time. It’s time to perform on an individual level and a team level. We have to be better and the message, not to get into specifics of what I’m going to say, but it will be a challenge to them. … I know we’re right there and we’re on the cusp and it’s going to be up to us. It’s going to be hard but that’s the best part. That’s the message.”

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