The Buffalo Sabres have missed the playoffs for a record 11 consecutive seasons but during that time have drafted and developed smartly and their work is beginning to be rewarded.
Buffalo went 14-7-3 in their final 24 games of last season eventually finishing fifth in the Atlantic Division (32-39-11) and they will hope that momentum carries over into 2022/23.
|NHL Season 2022/23
|USA and Canada
|October 7th 2022 - June 2023
|How to watch:
|ESPN+, Star+, NHL.TV & bet365's Sports Live Streaming
|COL Avalanche +425, TOR Maple Leafs +800, FLA Panthers +900, TB Lightning +1000, CAR Hurricanes +1100
There were rumblings of discontent when Don Granato was promoted from assistant to head coach of the Sabres in March 2021. At the time, the Sabres were on a 12-game losing streak which eventually turned into a joint-record 18 game winless skid.
Questions were raised about whether the American who had no NHL head coaching experience had what it took to turn the sinking ship around.
Skip forwards 18 months and those questions have long dispersed and optimism is high.
The roster has been completely overhauled and the few players which remain have improved considerably under the guidance of the now 55 year old.
A three-year head coach of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, Granato is well versed with working with youngsters, helping defenceman Rasmus Dahlin and centres Casey Mittelstadt and Tage Thompson establish themselves as top talents in the NHL and crucial players for the Sabres moving forwards.
Granato has also breathed life into the few veterans who he chose to keep, including forward Jeff Skinner who went from healthy scratch shortly before Granato took over to scoring 33 goals and 63 points last season.
The Sabres head into the new season with just three players over 30 years old, goalie Craig Anderson, 41, and forwards Kyle Okposo, 33, and Jeff Skinner, 30.
The aforementioned Dahlin, 22, Mittelstadt, 23, and Thompson, 24, plus Dylan Cozens, 21, and Peyton Krebs, 21, are the Sabres future and they will be further supplemented by more exciting talent making its way into the line-up.
This includes the first overall draft pick in 2021 defenceman Owen Power who stands at an imposing 6'6" and impressed during his introduction to the NHL last season registering three points (two goals, one assist) in eight games.
Also hoping to make the Sabres roster next season are forwards Jack Quinn, 20, and JJ Peterka, 20, who each had their first taste of NHL action last season.
Kevyn Adams has consistently called for patience during his three-year run as General Manager, focusing on taking advantage of the Sabres' high draft picks and developing rather than making moves in free agency or via the trade market.
With the fruits of his labour coming to fruition, Adams has chosen to dip into free agency this off-season, signing Ilya Lyubushkin from the Toronto Maple Leafs to fill the need for a right-handed defenceman and Eric Comrie from the Winnipeg Jets to split goaltending duties with Anderson.
Lyubushkin, 28, contributed 15 points (two goals, 13 assists) in 77 games for the Leafs last season, while Comrie, 27, also appears a shrewd addition having posted a solid .920 save-percentage and 2.58 goals-against average in 19 games for the Jets.
With two first overall picks set to lead their defence and an exuberant forward group who are just going to get better, the excitement is for real in Buffalo, who are +475 to qualify for the playoffs.
Anderson, Okposo and Skinner have all been praised for their leadership skills and will provide a great amount of support for the maturing youngsters.
And it hasn't even been mentioned that they were able to make three selections in the first round of the recent 2022 draft, picking highly-rated centres Matthew Savoie, Noah Ostlund, and Jiri Kulich, who if they live up to expectations will provide the Sabres with excellent depth up the middle of the ice for years to come.
The Sabres are in a good place and the work of Adams and Grenato has been widely applauded.
Their form in the latter part of last season signals that they are returning to competitiveness and should expect to challenge for a playoff position.
Whether the project is mature enough just yet remains to be seen, but the long wait to be back in the post-season looks set to come to an end sooner rather than later.