The Sabres might’ve taken the scenic route but they finally arrived at a decision on their head coach.
I’m not sure many were surprised to see Don Granato earn the removal of interim from his title, but the time between the end of the season and the official announcement was notable. It probably would’ve taken a really impactful interview to sway the Sabres off Granato, but the organization left that door open in case anyone was able to present themselves in an impressive enough fashion.
Credit to the Sabres for being thorough with their search, even if the most pessimistic among us may feel it was mostly for show. For a club that doesn’t get too many things right, it’s only fair to give them credit when they earn it.
As for their choice for the 20th head coach in franchise history, we’ll see what the next three years have to offer as he officially inherits a job that’s likely going to get a lot tougher in the coming weeks and months.
Selecting Granato over more seasoned NHL coaches such as Bruce Boudreau or Rick Tocchet seems to indicate that the organization knows they’re entering a building phase, where development is going to be of paramount importance. Barring some sort of drastic turn of events, this doesn’t appear to be a team that’s planning on seriously contending for a playoff spot in 2021-22. The next domino to fall, of course, is trading Jack Eichel; it seems like an inevitability at this point but until the deal goes through there is the chance he sticks around. As this is the NHL and stranger things have happened, but all signs are pointing to a fairly swift exit and the team moving full speed into building mode.
There are more parallels between the Sabres’ present situation and the early days of the tanking era. Tell me if this sounds familiar: turnover behind the bench and at general manager preceding dealing the most notable talents on the roster in an effort to stockpile assets which will feed the club’s pipeline.
One notable difference between Granato and hie forebears will be the opportunity to work with some of the team’s key young talent on the fly. Buffalo’s pipeline is hardly more impressive than it was in 2013, but there are certainly more players of note with the NHL club at this moment than there were when Ron Rolston took over for Lindy Ruff or when Ted Nolan returned to the Sabres’ bench.
Granato effectively had an on-the-job interview after taking over for Ralph Krueger, getting an opportunity to display his penchant for connecting with players and developing young talent over the final weeks of the season. Growth from players like Casey Mittelstadt, Rasmus Asplund and Rasmus Dahlin (among others) illustrated that Granato was able to get out of the team’s young players what so many coaches had claimed to be capable of in the past.
I find it hard to say any hire made by a major sports team is the right one since the lens through which you evaluate these guys changes so quickly. Phil Housley, for example, was a highly respected assistant coach who oversaw one of the most effective and talented bluelines in the league when he was hired. His track record made him a “good” hire. But it didn’t take long for that to change. So, while I believe Granato has the right skill set and demeanor to help lead the club through this next phase, I’ll stop short of saying he was perfect for the job until there’s a little more of a sample to judge him by.
What I will say with confidence is that given the state of the club and where they’re about to be from a talent perspective, his profile was exactly what they should have been targeting. Maybe if they hired a coach like Gerard Gallant or brought Mike Babcock out of exile, they would have enjoyed a short PR bump for landing a name brand but fans would be singing a different tune a few months into the season when their thin roster isn’t measuring up to the standard of a playoff contender.
Targeting a coach with an acumen for development and, perhaps more importantly, the ability to communicate what he’s implementing to both the players and the press was vital. The Sabres are probably going to stink for a few more years, but if the coach can illustrate that the players under his watch are improving, it will make what should be an otherwise painful period far easier to stomach.
I think of this year’s Ottawa Senators as a rough example of this. The Sens didn’t win too many games but they had key, young players playing in prominent roles and it turned them into a plucky group that showed the promise fans can buy in to. Maybe part of that came from playing in the JV division but there wasn’t an all-out riot in Ottawa despite finishing 23rd.
The Sabres appear set to enter the season without their biggest stars and the likes of Dylan Cozens and Casey Mittelstadt are going to feature prominently as a result. I’m fairly confident that Granato can make this a likable bunch who may still finish bottom five but will show the signs of progress that will help carry them back to relevance over the coming seasons.