Kyle Okposo expressed his belief in the spring that many aspects of the Sabres’ 2021-22 campaign could carry through the summer and into a new season.
The Sabres, in their first full season under coach Don Granato, adopted his fearless mentality. They were given the leeway to make mistakes and encouraged to show their personalities. They performed at a 102-point pace during March and April, fueled by career-best stretches from several young players.
The brotherhood they formed in the process should carry over, as should their knowledge of the identity they wish to maintain on the ice. (Granato already saw returning players helping newcomers through drills during the first two sessions of training camp.)
But it all needs to be supplemented by work.
“Yeah, sure, there’s the camaraderie, there’s the fellowship, there’s the way that we came together and that’s going to remain,” Okposo said. “But you got to go earn your results, no matter what.”
Video: TRAINING CAMP: Okposo
The message from Granato on Thursday was the same as it was one year ago.
“The message is to continue to get better,” Granato said. “This sport is awesome, because no matter how good you are, there’s ways to get better and lots of ways to get better.”
To that end, Granato challenged his coaching staff to construct entirely new practices for the opening day of training camp, with only one repeat drill from last season. The Sabers split their 59-man camp roster into two groups and held two hour-and-a-half sessions inside KeyBank Center.
Here are 12 takeaways from the opening day of camp.
1. Granato said he believes his players are less satisfied with the success they found over the final two months of last season than they are angered by the wins they left on the table.
“If we’re going to carry over something from last year, I don’t think it’s the good and the winning,” he said. “I think it’s the taste in your mouth of, ‘We left some stuff on the table.’ We need to go after that.”
Video: TRAINING CAMP: Granato
2. Rasmus Dahlin is one player with that mindset. Granato said he knew in the spring that Dahlin was at home watching the Stanley Cup Playoffs, allowing it to fuel what would become a productive offseason.
Granato was right.
“I don’t really want to watch the playoffs, but I can’t watch it,” Dahlin said. “It’s such great hockey and you’ve got to follow it if you’re in the league, I feel like. It pisses you off for sure. It’s not fun to see all the other teams succeed. I want to be in those shoes .
“It’s a love hate relationship with the playoffs when you’re not in it for sure.”
3. Dahlin had the most productive season by a Sabers defenseman in more than a decade, posting career highs in goals (13) and points (53) while leading the team in ice time. The success coincided with a key realization away from the ice.
“I realized early last season that if I’m myself and not trying to be anyone, that’s going to help me on the ice,” he said. “I just keep doing that every day. Some guys are probably not going to like it. Some guys love it. I don’t know. I don’t really care. I just want to try and be myself. That helps me on the ice.”
When Alex Tuch joined the team midway through the season, he praised Dahlin not for his skill, but for his leadership. Owen Power offered the same insight when asked what he learned in the short time he spent with Dahlin in April.
“I think a big thing is just the way he carries himself off the ice and treats other people and all that stuff,” Power said. “I think it’s not something that fans really see, but in the locker room you see it.”
4. Granato shared an anecdote to paint a picture of Dahlin’s leadership.
“He chirps another teammate in practice, he’ll go harder than them,” Granato said. “He knows, he’ll challenge the guy in practice and call him out, and then he’ll hop in line and go one-on-one against him and say, ‘I’ll show you what I’m talking about. You’re not going hard enough and you’re not competing hard enough.’ So, he’ll back what he says.”
5. Sabers general manager Kevyn Adams signed a multi-year contract extension Wednesday, hours after he addressed the team on the first day of camp. Watch excerpts of his speech in the video below.
Video: 2022 Training Camp Welcome Speeches
6. Adams was asked about his contract extension when he met with the media on Thursday.
“I’ve said this probably a million times, but I feel like it’s such an honor to have this job,” he said. “It’s such a responsibility to our players, our coaching staff, our whole organization and our community and Sabers fans to get this right. So, for me, it’s exciting. But it’s focused on, how do we get better?”
7. Granato likened his relationship with Adams to that of a teammate. They speak after practices and even share notes on game plans.
“If I’m wrong, I want somebody that’s going to tell me that,” Granato said. “What I do, I try to do with – there’s always thought into it, but it might be thought, it might be bias, it might be going in the wrong direction so I need somebody that can look out for me. And I have a trust in Kevyn.”
8. Tage Thompson was also rewarded with a contract extension after scoring a team-leading 38 goals and 68 points last season. He signed a seven-year deal worth $50 million in August.
Adams pointed to how Thompson dealt with adversity through the early stages of his career – his inclusion in a high-profile trade, season-ending injuries, time spent in the minors and on the taxi squad – as evidence of how he will continue to work moving forward.
Thompson spoke with that in mind on Thursday.
“It’s a huge vote of confidence in me,” he said of the contract. “I know Donny and Kevyn and all the management staff had faith in me last year and gave me a huge opportunity to be successful. It was just up to me to take advantage of it.
“Now what’s done is done with that season. It’s a new season. Start all over again. It doesn’t really matter what I did in the past. It’s a new start, so I have to try to continue to get better each and every day, continue to grow.”
Video: TRAINING CAMP: Thompson
9. Forward Sean Malone did not participate in the first practice session due to an injury, Granato announced. Malone instead skated with development coach Mike Ansell.
Forwards Olivier Nadeau, Matej Pekarand Josh Bloom and defenseman Zach Berzolla also remained sidelined after missing time during the Prospects Challenge with injuries. Bloom and Berzolla are considered day to day.
10. Adams took a group of players golfing a few weeks ago, pairing with Alex Tuch against Dahlin and Casey Mittelstadt. Dahlin and Mittelstadt reportedly came out on top.
Who was the best of the bunch?
“[Mittelstadt] might be the best golfer in the league right now,” Dahlin said.
11. The Sabers do intend to name a captain prior to the start of the season, Adams announced. They started last season with two alternate captains in Okposo and Zemgus Girgensonswith Dahlin among the players who also wore an ‘A’ later on in the year.
“Honestly, where I get excited, it’s great to have a captain, assistant captain, but it’s also great to have leaders within your locker room that maybe don’t have an ‘A,'” Adams added. “I look at some of our younger players like (Mattias) Samuelsson or (Dylan) Cozens or Peyton Krebsthese guys have been captains growing up in the different teams.
“So, we’ll make that announcement, we’ll get that up before the regular season starts and have it in place. But also, we want to create an environment where the guys can come in and be themselves every day.”
12. Behold the vibes emanating from these two pictures.
Hockey is back.