It’s difficult to say which is harder to believe: all the stuff that happened to the Sabres in 2013 or the fact they’re ending the year feeling good about things.
This calendar year was as mind-blowing as they come for Buffalo’s hockey team. In order, there was:
• The lockout.
• The firing of coach Lindy Ruff.
• The trades of numerous veterans, including captain Jason Pominville.
• A 23rd-place finish.
• An organizational policy of “suffering.”
• Historically bad hockey.
• More booing.
• The trade of Thomas Vanek.
• The firing of General Manager Darcy Regier and coach Ron Rolston.
• The return of coach Ted Nolan and Pat LaFontaine as newly created president of hockey operations.
“A lot’s happened,” defenseman Tyler Myers said with a laugh and eye roll Monday.
The most shocking development was the appearance of three coaches behind the Buffalo bench. The Sabres had only one in the previous 16 years. The move from replay-watching Rolston to hockey-playing Nolan is why the Sabres headed toward tonight’s game in Winnipeg bubbling like champagne.
The players were drowning in video and skating on egg shells while Rolston was in charge. Nolan’s doctrine that good things come to those who work hard has reminded everyone that hockey is supposed to be fun.
“It’s refreshing,” center Tyler Ennis said after practice at Riverside Park. “You could see the change in our play. We’re competing. We’re in games. We’re playing well, and it can only get better. There’s lots of room for improvement, but we’re moving in the right direction.”
The Sabres are 5-2-2 in their last nine games, which qualifies as a torrid run during 2013. Buffalo has won just 32 of 87 games this year, going 32-45-10 with an 11-24-4 record this season.
Though they remain in last place in the NHL, they’re no longer acting like a bottom-dwelling club. They’re smiling and having a good time, which is a night-and-day departure from the brooding that went on when the primary goal was the No. 1 draft pick.
“Even with the position we’re in right now, it seems to be quite a positive room,” Myers said. “The direction we’re headed is one I think everyone is excited about.
“It’s a completely different feel in the room. I don’t think we’ve had this feeling in the room for quite some time now, not even just looking at this year but last year was a tough year as well. The atmosphere right now within the group, all the guys are pretty happy about it.”
So many changes happened at once, including the recall of veterans to replace unprepared teenagers, that it’s tough to say what had the biggest impact. The safe money is on Nolan.
“It’s almost like he’s been a breath of fresh air,” Myers said. “With as many changes that occurred, it almost gave us the feeling of a new beginning. We’ve really embraced that, and it’s helped out a lot.”
Nolan says the attitude on the team now and when he walked in the door Nov. 13 is “like two totally different people.”
“We’ve adjusted the feel-good part,” he said. “They’ve been putting their time and effort in. When you do that you feel good about yourselves. I think they feel good about themselves.
“We’ve got a long ways to go.”
The Sabres still have flaws, with an inability to score at the top of the list, but at least depression is no longer of them.
“You can still have a bright future and have the pain not be not as much,” Ennis said. “We’re moving in the right direction. We’re looking forward to a really good 2014.”