Uncertainty can engulf a rebuilding team. Slow starts create doubt. Close losses ding confidence. Blowouts breed confusion.
Kyle Okposo suffered through all of those for six years with the New York Islanders. Finally, in 2014-15, the Isles started winning. Then they kept winning. When the All-Star Game arrived at midseason, New York was atop the Eastern Conference.
All the doubt, confusion and uncertainty were gone.
“When we were going through that, it would be like, ‘All right, let’s play well and maybe we’ll win the game,’” Okposo recalled. “When we started to become a really good hockey team, we thought we were going to win every game. It was just, ‘Let’s go out and win the game.’
“We legitimately thought we were going to win every game, and that’s a really important mindset to have for your team.”
In order for the Buffalo Sabres to make the leap from respectability to playoff contender, that confidence needs to permeate the dressing room. They need to know they can handle heavyweights such as Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Chicago. They need to believe it every time they skate on the ice.
“We’re starting to mature and become a team that knows what it takes to win games on a nightly basis,” captain Brian Gionta said. “It’s one thing to do it here and there, but to do it all the time and consistently, that’s what we need to strive for.”
As the Sabres enter the 2016-17 season, they’re continually reflecting on second half of last year. In the last 33 games, they went 16-10-7. In the final month, they went 8-3-2.
They started to believe. It’s time to find out if they’re true believers.
“Guys are starting to realize how hard it is, how much work you have to put in, and they’re taking it serious,” defenseman Josh Gorges said. “That’s only half the battle. The mindset and how we see things and how we prepare and how we get ready to play early on, that will be the next test for us.”
The Sabres are built around scoring. The skills of Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly, Sam Reinhart and Evander Kane are highlighted in coach Dan Bylsma’s system, which is based on speed and forechecking. Okposo, the marquee free-agent signing, is one of the NHL’s most prolific point producers. Tyler Ennis is healthy.
It should add up to Buffalo holding its own in the goal column.
“We’re fast, we make plays, we’ve got some skill and can go out there and do some special things with the puck,” Gorges said. “But when you ask what it’s like to play against us, we want teams to say, ‘They’re hard to play against. They’re in your face.’ We’re winning battles. We’re doing the little things.
"We do the job on the other side of the puck, we’ll give ourselves more opportunities."
During the 33-game run toward the end of last season, the Sabres averaged 2.76 goals per game. That would have ranked 12th in the NHL through the whole year. For Buffalo to crack to the top 10, it needs more from Matt Moulson (eight goals) and Zemgus Girgensons (seven). Continued growth is expected from big left wing Marcus Foligno and versatile center Johan Larsson, who combined with Gionta to form the Sabres’ shutdown line.
“There is no new system,” Gionta said of Bylsma’s second year on the bench. “There is no new style of play. Everybody knows it. Everybody knows what’s expected of them. That’s why coming out of camp we want to pick up where we left off last year.”
The Sabres are seeking balance on the back end in several categories:
- They traded for Dmitry Kulikov, giving them an even number of left-handers (Kulikov, Jake McCabe and Gorges) and righties (Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian and Cody Franson). As a result, zone exits and passing plays should be smoother.
- They want to spread the minutes more evenly among the three pairings. That means not overworking Ristolainen. He averaged 25:16 per game last season, which ranked 10th in the NHL.
- They feel they have toughness in Gorges and Kulikov, plus offensive instincts with Bogosian, McCabe and Franson.
“Kulikov is going to be a really good fit for us,” Franson said. “We’ve got a really good balance of young talent and some older, veteran guys. I think we’re all very well-rounded.”
Buffalo finished tied for 16th last season with 2.62 goals allowed per game. The best way to boost those numbers is for the defensemen to quickly get the pucks to forwards and let them exit the zone.
Robin Lehner did everything he could to get ready for the season. He lost weight, got quicker and sharpened his focus. He’s proved he can perform well in short bursts. Now he has to show he can be a workhorse.
Lehner had an impressive .924 save percentage last season, but it came in only 21 games because of a bum ankle. He needs to blow past his career high of 36 games.
“It’s a big year for me personally, but I think it’s another big year for our team,” he said. “It’s a season where we can start putting our mark in and do everything we can to try and make the playoffs and take our first step.”
Anders Nilsson had an impressive training camp and looked nothing like the journeyman who has middling career numbers (.900 save percentage, 3.09 goals-against average). Linus Ullmark, who played 20 games as a rookie in Buffalo, will be a phone call away as the starter in Rochester.
“The moves we made, how we finished last year add up to the excitement going in,” Gionta said. “You come in and you want to make playoffs. I think if we don’t this year, it’s a disappointment for us.”