Dan Bylsma smiled Friday morning while recalling to his first encounter with a Buffalo fan. He was standing on the balcony at First Niagara Center when a construction worker at the HarborCenter began screaming about the Sabres from across the street, giving the coach a little taste of Buffalo.
“Day One,” Bylsma said.
He quickly figured out Buffalo fans were tortured souls who were unafraid to voice their opinions. He bumped into enough while making his way around the community. Lately, he could sense their enthusiasm running parallel with the Sabres’ record, gaining momentum in the second half of the season.
It has been so long since the Sabres were worth watching that you forget the euphoria that sweeps through town in a playoff run. This marks the fifth straight year the Sabres are missing the playoffs. They haven’t won a postseason series since 2006-07, the second of two straight trips to the conference finals.
“I don’t know what it will be like when we put together a winning season and head into the playoffs,” Bylsma said. “I can only imagine what their response would be. … They’re starving for success. They’re starving for a win. They’re starving for a winner. I’m looking forward to a time when we can give it to them.”
First Niagara Center had been dreary in recent years because teams had been dreadful. Long gone were the days in which visiting teams were down 1-0 before getting off the bus. Fans could practically hear players talking on the bench. It became easy for the opposition to play before a dispirited, distracted and quiet crowd.
Last week, in accordance with the league, NHL teams sent out surveys to season-ticket holders asking if they were satisfied with their game experience. “Other than on-ice performance …” one question began. There were questions about the team going “in the right direction” or “the wrong direction.”
Funny, there wasn’t one direct question about winning.
You want to improve the game experience? You want Sabres fans to disregard sticky floors and smelly bathrooms? You want the main attraction, the reason for escalating ticket prices, to be the product on the ice and not Sabretooth beating Celery and Bleu Cheese in a race between periods?
Win more games.
I’ve never heard anyone say after a lopsided loss that they were given bang for their buck because the Jumbotron operator was at the top of his game or because they almost caught a T-shirt in the stands. Nothing sends people home happy than winning, a problem that persisted this season until it was too late.
The Sabres have the 23rd-best team in the league after a 4-1 loss to the Blue Jackets on Fan Appreciation Night. Buffalo has a 19-14-7 record since losing six straight games going into the midpoint of the season. They’re 5-2-1 over the last eight games and 10-6-4 over their last 20, signs of better days ahead.
“At some point, you have to expect yourself to be in the playoffs every year,” Jack Eichel said. “You have to expect yourself to be in the hunt. That’s what we wanted to do this year. Obviously, we came up short. We want to be a team that year in and year out, we have a chance to do something special.”
Year in and year out, fans longed for Buffalo to do something mediocre.
The Sabres are considerably better and more entertaining than they were in recent years, but let’s not use the basement as a benchmark. They were a waste of time and money, the polar opposite of what fans should accept, for two years before finally turning things around over the past 40 games.
Tim Murray upgraded the roster, adding a key piece in leader Ryan O’Reilly. Rookies such as Eichel and Sam Reinhart, who connected for a power-play goal Friday, have worked through growing pains and taken ownership in their team. The Sabres are more familiar with each other and their coach.
“We had a longer way to go than I thought we did,” Bylsma said. “The mentality of our players to win hockey games also had farther to come from than I thought.”
Bylsma usually chooses his words carefully, and he was particularly selective Friday. His message was obvious. The losing culture that began before he arrived caused more damage than he expected. He started from scratch and changed attitudes of players who had grown accustomed to losing or didn’t understand winning.
Culture changes take time. Ask the Bills. Bylsma spent months figuring which buttons to push with his players and just as long for them to understand him. He stressed the importance of detail, repeatedly pounding home his message until it became instinctive. It’s a continuous work in progress, but there has been progress.
“I hate to say it, but there were guys like me who had been around, we had habits that we developed that were not good,” Marcus Foligno said. “We had to get rid of them. It took a while, but it made us better players and a better team. You can already see the way Dan wants this team to be. We want to be winners, but you have to buy in.”
The next step is carrying mild success, particularly in March and April, into next season and building. Any team can jump seven spots from the bottom to 23rd in one season, but it’s harder to improve from 23rd to 16th.
Bylsma learned after winning the Stanley Cup as a rookie coach in Pittsburgh that one season doesn’t always carry to the next. Each season is a separate entity. It will get much tougher to make major strides.
Top teams still don’t see Buffalo as a threat. The Sabres faced their share of backup goalies, including the one Friday. Buffalo still need upgrades in talent, still lack depth on defense, still have a recruiting problem, still have much work ahead.
At least there’s a foundation for hope.
“Yes, we’ve improved,” Bylsma said. “Our habits have improved. Our defense has improved, also our mentality. We think we can win. Regardless of where you’re team finishes, you always start at the beginning of the year. You have to build again in how you play and what you do. The starting point, I expect to be much different.”