The Sabres aren’t talking about winning the offseason like Terry Pegula’s other team. They’re just simply going out and trying to do it. What they are discussing is winning when things actually matter.
It’s a little bizarre to hear, but it’s also downright refreshing to get some bravado out of this organization. And it’s justified. Coach Dan Bylsma did a “Five Questions” interview with NHL.com that was released Tuesday morning and made it pretty clear what his expectations are: “We should be above 95 points at the end of the season.”
Bylsma, of course, has won a Stanley Cup, posted four other 100-point seasons in Pittsburgh and also had a 72-point campaign in the 2013 lockout year that projected to 123 over a full season. He knows darn well what it takes to win.
The Sabres haven’t hit 90 points since 2011, their last playoff year. In fact, their two tank seasons of 2013-14 and ’14-15 totaled 120 losses and just 106 points combined – equal or fewer to three of Bylsma’s singular campaigns with the Pens. So this is heady stuff indeed when Kyle Okposo signs the biggest free agent contract in franchise history and immediately says one of the reasons he was drawn here was to win a Stanley Cup.
“It’s nice to say that playoffs are a definite goal and you actually mean it when you say it,” general manager Tim Murray said after development camp wrapped up Tuesday in HarborCenter. “Ninety-five points is a nice number. I haven’t looked at it that close yet but expectations are the playoffs and to be competitive.
“I’ve said all along we’re getting there. ... Our young kids that played on the team last year, we expect to take a step. We signed Kyle on July 1, which is a big step forward. We all believe there’s been lots of improvement here and there’s a lot of room for more. I don’t know where Dan came up with the 95 but I’ll take a look at that.”
Murray said he would still like to get two more defensemen, at least one to augment his NHL roster. And seemingly everyone in town is on pins and needles waiting for the Jimmy Vesey decision after Murray, Bylsma and scout Jerry Forton flew to Boston last week to meet with the Hobey Baker Award winner.
Everyone, that is, except the GM.
“I’ve talked about this literally less than anyone else in Buffalo,” Murray said. “I hear the guys on the radio, and people are mad. This is like top-end news. I think I’ve paid less attention to this than anybody. It is what it is. We made a trade. We traded one of our four third-round picks to be able to talk to him.
“We went down there. We spoke to him. I told him he doesn’t owe anybody anything. He went to school for four years and he became a free agent so now he’s got to make the right decision for him. There’s no timetable.”
The Sabres traded a third-round pick to Nashville for exclusive rights to Vesey, and those extend until Aug. 15. Only then can Vesey talk to other teams as an unrestricted free agent, and he’s consistently said that’s what he intends to do.
“I felt really good about the meeting,” Murray said. “I got great feedback about the meeting but this is his show right now. If he wants to come in here or he wants to reach out to us and have another meeting, then we’re there. But for me, this is in his court.”
In the NHL.com interview, Bylsma was even more blunt about what he said about Vesey coming to join Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, among others.
“We believe we’re going to be a team that continues to get better and a team that competes for the Stanley Cup as we go forward here,” Bylsma said. “We’ll be better next season. We’ll be better after that. And he’s got a chance to grow with our group of young players. He’s got a chance to grow with that group and be a great team. I think that’s the best opportunity for him in the league. We liked the meeting we had with him and we explained all that to him.”
Vesey would obviously be a great addition but the Sabres aren’t going to mope in the corner and rue their fate if they don’t get him (OK, they may spend a few minutes pounding tables if Vesey lands in Toronto, but that’s about all).
“I don’t sit at home and speculate about this,” Murray said. “He’s either going to sign here or he’s not. If he doesn’t, it’s going to be obviously not the decision we want and you guys will call me a dummy for trading away a third-round pick. I’ve got all the scenarios and I’m ready for it all but it’s up to him. It’s his time.”
Memo to Murray: Anybody that calls you a dummy for taking a roll of these dice is a dummy himself. It was a good move, whether it works or not.
As for this camp, Murray had to like what he saw in several places. Justin Bailey played like a man among boys. Brendan Guhle continues to develop. Will Borgen is another up-and-comer on the blueline. Cal Petersen looks like a terrific goalie prospect. And Alex Nylander looks like a future star. If there were really seven players – seven! – better than him at the draft here last month, it might go down as one of the super first rounds ever.
“I thought he was great,” Murray said. “If you ask me could I see him going back to junior, I guess there’s a scenario. If you ask me could I see him playing wing with Jack and Sam, I think there’s a scenario. If you ask me is he in the American League, there’s all kinds of scenarios and he can fit in any one of them.
“He’s just high-end talent, high-end skill. He’s going to be a real good NHL player. It’s a matter of time.”
The way Murray feels about Nylander is how the GM and his coach seem to feel about the team in general. It’s a matter of time. Just how much time? Feels like it’s getting closer.