The buzz over the summer was that the Buffalo Sabres were turning over some new, um, swords.
Backbiting is going to be out. Accountability is going to be in. There were some long talks, undoubtedly some harsh words exchanged at times.
There is now a roster dramatically turned over. Optimism is high with every new season, but Jack Eichel was in a particularly good mood Thursday in KeyBank Center.
Having additions such as Rasmus Dahlin, Jeff Skinner and Conor Sheary can brighten any outlook. But Eichel is clearly more at peace with management than at any time in his four years.
Skeptics might sneer and say they'd be at peace, too, with a $10 million annual contract kicking in. But people around the Sabres every day know that Eichel isn't in this just for the money. He's here to win, something he's done his whole life until he reached the NHL.
Eichel, remember, wasn't down with Dan Bylsma as coach. And he was far from alone in that regard. General Manager Tim Murray's abrasive style wore thin on players, too. In Phil Housley and Jason Botterill, the Sabres' coach/GM combo is clearly finding common ground with their players.
Housley, in fact, was on a Minnesota golf course this summer with Eichel and several of the players. Form relationships away from the rink and they can translate when everyone is on the ice.
"They’ve done a wonderful job. That’s one of the things I feel more confident now than I’ve ever been," Eichel said. "I think there’s that open line of communication. You feel like if you have something bothering you, you can get it off your chest, if you think that we need to change something around the room – whatever it may be.
"Phil’s been great for the last few weeks with us, having our input, seeing what we think. So I think it’s sort of a bit of a change for us. It’s a good one. That’s how it needs to be. You look at the teams that are successful year after year, it’s that open line, it’s that player-coach one relationship instead of battling with them and it's been a good start so far. Obviously you're not going to agree on everything but we're taking a lot of right steps."
Eichel said recently at HarborCenter that Housley, a Hall of Fame defenseman, was the most competitive person on the golf course that day in Minnesota. Players were in the Minneapolis area for their games in Da Beauty League, a burgeoning summer pro hockey showcase. A smiling Housley corroborated the story but said he couldn't collect any winnings on the course.
"I was playing the best," the coach said with a smile. "And the young guys got out free to go to their Beauty League game."
Turning serious, Housley said he immediately recognized how Eichel continues to grow as a leader on his team .
"I just feel a different vibe. I see a maturity in Jack and with our leadership group to be able to speak their hearts to each other, open up and feel vulnerable and not have all these defensive mechanisms come up," Housley said. "And that's part of the change. It's good to see Jack in a good spot."
The list of NHL teams without a captain dropped to seven for a few hours Thursday when Arizona (Oliver-Ekman Larsson) and Carolina (Justin Williams) named their leaders, but then Ottawa traded Erik Karlsson to San Jose to put the figure at eight. Eichel seems like the logical choice in Buffalo, albeit Housley reiterated the Sabres will likely wait through the preseason to decide how they will proceed.
It's widely known Botterill's exit meetings with players in April were blunt. For months, Housley has been promising a much tougher camp when the players take the ice Friday in HarborCenter. They're clearly ready for it. It's one reason so many players have been here for two weeks or even longer skating to prepare for camp.
"You want to create something in camp, you want create a culture, want to create a new identity as a group," Eichel said. "I think last year, we put that behind us at this point. There’s a lot of new people in here. I think there’s a new mindset, there’s a new standard and I think you’ll see a different group of guys with the way we conduct ourselves and the way we handle ourselves."
The new players, of course, are led by Dahlin. The 18-year-old Swede was a standout in the team's Prospects Challenge last weekend. This weekend, he takes the ice with bona fide NHL players for the first time. For once, all eyes won't even be on Eichel.
"We pick up a franchise defenseman, a really good kid and a really good player," Eichel said. "We're super lucky to have him. It was a huge point of this organization's offseason. With so much negativity around the group last year, and rightly so, selecting a player of his caliber and adding him to the group is something the city and fans needed ... to bring that excitement back again. I think it's great."
The Sabres are looking to put a 62-point season in their rear-view mirrors. They haven't been in the playoffs since 2011 and not many people pick them to get there this year. But Housley already says this team is different. They've spent all summer getting to this point.
"There's a lot of people in that locker room, a lot of players that needed to change, and it's good to really see them self-reflect," Housley said. "In that change, they held each other accountable. They had to get things out on the table. I give all them the credit. They've put them in a vulnerable position at times. They've had to listen to feedback, a lot of crticism they may not like to hear. If you want to make a difference and change the direction of this franchise, we have to change as people and it's good to see them be able to do that."