The three-game West Coast road trip began with a performance that could have shaken the Buffalo Sabres. They blew a two-goal lead and appeared to be physically worn down by the Anaheim Ducks last Wednesday in Honda Center.
There was no panic in the Sabres' dressing room afterward, though. They didn't seem flustered during a difficult defensive performance the following night in Los Angeles, either. Instead, General Manager Jason Botterill noticed a calmness to the Sabres' play.
That trend continued Saturday in San Jose, when Buffalo pulled off a 4-3 win to improve to 7-1-1 under coach Ralph Krueger. The Sabres might not have responded as well last season. Their core players had one fewer season of experience and they have since added two veterans with Stanley Cup final experience: Marcus Johansson and Colin Miller.
Additionally, assistant coaches Mike Bales, Steve Smith, Don Granato and Chris Taylor, who is on the staff in an interim capacity, also have made an impact in their individual disciplines. However, Botterill explained to reporters Tuesday that Krueger's "clear message" has made a significant difference.
"It’s been a positive start so far," Botterill said. "Ralph has come with a clear message for what he’s looking for from our players. I think our players have been very open to receiving that message. They’ve certainly put the time in during the summer. I think the things that we challenged them on last spring, they’ve taken to heart."
The Sabres enter their game Tuesday against San Jose with the National Hockey League's best goal differential (plus-13) and fourth-best power play (31.4 percent). They had scored the first goal in eight of nine games and received at least one point from 18 of the 19 different skaters to appear in a game this season.
The early season milestones are significant. A win against the Sharks would give the Sabres a 5-0 record at home, their best start since winning their first five at Memorial Auditorium in 1984-85. Buffalo's 15 points were also tied with Colorado and Edmonton for the most in the NHL.
The Sabres had received at least one goal from 12 different players and all four lines contributed to the hot start. They beat the Kings and Sharks on the road, despite the top line not contributing a point in either game.
Players who struggled under Phil Housley have flourished in Krueger's system, most notably Vladimir Sobotka and Marco Scandella. The latter has been one of the Sabres' most consistent defensemen. Top players haven't experienced a dip in production, either.
"They’ve been engaged with him since day one," Botterill said of Krueger. "You look at, whether it’s our veteran players with our goaltender Carter Hutton, or a player like Marcus Johansson coming into our group, or our young players such as Dahlin or Mittelstadt, they’re engaging with our coaching staff. It’s the start of the season. Although our record is our record, there are mistakes all over the place out there. The fact we had that dialogue, had that communication to rectify those, I think is good and I think the focus right now continues to be, ‘Hey, how are we getting better each day as a team?’ "
Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner are two players who have shown remarkable improvement defensively. Though Hutton entered Tuesday with a league-best .953 save percentage, the Sabres' defense deserves credit for the team having allowed only 21 goals through nine games.
Krueger implemented a defensive-zone structure that allows at least some margin for error. The Sabres struggled playing man-to-man last season, failing to prevent high-danger scoring chances around their own net. In addition to the message, players have been receptive to change, Botterill said.
The message isn't always positive. Krueger isn't afraid to criticize his players, yet he does so in a way that doesn't impact their confidence. That method seems to have helped the Sabres during adverse situations.
"I think Ralph will tell you too that he brings a positive attitude and excitement," Botterill added. "You can see he certainly loves his job right now and loves being back behind the bench, but he’s also very truthful with these guys. When things aren’t going the right way or when he sees something in practice or the game that’s not being done to our standards, he’s going to correct it. The way he’s communicated with the players has gone over very well with the players and it’s been a good relationship there. As a whole, yeah, it’s been a positive start."
There have also been significant personnel changes from last season. Jason Pominville and Alexander Nylander are gone, and the Sabres added Johansson, Miller, Jimmy Vesey, Henri Jokiharju and Victor Olofsson, who scored 30 goals in Rochester last season.
The Sabres won 10 games in a row last November, only to suffer a second-half collapse that resulted in a 27th-place finish. That experience still resonates with the players. They have downplayed their success following wins this season while acknowledging how much work lies ahead.
Players such as Eichel and Sam Reinhart learned how challenging games become when you're fighting for a playoff spot in February. Dahlin and Mittelstadt learned how to better prepare for the physical grind of a season. Plus, the Sabres added veterans to the dressing room who can impart wisdom on a young roster.
Botterill wants to see how his players respond to adversity. That response, he said, will determine whether this success can be sustained. He is encouraged by what he's seen through the first few weeks of the season.
"Over the course of 82 games you’re going to have adversity, 100 percent, and I think our young players are certainly more prepared for it because of what they’ve gone through,." Botterill said. "I think our veteran players who have been around four or five years saw last year certainly what equates to success but if you lose details in your game how that success can go away. The players we tried to bring in have really been a calming influence so far. I think the players that have been through a playoff series and have had success have a calmness to them and they’ve certainly shown that."
Defenseman Zach Bogosian, who suffered a setback in his recovery from hip surgery, has resumed skating, Botterill told reporters. Bogosian remains out "indefinitely," according to an injury report released by the team Tuesday, but the progress report from Botterill is significant.
While Bogosian took a step forward, the Sabres will be cautious with his recovery.
"Very excited for where Zach is," Botterill said. "Going over the type of procedure he had, it was a serious procedure, and Zach is a powerful individual, so you want him to come back [at full strength]. It’s difficult for him right now because he wants to be back, especially once you get into games. As a player, the energy, you want to get back out there. You want to be part of the group, but it’s also imperative for him for not only us this year but his career long-term that we get this right."