Alex Tuch was describing his summer adventure near Vancouver, from the 44-hour car ride with his fiancée, Kylie, to the two-month workout regimen, when suddenly and unprompted, he provided another window into what the Buffalo Sabres have built over the past year.
A colorful raconteur, Tuch beamed as he began to list how many Sabres arrived weeks before training camp begins and what they have planned. He detailed how he called Tage Thompson the day prior to congratulate the 24-year-old center on a summer that included the birth of his son, Brooks, and ended with him signing a $50 million contract.
“I was telling him how unbelievable of a 2022 he’s had, from the new baby boy there, Brooks, to the new contract,” Tuch told The Buffalo News, still smiling while sitting in the visitors’ dressing room at KeyBank Center on a morning in August. “But after I was done congratulating him, he was like, ‘I’m so excited to be back.’ And you could see the smile on his face and the excitement. Everyone's excited to get started.”
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The chat occurred only a few days before their teamwide fantasy football draft. In a separate text with the rest of the Sabres, the group made plans to play golf before training camp opens with the first practice Thursday. They’ve discussed the regular-season schedule, possible team dinners and when they can attend a Bills game.
In Buffalo, Tuch has a group that shares his passion and drive to lift the Sabres to new heights. At the time of the trade that sent former captain and franchise cornerstone Jack Eichel to Vegas, Tuch was best known in Buffalo for his childhood fandom of the Sabres and quickly endeared himself to hockey fans in Western New York by making it clear he’s one of them.
He grew up in Baldwinsville, a suburb of Syracuse, and lived near former Sabres forward Tim Connolly, an experience that fueled Tuch’s love for a franchise that was a perennial contender during his formative years.
Tuch is now a prominent figure in General Manager Kevyn Adams’ plan to build a winner in Buffalo. Tuch, a 26-year-old right wing, used his first normal, healthy summer in years to prepare himself for his role as a fixture in the Sabres’ top six. A skilled, energizing power forward, he doesn’t have individual accolades in mind. His focus is to help everyone else in the club’s dressing room, and the “passionate people” in Buffalo, experience success.
“We’re super excited to play in front of these fans next year and for years to come and to continue to grow as a team,” he said. “We’re proud of what we did the final few months of last season, but we have higher expectations for ourselves. And we’re not even close to being done growing as a group. This is only the beginning. I’m really happy to see the excitement, but I hope that excitement grows throughout the city of Buffalo.”
‘Scratching the surface’
With their new home under construction in Western New York, Alex and Kylie spent the bulk of their offseason near her family in Surrey, B.C. Troubled by horror stories of dogs traveling in the cargo hold of a commercial flight, they decided to drive across North America so their golden retriever, Teddy, could come along.
“He’s our only child right now, so he’s spoiled,” Tuch said with a laugh.
Following the exhaustive travel, Tuch got to work. He trained at Delta Hockey Academy south of Vancouver with fellow NHLers, including Montreal Canadiens winger Brendan Gallagher.
Last offseason, Tuch was healing from a shoulder surgery that required approximately six months of recovery. The injury limited his training and kept Tuch out of the Sabres’ lineup for seven weeks following the seismic November trade. In previous summers, he had long playoff runs with the Vegas Golden Knights, including a trip to the Stanley Cup final in 2018.
Tuch used his time at Delta this summer to continue to build strength in his shoulder. He also was able to focus intently on conditioning to prepare to play an 82-game season. Despite the difficult summer in 2021, Tuch felt "healthy enough to play" when on the ice with the Sabres, but he wanted to accomplish more now that he's further away from surgery.
At Delta, Tuch had access to physical therapists and chiropractors, a setup that aided recovery. Following a 42-hour drive home in July – the itinerary included three weddings along the way – Tuch returned to Buffalo to begin rigorous on-ice workouts at LECOM Harborcenter. Slowly, more teammates arrived to join him.
“It was a busy summer, but I was able to put in some really good work, several months of it, actually,” he said. “And that’s one of the things I haven’t been able to do in the past.”
Tuch now knows the role he needs to be ready to fill in Buffalo. In Vegas, Tuch was an invaluable difference-maker who bounced between the first, second and third lines. Across four regular seasons in Vegas, he totaled 61 goals and 139 points while averaging 15:56 of ice time. In 66 playoff games, he added 19 goals and 33 points. His breakout during the Golden Knights’ expansion 2017-18 season earned him a seven-year contract extension.
The Sabres had a different plan for Tuch when he was acquired along with Peyton Krebs and two draft picks. Don Granato had wanted to coach Tuch since the latter was 16 years old at the USA Hockey National Team Development Camp. In Buffalo, Granato gave Tuch the first-line opportunity and stability he didn’t have in Vegas. Tuch also saw consistent time on the power play and penalty kill.
“I’m trying to make certain he grows because there’s still potential that’s untapped in him that I’ve witnessed,” Granato said during a recent phone interview. “I was coaching the other team at the U.S. program, but I watched him every day there. I watched him close and his development close.
“The wealth of knowledge and experience he’s gained in the NHL, combined with his athleticism and the fact he’s just scratching the surface as a player, is really exciting. Now, it’s about getting him to the next level. He’s so excited about the present moment and he’s so engaged in the present moment. I’m trying to keep him in that moment, yet, at the same time, get him to realize there’s more to you and your game, another level that you need to focus on striving to get to.”
Waiting to play was the most difficult part of the trade, Tuch said. He always wanted to be in the room and on the ice with his teammates. In early December, Tuch went on his first road trip with the Sabres, but his debut didn’t arrive until Dec. 29. Placed on a line with Thompson and Jeff Skinner, Tuch injected skill into the lineup. Immediately, he was a catalyst on the ice.
During his 50 games in the lineup, Tuch recorded 12 goals and 38 points while averaging a career-high 18:25 time on ice, which ranked first among all forwards during that span. His goals-above replacement, a metric by Evolving-Hockey.com that measures a player’s impact in all situations, was second behind Thompson. He helped the Sabres play at a 103-point pace over the final two months of the season, a run that began with him scoring an empty-net goal to clinch a win over Vegas in Eichel's return to Buffalo.
“I was honestly just on cloud nine when I came in and they gave me the responsibility that I hadn’t had in the past on the ice, then I thought I had an OK season in my eyes,” he said. “I want to take steps this year. I want to continue to improve, and I want to continue to prove myself and prove to myself that I can be a top-line guy, that I can be a difference-maker day in and day out. That’s my ultimate goal.
“It’s not about, ‘Oh, let me score 30 goals or have 70 points this year.’ It’s coming in and helping this team in whatever way possible to win the game.”
Tuch paused to consider the question – what he learned about himself on and off the ice over the past year – before delivering a thoughtful, insightful response. Off the ice, he reminds himself to “take a deep breath and really think through situations,” whether it be the logistics of a move or his relationships away from hockey.
On the ice, where he has a rare combination of speed, skill, strength and net-front savviness, Tuch saw what he can accomplish when given the opportunity.
“I am still learning about myself every single day on the ice and doing video with the coaches,” he said. “And then, to see that, ‘Hey, I can produce at a higher level than I have in my career in the past' was a little bit of an eye-opener and it was positive. It gave me a little bit of confidence going into this season. It was obviously nice, but I want to continue to push to be better on and off the ice.”
Granato has made it one of his many missions on the job to push Tuch to be the elite NHL player the Sabres’ coach envisioned when, a decade ago, he saw the lanky kid from Baldwinsville starring alongside Eichel and Detroit Red Wings captain Dylan Larkin. To help Tuch, Granato has used video to show clips of moments when Tuch could have scored or set up a goal.
Under Granato, a difficult game doesn’t immediately come with a decreased role. Like Thompson, and many others on the roster, Tuch has thrived with ice time and trust from the coaching staff.
Tuch spent most of the season on the first line and top power play, ranking third on the Sabres in points and fourth in individual shot quality in all situations, according to Evolving-Hockey. It wasn’t until late in the season that Granato experimented with Tuch playing away from Thompson and Skinner at 5-on-5.
“We wanted him to feel security, stability and the confidence that we had in him,” Granato said. “You don’t have to prove to us to stay in a particular role in the lineup. We know you’re capable, but we want you to focus on how to be better. How can you use that experience you have, that skill development that’s advanced, to make even more of an impact?”
Tuch is one of a “roomful of leaders” on the Sabres, Granato said. While positive change occurred in the dressing room prior to Tuch’s arrival through the leadership of Kyle Okposo and Zemgus Girgensons, Tuch's words and actions gave fans another reason to be encouraged about the direction of the club.
His introductory press conference showed his giddiness to follow in the footsteps of franchises greats and he disclosed his wish for the famous (or, depending on who you ask, infamous), goathead jerseys to return, which will happen this season when the Sabres wear the old logo and color scheme for 12 games.
“I can’t be more excited to be able to put that jersey on,” he said shortly after the team announced the logo’s return. “I was excited to put the Sabres jersey we have now on. I might be shaking putting on this jersey with a goathead. Honestly, that’s when it’s going to be surreal.”
When Tuch arrived in Buffalo for the first time, he asked Adams if he could meet as many employees in the team’s offices as possible. Tuch made himself available for every media interview request and public appearance. He visited Roswell Comprehensive Cancer Center and the 11-day Power Play, an annual marathon hockey game that raises funds for cancer research in Western New York. In Vegas, Tuch learned from goalie Marc-Andre Fleury that it’s important to connect to everyone in the community and within the organization.
Tuch plans to grow his connection to Buffalo. His nonprofit, AT9 Foundation, which supports research to end children’s cancer and helps those with special needs, has purchased 20 tickets for 10 different Sabres game this season. The tickets will be distributed to community organizations that support the pillars of his foundation, and he's planning more initiatives.
And on the the ice in KeyBank Center, the building where he once attended games with his father, Tuch has so much more he plans to accomplish.
“We have a lot of guys in that locker room with potential that hasn’t even been touched yet and isn’t even close to being touched,” he said. “I’m really excited about that. I’m really excited to see what guys step up and really start taking over this team and really start making huge steps in their development.”