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Sabres GM Kevyn Adams: Guidance from NHL led to decision to play Devils

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Buffalo Sabres practice

Steve Smith, assistant coach, pointing, rounds up the team at center ice during Buffalo Sabres practice at KeyBank Center on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021.

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As General Manager Kevyn Adams fielded questions from the media via video conference call Tuesday, 15 players and three goalies skated on the KeyBank Center ice for the Buffalo Sabres’ first practice following a weeklong pause.

The nine Sabres on the National Hockey League’s Covid protocol list weren’t present: Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Mittelstadt, Curtis Lazar, Dylan Cozens, Tobias Rieder, Taylor Hall, Jake McCabe, Rasmus Ristolainen and Brandon Montour.

Neither was coach Ralph Krueger, who is symptomatic after testing positive for Covid-19 last Thursday. The practice was run by assistant coach Steve Smith, who used patchwork lines and pairings for the Sabres’ first on-ice session in eight days. The return to work occurred one day after Dahlin was added to the protocol list and Buffalo’s two games scheduled for this week were postponed.

However, Tuesday the Sabres ran point-of-contact testing, which yields results within minutes, and Adams revealed the team may have been cleared to practice as early as Monday night. Buffalo did not add a player to the protocol list Tuesday.

"The doctors ultimately gave me the comfort (to resume practices) that based on the science and based on the contact tracing and exactly when positive cases had come out or close-contact cases had come out, that they were comfortable,” said Adams, who added that some players and staff are symptomatic. ”The original guidance was that we potentially could have practiced last night even, but we felt like let's give this one more day to just be even that much more err on the side of precaution.”

During a 25-minute news conference, Adams fielded questions about the challenge of completing this 56-game season – Buffalo has a 4-4-2 record in 10 games played – amid the pandemic and the circumstances that led to the Sabres’ temporary shutdown last Tuesday, specifically the events surrounding the two-game series against the New Jersey Devils on Jan. 30-31.

Rather than expressing frustration, Adams insisted the NHL is prioritizing the safety of players, coaches and staff. He also delivered an opening statement in which he lauded the Sabres’ efforts to avoid the spread of Covid-19.

Adams then provided a clearer timeline regarding his communication with league officials. Prior to the first game against New Jersey, Adams spoke with NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly about the Devils adding Travis Zajac to the Covid protocol list on Jan. 29.

“I did have a conversation on Saturday before the game with Bill Daly and asked him questions around exactly where the situation was with New Jersey and where we were at and based on the information that he was given, the games were decided to be played – or the game on Saturday was decided to be played,” said Adams.

However, prior to puck drop Sunday, the Devils added winger Kyle Palmieri to the Covid protocol list after he played against the Sabres the previous day. TSN’s Bob McKenzie was first to report that Palmieri entering the protocols led Sabres players to express concern to the NHL Players’ Association. Adams, though, said he was unaware of any players expressing concerns to his hockey operations department or coaching staff.

“Not that I know of,” said Adams when asked if players expressed concern. “I was not aware, our coaches were not aware. I don’t believe that anyone knew going into the game Sunday that there was any sort of change. Obviously, going into the games it was known that a player on their team either had, you know, was in the Covid protocol. So, you know, there obviously is questions and that’s why I had the call Saturday, just to ask some questions and make sure I check in. But no, none of that was brought up on Sunday.”

The Devils’ season was paused Feb. 1, as their number of players on the Covid protocol list has since grown to 19. The Sabres were put on pause when Hall and Ristolainen were added to the list Feb. 2. Twenty-four players who competed in the two games were added to the Covid protocol list.

The Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche also were temporarily shut down last week, as the NHL began to investigate if cases on those four teams were the result of in-game transmission.

The Sabres have added at least one player to the list in six of the past seven days. Fact-finding isn’t complete, though. The NHL is conducting extensive contact tracing to determine if transmission occurred during those two games in Buffalo. In addition to enhanced in-arena protocols, the league has increased the use of rapid testing to mitigate the risk of playing a game where one or both teams had a player enter the protocols before puck drop.

“I think, as I said before, there’s learning going on,” said Adams. “Our players have been incredibly disciplined. We’ve come into a situation where potentially it was in the New Jersey locker room and now we are where we are. There’s certainly the ability to connect the dots, but I don’t want to in any way (come off as) saying it’s happening on the ice. We have to let time play out. We have to let the contact tracing play out. We have to let the doctors be the experts and then we’ll know. As soon as that information is shared, I’m sure it will come back to the organization.”

The Sabres practiced Tuesday with Jack Eichel, Victor Olofsson, Tage Thompson, Eric Staal, Sam Reinhart, Riley Sheahan, Jeff Skinner, Cody Eakin, Kyle Okposo, Colin Miller, Henri Jokiharju, Matt Irwin, Brandon Davidson, Will Borgen, C.J. Smith, Carter Hutton, Linus Ullmark and Jonas Johansson. Reinforcements likely will arrive from Rochester later in the week unless players currently in protocol are cleared to rejoin the Sabres.

It's unclear who will coach the Sabres for their next scheduled game Monday against the New York Islanders in Buffalo. Krueger must serve a mandatory minimum 10-day quarantine following his positive test. The length of his absence will be determined by test results and the existence of symptoms. The Sabres don’t plan to name an interim replacement until a decision is made on Krueger’s availability.

It appears unlikely that assistant coach Don Granato will be asked to serve in that role. Granato, 53, is considered high-risk given that he endured a near-death experience in November 2019 in which he was placed on a ventilator amid a battle with pneumonia and an infection in his blood. It’s possible the Sabres could shift Granato to an eye-in-the-sky role in which he can still provide guidance to the forwards and power-play units. His spot on the bench could potentially be taken by director of player development Matt Ellis.

“I've had some just real honest conversations with Donnie,” said Adams. “I know that Ralph has as well, and we're going to kind of see how this plays out over the next few days. But he's an incredibly important part of our staff. … We'll make those calls as we get closer, but ultimately, it'll be us supporting Donnie to what he feels the most comfortable with based on what he's been through in the past."

Adams has received no indication that the Sabres may be forced to play fewer than 56 games as speculation mounts that the NHL will use points percentage to determine final standings. Prior to the postponements Monday, Buffalo was scheduled to play 46 games in 86 days, capped by the regular-season finale in Pittsburgh on May 8. The challenge ahead will increase in difficulty if Krueger and others aren’t available when play resumes.

“I’m talking to him multiple times every day,” Adams said of Krueger. “I feel very comfortable that he’s being looked after from our doctors and trainers. … As we get into next week, we certainly hope that Ralph is asymptomatic and comes out of the protocols and he’s ready to go when we play our next game.”

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News Sports Reporter

I've covered the Sabres and National Hockey League for The Buffalo News since November 2018. My previous work included coverage of the Pittsburgh Pirates and University of Pittsburgh athletics for DKPittsburghSports.com.

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