June 22, 2024

BUFFALO, NY — The Buffalo Sabres didn’t rebuild from scratch.

Don’t let the franchise’s headline-generating class of rising young stars convince otherwise.

Buffalo was reforged through strategy, embracing fundamentals and a return to the basic principle of walk before you run — or more aptly, lose (copiously) before you can win.

Yet, there was no scorched-Earth scenario. Rather, it was a pack of Sabres’ veterans — namely Kyle Okposo, Zemgus Girgensons, Jeff Skinner and Craig Anderson — quietly nurturing the club’s foundation with seeds waiting to bloom.

“Our veterans have gotten that room to the point where today, right now, the players know they should go out each night and know they’re capable of winning. It’s much different than before,” head coach Don Granato told ESPN in September. “We’ve grown from where, two years ago, we drafted Owen Power [No. 1 overall], which means we were not in a good position in the standings. The focus then was on getting our things in order. We had to get our culture in order. We had to learn to work, we had to learn to compete. We had to learn to do it every day. And then we could start talking about winning.”

That conversation has reached fever pitch, not just in Buffalo but around the NHL. The Sabres are no Atlantic Division afterthought. Despite a tough start with two losses to begin the season, they’re expected to be contenders.

That shift took patience, perseverance and a resounding all-in commitment from Buffalo, to where now reaching its full potential should include slaying a few inner demons. Chief among those is the organization’s 12-year playoff drought, longest among any team in the four major pro sports leagues. Put mildly, it has been a rocky stretch.

Since the Sabres’ most recent postseason appearance in 2010-11, they’ve finished last in the Atlantic Division five times, twice ended up 31st overall in the league (in back-to-back seasons no less, in 2013-14 to 2014-15), churned through seven different coaches, and drafted — before trading away — two top-tier talents in Sam Reinhart (picked second overall in 2014) and Jack Eichel (second overall in 2015).

It has been a long road bringing these Sabres back to contention. And Buffalo is aware of the stakes — externally, but internally, too. And if anyone forgets, Okposo will be there with a reminder. It’s what the Sabres’ captain has done since Buffalo dedicated to a long-haul retooling.

He won’t stop until they finally get it right.

“We know what’s expected; we believe that we’re a good team,” Okposo said. “And we know the standard. That’s something that hadn’t been here. We were trying to find an identity for a long time and couldn’t. And then we basically stripped it down and started something different. And we were building that identity for about two years. And now that phase of our organization and our team is over, and now it’s time to go be a good team. And that’s what it feels like.”

BUFFALO IS BANKING on long-term prosperity from here. So, before the Sabres’ season started, GM Kevyn Adams invested long term in players to make it happen.

First up was Rasmus Dahlin, and an eight-year, $88 million contract that will carry the 23-year-old through a critical bulk of his career. The Sabres drafted Dahlin first overall in 2018, and their blueliner produced a breakout campaign in 2022-23 with 15 goals and 73 points in 78 games to establish himself as one of the league’s finest emerging talents on defense.

After Dahlin, it was Power signing a seven-year, $58.45 million pact. The defenseman was selected first overall by Buffalo in 2021 and, after some early growing pains, appears ready to handle an increasingly heavy workload on the Sabres’ back end.

Simply having a pair of recent No. 1 picks playing prominent roles in the lineup would be an embarrassment of riches for most teams. Buffalo’s enviable list of 20-something talents in the prime of their careers hardly stops with them:

  • There’s Mattias Samuelsson (23), drafted 32nd overall in 2018 and proving to be a reliable stay-at-home defender in his own right. He agreed on a seven-year, $30 million deal in 2022.

  • Dylan Cozens — selected seventh overall in 2019 — is fresh off a 31-goal season that rightly drew attention to his solid two-way game. The 22-year-old signed a seven-year, $49.7 million extension in February.

  • Jack Quinn — nabbed eighth overall in 2020 — generated excitement in his first full NHL season last year, but the 22-year-old will miss the start of this one recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon.

  • And then of course there’s Tage Thompson. It wasn’t Buffalo that drafted him in the first round — St. Louis did that at 26th overall in 2016 — but the Sabres brought Thompson in as part of the Ryan O’Reilly trade with the Blues in 2018. Thompson, 25, graduated from wing to center two seasons ago under Granato’s suggestion and eventually thrived, collecting 47 goals and 94 points in 78 games last season to put the league on notice about its dynamic new scoring threat. And that was before Thompson inked his own seven-year, $50 million extension in 2022 to stick with the Sabres.

Those skaters are integral pieces of the Sabres’ core. Each one repeats the same refrain, about Buffalo being the only place for them.

It’s easy to say that now and mean it. But building Buffalo into a desirable landing spot didn’t come out of nowhere — or without critical groundwork laid by the likes of Okposo.

Before that crew of young standouts came on the scene, it was Okposo — as an unrestricted free agent in 2016 — pledging his own commitment to the team with a seven-year, $42 million agreement.

That kicked off a roller-coaster tenure for Okposo in Buffalo. He produced a set of strong seasons out of the gate, but declining play thereafter had fans calling for a buyout of his contract. Okposo bounced back in 2021-22 and was named Buffalo’s captain before the following season. Even that didn’t protect Okposo last summer from a fraught contract negotiation to stay in the fold, but he eventually settled on a one-year, $2.5 million deal.

Okposo might be in the twilight of his career now, but the 35-year-old echoes the same sentiment about Buffalo as teammates a decade his junior.

“There was nowhere else I wanted to play,” he said. “And I think that the organization recognized that, and I know that the organization wanted me back as well. So, we figured it out. And I never really considered retiring. I tried to work as diligently as I could this summer so I could get back to being the player that I wanted to be, and I know that nobody defeats Father Time, but I was just wanted to be as prepared as I could. So, I’m really looking forward to my game personally this year.”

It has been some time since Okposo felt worthy of focusing on his achievements. The past two seasons especially had been devoted to the Sabres’ bigger picture and creating traditions for the next generation to carry on.

In many ways, he believes that work has been accomplished.

“Something I’ve put at the forefront is myself, in my game, and how I feel,” he said. “It’s something I hadn’t done in the past because I’ve been worried about a lot of other things. And the mental space that’s freed up in my brain because I’m not worried about the culture really anymore at all is awesome and it’s huge, so I’m really looking forward to a good year.”

Okposo’s contributions haven’t gone unnoticed, or unappreciated, by the ones now benefiting from Buffalo’s renaissance. The team’s captain is clearly beloved.

“He’s the best leader for sure,” Cozens said. “He’s so smart, he’s so well spoken and he’s just a true leader. He leads by example. He always knows what to say about everything. We’re super grateful to have him because he’s so great.”

“Kyle’s got the respect of everybody around here and for good reason,” Granato added. “He comes to the rink and brings a lot of joy, pure love of the game, but he also works, and he works hard. And beyond that he’s competitive. So not only does he work, but he also works to win. The way he carries himself through life and then onto the ice, that’s what we want in our culture; that’s our culture driver.”

There’s no one better than Okposo to ask, then: What is Buffalo’s culture now? How can something so seemingly arbitrary even be defined?

“The culture that we created is one of respect,” he said. “That’s first and foremost from an identity piece. And then that translates into work ethic. There’s a difference between the elite teams and how they prepare and take care of themselves and work versus the teams that are in the mushy middle and on the bottom. There are teams on the bottom that are going through a rebuild that have that work ethic, but to get into the upper echelon, you need a very high work ethic, and that’s something that I think is a big part of our group.”

Another key element in getting to the top: Consistency. Okposo stresses its importance regularly to the Sabres’ through his own conduct, while still leaving the door open for collaboration with a new generation of players.

“I’m going to be that guy to make sure everybody knows the path,” he said. “There was going to be no way that [those young guys] came in and said, ‘Oh, I wonder if we’re going to do this today.’ It’s like, ‘Nope, this is what we’re doing. And this is the right thing to do.’ But if there was something that somebody else wanted to do, or [they had] an idea, they know that it goes back to that respect piece where I will respect their opinion and take it into consideration and then we’ll make a decision as a group. So that’s something that I try to do as a leader.”

CULTURE ISN’T BORN from nothing. Neither is belief.

It’s fitting then that, once Buffalo got its identity straightened out, belief began to follow. But that didn’t come easily for the Sabres, either. There have been heartbreaking outcomes in the drawn-out retooling process, the worst of which might have been falling just one point short of a postseason berth in 2022-23 after an impassioned run to end the regular season.

“In the past, you’d go in and think you believe. Everyone wants to believe that they can make playoffs and get a push,” Thompson said. “But there’s a lot of uncertainty throughout the season, a lot of ups and downs, and it’s all about how you handle those. Last season showed us we’re capable of going through that adversity. It taught us a lot. When that adversity happens this season, I think we’ll be a little better prepared for it. And I think that’s what gives us that hindsight that we know that we’re a playoff team, and I think anything short of that now is a letdown.”

Similar messaging permeated from the height of the organization on down. It had to, particularly in preparation for the season at hand. Buffalo undeniably turned heads with its strong second half, going 21-14-4 from mid-January on to nearly snag the final Eastern Conference wild-card spot. It was a surprising photo finish at the time. Comparable shock value is long gone.

If anything, that belief Buffalo has in itself is permeating elsewhere. At the NHL Player Tour in Las Vegas last month, a handful of players skating for the Sabres’ rivals told ESPN outright they were most excited to see what Buffalo could do this year. The hype is real — and it’s strongest of all in the Sabres’ dressing room.

“My expectations are to win, and we’ve gotten to where when I say that I think our players believe it,” Granato said. “There’s another level of confidence. I would say we were confident last year that we could win. This year we have the conviction that we should win. And that only happened through the process. We were one win from making the playoffs [last season], and that could have happened on any given night. We were that close. I think that really helped guys to understand that you’ve moved to that point. Now we have to put our foot down and demand a little more in that sense, and that comes in conviction. There’s confidence in conviction, and we’ve moved toward that.”

Raising the bar naturally includes added pressure, something often claimed in sports as a burden of privilege. It’s also unfamiliar territory for a majority of the Sabres’ lineup — at the NHL level, anyway. Until now the Sabres have been keeping their heads above water. In the immediate future, it’s seeing how high they can fly.

“I think the expectations are always rising and I don’t think anybody shies away from the outside noise or what we expect of ourselves,” Samuelsson said. “I think the window is open. There’s so much young talent here, so many young players that could have breakout years and take the next steps. I think there’s a lot of expectations, but I also think that’s good. Guys feed off pressure. We’re all competitive, so we all want to perform.”

“It’s not an option. We know we need to make playoffs,” Cozens added. “And we know we can make playoffs, so that’s the feel in the room. That’s what everyone thrives on.”

OKPOSO HELPED MOLD the Sabres into what they are today. He might not be around, though, for the brightest days of their tomorrow.

It’s a reality of business Okposo admits coming to terms with. His time in Buffalo has been marred by losing; to miss out on the franchise’s anticipated winning seasons ahead could be deemed disappointing.

But Okposo’s mindset, as always, is centered on something larger: legacy. It’s reasonable to predict one of those rising talents will eventually wear the “C” now emblazoned on Okposo’s chest. When that transition happens, and it’s someone else’s responsibility to uphold Buffalo’s core values, Okposo’s hope is that he has succeeded in giving the upcoming wave of leaders a firm foundation from which to start.

“I just want to make sure when I’m gone, everything is seamless, and there’s no [sense of], ‘OK, I need to try to be somebody other than myself,'” he said. “I just want everybody to make sure that they know they can be themselves and be the best that they can be every day. And that will be enough to sustain the culture here for a long time.”

Given the lengths it took Buffalo to reach this pinnacle, maintaining a standard of excellence will — in theory — become their new norm. The Sabres were stoic in navigating a fair share of hardships. Here, and now, is when they can aim to enjoy the fruits of that labor. And maybe silence a few former critics.

“For years, everyone said, ‘You can’t accept this losing, we can’t accept this losing,'” Granato said. “Well, we had to accept where we are. We couldn’t be in denial that we need to get better. And we turned our focus to that. And I know these guys have improved every day, to the point where there’s going to be a tipping point. And we’re going to make sure we get closer to that every day, and it’s going to happen.

“And when it happens, everything that was hard becomes much easier. And I think we’re close, and that’s the excitement moving forward. It’s how close are we?”

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