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Why Kevyn Adams is staying ‘calm’ despite Sabres’ recent struggles


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Kevyn Adams hasn’t been sleeping well. That’s not a surprising revelation, considering the Buffalo Sabres’ recent eight-game losing streak. The general manager spoke on Monday about what has been a roller coaster season for his hockey team. The Sabres came into the season as the NHL’s youngest team by average age and with the lowest total salary in the league.

This was part of the plan Adams and coach Don Granato laid out when Granato became the permanent coach in 2021. The Sabres were going to patiently build a roster through drafting and developing homegrown talent. This offseason, even with a hefty chunk of cap space at his disposal, Adams was conservative in free agency. He signed defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin and goalie Eric Comrie to modest contracts, brought back Vinnie Hinostroza and added some depth defensemen who have split time between the AHL and NHL. Otherwise, he didn’t aggressively pursue veteran free agents. The Sabres didn’t want to sign anyone that could block one of their rising prospects from getting NHL ice time, which the organization views as an important part of development.

Considering the team finished last season on a 102-point pace largely due to the development of young players, that approach was largely accepted by a fan base that has already suffered through 11 straight seasons without the playoffs. When the Sabres started 7-3, everything seemed to be going according to plan. Maybe the playoffs would be a stretch, but the team looked much like the young, fast, exciting team that finished the season strong in the spring.

Since then, the Sabres have lost eight straight games, and the positive energy from a strong start has vanished. Some of the poor play has been understandable. The Sabres spent a chunk of that losing streak playing without four of their top six defensemen at different times. Mattias Samuelsson has been out for the entirety of the streak, Lyubushkin has played through an injury, Rasmus Dahlin missed a game and Henri Jokiharju only recently returned. Buffalo also ran into four of the best teams in the NHL over the course of a five-game stretch when it played CarolinaTampa BayVegas and Boston in closely contested losses.

Other aspects of this streak have been more concerning, though. The team lacked the necessary competitive level in losses to the CoyotesCanucksSenators and, most recently, the Leafs on Saturday. Yes, more injuries have happened to captain Kyle Okposo, alternate captain Zemgus Girgensons and goalie Eric Comrie. But competing hard for 60 minutes is something that shouldn’t be contingent on who is in the lineup.

So it’s understandable that Adams’ circadian rhythms have been out of whack. Even when you choose the patient path in rebuilding and have that course validated by ownership in the form of contract extensions for the coach and general manager, living through the reality is difficult.

“We were very purposeful and specific in how we were building the roster this year, knowing that we’re going to be extremely young,” Adams said Monday. “You’re going to go through ups and downs. We were well aware of that. I’m calm right now. I think calm is very important in these types of things. But I’m not comfortable. Check my sleep habits lately. I’m not comfortable at all. I want to make sure we have a calmness about this and knowing that these experiences are exactly what will help our players grow and learn and get better. But everything we do every day is talking about how you can constantly develop your team and your players. On one hand, this is part of what you have to go through but on the other hand, we have to make sure we’re doing everything we can do to get better and win hockey games.”

Over the weekend, the Sabres claimed forward Tyson Jost off waivers from the Wild. It was the first outside addition Adams has made since the start of the season. When Lyubushkin, Jokiharju and Samuelsson went down in consecutive games, Adams said he was exploring roster moves to help the defense. The Sabres never found one that made sense. During that time, the Canucks traded a fifth-round pick to Carolina for Ethan Bear. The Bruins put Mike Reilly on waivers. Adams elected not to make a move.

“We looked at every possible way to support our group on the backend,” Adams said. “But knowing what the timeline was with those types of injuries, I didn’t want to overreact or do something reactive or emotional that gets us away from our plan and how we’re building this.”

Samuelsson’s return to the lineup is imminent. It could come as soon as Tuesday against Montreal. Jokiharju is back in the lineup, as is Lyubushkin. Okposo is still day-to-day, but Girgensons will be back in the lineup soon. Losing some key veterans pushed young players into even tougher situations.

“You put a roster together with young players, you understand that that could happen,” Granato said. “Are you willing to take that risk?”

A healthy lineup will alleviate some issues. Jost could be another depth piece to boost a struggling penalty kill and provide some lineup flexibility. Adams and Granato know that won’t fix everything, though.

“There are other games that absolutely have nothing to do with inexperience or youth,” Adams acknowledged. “The details of our game weren’t good enough. Our passion, our compete need to better. That’s what is certainly being addressed by Donny and myself every day. You put it all together and that’s where we’re at right now. You can’t run. You can’t hide from it. That’s why I say I’m calm. I think calm is contagious in a way. The players know we believe in them and support them. We’re not changing course. Nobody is going to come in here and say that this is good enough. It’s not. But we do know this is part of the process of where we’re at as we build this.”

This streak has pushed the Sabres down the standings and put a considerable dent in their playoff expectations. Since at least 2000, no team has gone eight straight games without a point and qualified for the postseason in the same season. More than half of the teams who lost eight straight games in regulation finished that season in the bottom two of the standings. According to The Athletic’s updated NHL playoff probabilities, the Sabres project for 74.9 points and a one-percent chance to make the postseason. That’s the painful short-term reality.

The long-term outlook doesn’t need to be dramatically changed, though. Dahlin and Tage Thompson are emerging as superstar players this season. Owen Power has handled added responsibility at 19 years old and has proven capable. Dylan Cozens has been one of Buffalo’s best five-on-five players at both ends of the ice. JJ Peterka and Jack Quinn have struggled at times but flashed the high-end talent that made the Sabres want to pave the way for them to be on the NHL roster.

There are legitimate questions about individuals on this roster and even how it is being built. There is no guarantee that the Sabres will get better results just because they are being more patient than they were during previous rebuilds. But it’s early to make definitive conclusions while this group is still so young. The alternative for this version of the Sabres was to do what the Senators and Red Wings did and spend more money to add more veterans. The Senators are in last place in the Eastern Conference. The Red Wings are eight points ahead of the Sabres at 9-5-4.

“In the offseason, you can go out there and sign three or four guys that have been in the league and are older and give you a little bit more experience and stability,” Adams said. “But what we’re really working toward here is sustainable success, not just a flash of a week here, a month here. Sustainable success. We all believe the way we’re going to have sustainable success is to have our young core go through these things. Of course, there’s a balance and you think about that. But I do still believe when you look at our young players and the experiences they’re going through and the development that they’re going through, it’s never a straight lineup. But they need to go through this.”

The concern would come if the losing starts to impact the development of young players. You want players to develop in a winning environment, but getting to that winning environment sometimes involves stretches of prolonged struggle while players learn to win. Some of these players experienced a degree of winning when the Rochester Americans got to the AHL playoffs a year ago. Fighting through this type of adversity at the NHL level is different.

Granato said he can tell the losing streak has caused players to feel anxiety and pressure. It’s taken away from them playing the fearless style he preaches. He’s noticed more enthusiasm from the group in the last two days. The team bussed back from Toronto on Sunday morning, went straight to the rink and had meetings and practice. They were back on the ice Monday, and Granato was encouraged by the pace and energy. Now the challenge is to translate that into a game and make sure players aren’t hesitant or fearing a mistake under the pressure of game situations.

“It’s not unfamiliar territory in the sense that I have had teams and situations just like this that come out of it better,” Granato said. “There’s a reason to be confident and comfortable. When you look at a team that goes through this, the facts are the facts. We put together a young team to give them this opportunity to go through these experiences with the thought that they’re going to be better because of it.”

Why do he and Adams think they’ll be better because of the losing? Because they see players who care and are doing a lot of self-reflection because of the results they’re getting. They’re searching for solutions.

“They don’t realize the solution is simple,” Granato said. “Just don’t hesitate, don’t play with fear. It’s things that I’ve talked about, concepts or parts of our identity that we needed that have slipped and been pushed off track.”

Granato and Adams are both emphasizing the need to support young players. Granato has seen too many instances of players who leave an organization and become better players elsewhere to bail before seeing the finished product. A losing streak like this one, while alarming, doesn’t need to be an indictment on Granato, Adams or how the roster is being built. While the 11-year playoff drought understandably adds to fan angst during a losing streak, it’s not the most useful context for Adams and Granato to be focused on.

The Penguins had four straight seasons below 70 points before breaking through in 2006-07. The Avalanche recently had seasons of 82 and 48 points before beginning a run of five straight playoff seasons, including a Stanley Cup. The Devils have had four straight seasons of 72 points or fewer and are currently 15-3 through 18 games. Patience can pay off. But Sabres fans know patience and losing don’t guarantee anything. The results from past coaches, general managers and high draft picks have provided the evidence and scars to prove it. The only way for those fans to know if this time will be different is to wait and see how this group of players responds to this situation and develops throughout the year. That starts Tuesday against the Canadiens.

“I’d like to win more,” Granato said. “We’d like to win more and we want to win more. It’s a tough act to balance.”

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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