There have been many, many dark days in the recent history of the Buffalo Sabres. Far too many count. But Monday was not one of those days. The same day they agreed to terms with the NHL’s top prospect, they came into one of the league’s toughest buildings and defeated a team that hadn’t lost on home ice in 13 games.
It almost makes you think that maybe, just maybe, there might possibly be some small reason for optimism going forward. Why so many qualifiers? Well, because when it comes to the Sabres and their expectations for the future, their fans have been Charlie Brown and the Sabres have been Lucy with the football. The good people of Buffalo have been let down far too many times by everyone from the owner to the fourth-line left winger. So you can understand why the sense of optimism would be, at the very least, guarded.
Still, though, it’s difficult to see what Casey Mittelstadt, the No. 1 prospect in the 2018 THN Future Watch edition, did at the World Junior Championship and not get a little excited. It’s tough to view the tour-de-force performance Jack Eichel displayed in his team’s 3-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs Monday night and not think the future is bright. And perhaps most of all, it’s heartening to look at the standings and see that even with the victory Monday night, the Sabres are still 30th overall, thereby preserving their chance to win the draft lottery and have an all-Rasmus (Ristolainen and Dahlin) No. 1 defense tandem next season.
“Obviously it’s been a tough road here so far,” said Eichel, who put the brakes on a 46-day scoring drought with his 24th and 25th goals of the season. “I think it starts with me and the leaders on this team. Phil (Sabres coach Housley) challenged us this week. I think it goes to show that when we do things the right way, when we compete for each other and make hard plays, I think you can have success.”
The Sabres agreed to terms with Mittelstadt days after his season ended at the University of Minnesota. He’ll be in Buffalo Tuesday afternoon for the official signing and could be in the lineup Thursday night when the Sabres host the Detroit Red Wings. The Sabres will be able to get him into their final six games, but since he wasn’t on an American League roster by the trade deadline, he won’t be able to join the Rochester Americans for the playoffs. He will, however, be a prime candidate to join Team USA for the World Championship.
“It’s awesome that we get a player like Casey and you want to just start building in the right direction,” Eichel said. “He’s going to be a big piece of our future, so we’re excited about it. But I consider myself one of the leaders and someone who needs to lead by example. I think myself, Ryan (O’Reilly) Risto (Ristolainen), we’re here for a little bit, and we’re the guys who are going to need to turn this around. We have to get this thing turned around. It’s been a tough few years. As a group, we need to start taking the right steps in the right direction to find a way to get out of this losing habit here and I thought (Monday) was a good example of what we can do when we put our heads down.”
Kyle Okposo, who went through much of the same kind of process with the New York Islanders before signing with Buffalo as a free agent last summer, agrees with Eichel on all counts. “It’s been a long season,” Okposo said. “With Casey signing and us coming in and winning on the road, it makes for a good day, but you have to come tomorrow and work because that’s the way you’re going to get better in the future.”
As far as Okposo is concerned, that might be the biggest stumbling block the Sabres face right now. There has been so much losing for the past couple of years and with such young players who have never experienced success at this level, they’re finding coming up with a winning formula elusive.
“I think we have some good pieces, but I think we have to realize how hard it is to win in this league,” Okposo said. “It took us a while on the Island to figure out what it took to win every night and what it took to be a good hockey team and we need to figure that out here. It’s everybody pulling the rope every day. It’s not just coming in and playing the game, it’s what you do away from the rink to prepare yourself, coming into practice, battling in practice, working as hard as you can every day to get better. We need to do more of that.”
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.