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It's a Sabres rebuilding thing, you just wouldn't understand
How Buffalo has handled contract extensions to Tage Thompson and Mattias Samuelsson has those outside the situation wondering what's up
A boisterous set of cheers went up from the assembled Buffalo Sabres players on the ice after a Tuesday late-morning practice for then unknown reasons. The players have been teeming over with joy and excitement all training camp and the regular season opener was approaching in a couple days. That’s reason enough to be excited, but when the players were told in that moment that not only coach Don Granato signed a multi-year extension, but defenseman Mattias Samuelsson did as well for seven years and $30 million, well who wouldn’t hoot and holler for that?
We’ve all written about how different everything is surrounding the Sabres under Granato and GM Kevyn Adams and so much of it might seem like lip service given how similar sentiments were passed on under previous regimes. Being a skeptic is easy especially, and maybe necessary, after a few failed attempts to right the situation.
Hell, it’s OK to continue to be skeptical now—nothing is proven and there’s no guarantee it will work. Nothing is a sure bet, but sometimes things just start to make sense and the vision is one that makes sense. That’s where the Sabres are at right now.
“We’re in the stage where we’re identifying core pieces moving forward,” Adams said on Wednesday. “We wanted to be really disciplined and smart with how we put our roster together and the reason for that is we can do things like this and make sure that we identify the people that we’re gonna move forward with long-term and we know there’s more coming.”
Signing Samuelsson to his new deal as well as extending Tage Thompson for seven years and $50 million bring quizzical looks from everyone outside of the Sabres’ orbit. Thompson has had one outstanding, breakout season. Samuelsson would’ve been full-time in Buffalo last season had he not been injured during the first game of the Prospects Challenge, but instead played 42 games (54 in his career). These aren’t the normal statistics attached to players signing new long-term contracts.
Past long-term deals under previous regimes to Ryan O’Reilly and Jack Eichel made sense given previous production and where their careers were certain to go. The latest contracts, now with Samuelsson in mind immediately, are surely seen as a gamble beyond Western New York, but from within KeyBank Center, there’s another word they’re using for it.
“Investment. You’re going to have to make decisions on players and you do your best. You don’t make these decisions in a vacuum,” Adams said. “You don’t make them and just say, ‘Hey, today we’re gonna do this.’ You look at every possible scenario, you’re forecasting your roster, one, three, five years down the road. And of course, you have to be open to change and things can always evolve, but Mattias Samuelsson, in our mind, is exactly the type of person we want to be here long term.
“He’s a great teammate, he’s a great hockey player who we believe has the work ethic and character to continue to get better. He plays a style that we don’t have as much as a 6-foot-4, 232-pound defender that’s tough to play against and can also have the skill to move the puck. And he’ll continue to work on his game to get better. For us, I look at it more as an investment and you have to make these types of decisions as we build out our roster and, obviously, we were comfortable doing that.”
It’s an aggressive approach from the Sabres to do this, but like in a game, instead of letting the game come to them, they’re attacking it with an eye to future, larger contracts in mind to Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power. The “investment” in Thompson and Samuelsson makes a ton of sense if you believe in the players. If the Sabres think they’ll improve and waited for them to completely prove it and have fat numbers to back it up, the price tags get a lot beefier and then they’re figuring out how high the cost for Dahlin and Power goes on top of that and suddenly they’re back in a cap crunch, even with a higher upper limit.
Keep in mind, Dylan Cozens is an RFA this summer and you’d have to imagine they’re looking into doing something similar with him as they’ve done with Thompson and Samuelsson. Yes, it’s a long commitment and yes, it’s a major financial commitment as well, but it’s what the management believes in. If they’re wrong? Well…we know how that goes.
But there’s something different than previous iterations of rebuild attempts in Buffalo. By all appearances there’s a greater sense of community and cooperation amongst everyone from ownership to the GM to the coach down to the players. It’s how Adams signed an extension a month ago, it’s why Granato signed a multi-year extension, and it’s why they’ve completed the extensions they have with Thompson, Samuelsson, and others to come.
“To be aligned in a shared vision is a pretty amazing thing,” Granato said. “It sounds stupid, but not many companies—and the bigger the company they are around the world, people know it—it’s very difficult to align to a shared vision. Very difficult. The relationship I’ve been able to develop with Kevyn, the respect I have for him and how he operates and allows us to operate, but myself specifically as a head coach, and that starts with Terry and Kim Pegula allowing us then to operate the way we operate, it was a really easy decision to do whatever they would ask of me. Because we are aligned in that, and we are confident in what we’ve done and what we’re going to do day by day here as we move forward.”
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Harmony amongst all parties is another rarity. It doesn’t need to be broken down how things have gone since the Pegulas bought the team and Darcy Regier was GM and Lindy Ruff was head coach. Sometimes two out of three between coach, GM, and ownership would be united, but the differing third party and their decisions would prevent the ability to march ahead together and try to right the ship. That’s where Granato is the glue.
“When I was speaking to Terry regarding my own personal contract and my situation, one of the things that I discussed with him was how important Donnie Granato is to this franchise and I really wanted him to be a priority as soon as we could get this done with me,” Adams said. “We already talked about that before I signed my extension and my priority turned to Donnie and how do we move forward and work out a deal that he’s going to be here a long time as well.
“I’ll also tell you it’s come up in negotiations with players. Tage Thompson and others asking about Donnie and how long his contract is, how long he’s going to be here. Players truly respect and appreciate that in what he does every day and I think the continuity part from myself and Donnie and the calmness that we can bring every day to the staff and players, knowing we have a plan, we’re working on our plan, we’re supported by ownership, goes a long way. Now we just have to keep pushing.”
Players going to bat for coaches isn’t uncommon in Buffalo, but it’s not always been the way. Players were visibly relieved the training camp following Dan Bylsma’s departure. Guys like Dahlin and Jeff Skinner, among others, saw their careers turned around or improved by Ralph Krueger’s dismissal. But appreciation is a two-way street between Granato and Sabres players. Players have made it a point to mention how he treats everyone with respect and listens to their concerns and how he does what he can to improve things for them. It’s one thing to say it, but when the GM notes how Granato’s status was something Thompson, et. al needed to know before putting pen to paper is the kind of compliment any coach could get used to.
“Players, because you push them and grind them, don’t realize you like them, that you care for them because you have to push them every day, and you push them hard,” Granato said. “The more they can take, the harder you push them and the guys that can’t take it, sometimes you don’t even push that hard. So, I’ve had lots of really good hockey players that are sprinkled around the NHL right now that probably never felt that, that I cared because I had to push them so darn hard. And I do the same here with our guys. It’s all about winning so when they actually recognize that you do care about them, and you want to see them successful and you hear about it, it’s very rewarding when you hear that from a player that you coach and you know you push.”
You don’t have to accept everything everyone is saying about where things are at and how it sets up. Weird to say that since you’re this far into reading about exactly all this, but when you get to see up close how different everything is compared to past years, it’s those words and sights that have to be relayed to try and convey it best. We know it doesn’t make sense to dish out these player extensions, but when you’ve come from where the Sabres have been for more than a decade and everything has a different aura about it from that time, believing things are headed in the right direction at long last makes all the sense in the world.