It all starts with, well, a better start.
A better start in training camp. A better start to the season. A better start in games. They said it, but time will only tell if they will do it.
The ice vanishing from KeyBank Center by the second week of April is becoming an all too familiar sight as the Buffalo Sabres have once again missed the NHL playoffs. And it wasn’t just a simple case of just missing the postseason. It was the sting of ending the year dead last. The first team to ever finish in 31st place.
“It’s tough. It’s really hard,” center Jack Eichel said during Monday’s locker clean out. “It’s frustrating. You kinda look back and it feels like yesterday that I started here. To be three years into my career and yet to make the impact that I would have liked, it’s frustrating for sure.”
Eichel continued his thoughts by saying how once again the team fell behind in the standings early and were never able to gain any ground.
“We need to find a way as an organization as a group inside this room to get out of whatever rut this is,” Eichel said. “It’s tough. It’s a lot easier said than done.”
Perhaps the most telling, and talked about comments, were authored by center Ryan O’Reilly who said at times this season he lost his love for the game.
O’Reilly, one of the hardest, most dedicated workers to ever put on a Sabres jersey has been a model of doing things the right way ever since he arrived in 2015. Known for being the first guy on the ice and the last one off during practice O’Reilly has shown himself to be captain material. No matter what he always stands before the media. He is accountable. He shoulders far more blame than is actually his. He does things the right way. But this year losing and taking a backward step finally got to even O’Reilly.
“For myself, I don’t think I was mentally tough enough this year,” O’Reilly said. “That’s something I have to be a lot better at because that affects too many things. I think that’s something I need to focus on. I think I know how to improve that.”
Fans may not want to believe it but the tank years continue to take its toll on this franchise. Instead of producing young stars that turned the team into a legit contender they team continues to flounder. Which begged the question how do you turn a team around when the majority of your players have never known anything but losing and mediocre expectations? The Sabres have to find a way to get the mindset where winning is an expectation and not a pleasant surprise.
“It’s gotta change,” said a very dejected Kyle Okposo. “The mind sent has been bad here for too long. There is a little bit of that ok we’re going to go into a game and play and see what kind of results we’re going to get. That’s not (a good) mindset. It’s just not.”
So what’s the problem? Is it ownership? Players say no.
“The Sabres are a great organization,” Eichel said. “They give you a lot of resources. A lot of things to allow you to take that next step.”
Goalie Chad Johnson agreed.
Saying how from first-class facilities to the best hotels and food the Pegula’s are giving them the foundation to succeed. They just aren’t putting it all together.
The most frustrating part of it is every player inside that room knows that they are capable of more. As individuals and as a team.
The Sabres showed flashes of what they were capable of when they played their best, but they clearly could never sustain that momentum.
“Yeah definitely,” Evan Rodriques said. “Especially late (in the year) we beat some of the top teams in the league. I think when we were committed to doing the right thing and playing on the right side of the puck and doing the little things right we were successful.”
Veteran defenseman Josh Gorges said he thinks it all starts with winning the little battles in every facet of the game. Something the Sabres didn’t do nearly enough.
“The common denominator is to be ready for training camp,” Housley said. “It’s gonna be a hard training camp. Obviously, to be in this position at this point in the season how disappointing it is an understatement. We I came here I didn’t envision being here and being in this place. We can learn from what happened in the past. Obviously, we can’t change what’s happened. What we can change (going forward) is make sure we’re ready for training camp.”
Housley said the key will be for everyone, coaches and players, being willing to change what didn’t work.
“What are they willing to change?” Housley said. “I think that’s the biggest question as we move forward. What are they personally going to invest in this summer to change?”
One of the few good things on locker clean out was seeing Victor Antipin in the room and looking well. Antipin was the recipient of, what many felt was a cheap hit by Nashville’s Scott Hartnell on March 31.
Hartnell blasted Antipin into the boards from behind, resulting in Antipin having to be taken off the ice on a stretcher. Antipin, who suffered a concussion, broken nose and needed dental work, told the media he had no memory of the hit. After five seasons of playing in the KHL, Antipin said his first season in the NHL was a learning experience.
“Yeah, of course, it was a tough season for me,” Antipin said. “Sometimes I would play, sometimes no. But it was a good experience for me.”
Though he had no firm plans at the moment Antipin said he liked the NHL enough to want to return, if possible.