BUFFALO, N.Y. — All season long in our hockey segments, we’ve been talking about the culture Kevyn Adams and Don Granato are trying to build with the Buffalo Sabres. They had to make some hard decisions to let some very good hockey players go to get things right.
Early returns are that it’s working, and you don’t have to go any further than Wednesday’s Game 1 overtime victory by the Rochester Americans.
The Amerks were being stymied by Belleville Senators goalie Filip Gustavsson and entered the third period down 3-0. Rochester was playing well, but it didn’t look like they were going to be able to get their first playoff win since 2014 until some players that Sabres fans are very interested in took over.
Peyton Krebs, Casey Fitzgerald, and Mattias Samuelsson were sent down to participate in the Calder Cup Playoffs and two of them were the Amerks best players in the overtime victory. Belleville’s mission in any game is to smack the other team all over the arena and intimate them into losing the game. Krebs didn’t care, JJ Peterka didn’t care. They just played through it and did what they do best.
These are the games where you get to see how young players react to postseason pressure and Krebs led the third period comeback.
First, it was Peterka who was one of the forwards getting extra ice-time because of an injury. He busted down the wing and found a wide open Lukas Rousek to make it 1-0.
Who is Lukas Rousek, you ask, and why should you care? He was a sixth-round pick taken in the 2019 draft by Jason Botterill, and he’s showing signs of being a legitimate prospect. The 23-year-old spent four years in pro hockey in the Czech League and was ready to make the jump to North America. Unfortunately, he suffered a knee injury before training camp, but if you’re looking for a dark horse in the pipeline, remember his name.
The next sequence showed how good Krebs is. He stood up to anything the Sens threw at him and after Rousek’s goal, he got a boarding penalty which incensed him. The Amerks killed it off and Krebs used his ability to see plays before they develop as he exited the penalty box. He told me afterwards that he got on the wall and tried to not be noticed.
As Rochester entered the zone, he got the puck and came east-west through the high slot. By doing that, he drew the Belleville players to him, and he laid a perfect pass, through traffic, to a breaking Fitzgerald and that led to the goal that made it 3-2.
The building went wild and you know what that does to the young Sabres, it gets them excited and energized.
On the game-tying goal, Krebs again froze the defense and again found Fitzgerald breaking to the net and this time, it was Fitzgerald who scored. That goal doesn’t happen without Peterka getting in hard on the forecheck and spreading the defense out.
Do you see the theme I’m getting at here? These youngsters thrived in their first taste of the Calder Cup Playoffs. Another point about culture is how close these guys are. The season is over in Buffalo. Players could be anywhere, but I saw Dylan Cozens, Jacob Bryson and Malcolm Subban there to cheer on their teammates.
Seeing their smiles outside the locker-room after the game showed how much they care for the guys that were playing. These are the types of things we’ve been seeing all season that can’t be faked.
When I think back on this season I look at the progress of many of the young players, especially Rasmus Dahlin, Tage Thompson, Krebs, Samuelsson, Henri Jokiharju Cozens and others. I don’t think it would’ve been possible without Adams mapping out a plan. It’s a plan similar to what the Buffalo Bills did starting in 2017 and Adams spoke at length with Brandon Beane about it.
Adams knew he had talent on the team, but there was too much entitlement, there was rotten leadership and there were some players that put themselves first and winning second. Adams identified that and gave his new coach a nice foundation of youngsters with talent that he could work with and grow into a team.
Now this is only step 1. There is still a long ways to go. Adams has to figure out who he is going to pair in goal next season with Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. I think he should be looking for a goalie on a two-year contract and what he pays him doesn’t matter at all. They need to get to the cap-floor anyway.
I think Peterka and Jack Quinn will become part of this group and of course Owen Power will get his first full NHL season.
We talk about all these players, but Buffalo still has first round picks Ryan Johnson and Isak Rosen who aren’t even with the organization yet. They have three first round picks in this July’s NHL Draft.
They have two of the best goalies in college hockey in Devon Levi and Erik Portillo. Aaron Huglen was a fourth-round pick in 2019 and he had a very good freshman season at Minnesota, especially down the stretch as the Golden Gophers got to the Frozen Four.
If nothing else, this team is starting to create a buzz. It reminds me of when they had just acquired Danny Briere from the Arizona Coyotes and guys like Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy and Jason Pominville were all growing together in Rochester. This is going to be very interesting to see season two of the young and improved Buffalo Sabres.