As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
A phrase typically deployed to maintain optimism, it is symbolic of the levelheaded approach a rebuilding sports franchise must take. And, if the Romans had a building block like Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel at their disposal, perhaps the city would’ve come together quicker.
For the Sabres and their fans, the wait has been exceptionally long. Ever since the franchise joined the NHL in 1970, the closest it has come to winning a Stanley Cup was a triple-overtime defeat in Game 6 of the 1999 Final against the Dallas Stars, in which the team surrendered a controversial goal by Brett Hull that sent it back to the drawing board.
Eighteen years later, Buffalo’s latest plan appears to be working. Like others before them, they’ve chosen to rebuild, filling their pipeline with young talent and improving steadily.
A team in transition can have lots of interesting dynamics, a mix of young and old, raw and well-done. There are many ebbs and flows throughout the process, from a variety of standpoints, and the present-day Sabres have the passbook stamps to show that.
Competing in the NHL is no easy task, and team captain Brian Gionta has seen just about everything throughout his 15-year career with the Canadiens, Devils and Sabres. The 38-year-old native of Rochester, NY has won a Stanley Cup, been part of good and bad teams and was ready for whatever the Buffalo rebuild threw his way when he inked a three-year deal with the team in 2014.
“It has its challenges for sure,” he says. “But it's a fun challenge. It's something that, being at the end of my career, it gives a good purpose to every day, trying to shape some of the young guys.”
Coming off losses to Boston and Toronto, the Sabres went into Pittsburgh on November 1, 2014 with every intention of righting the ship.
The Penguins decked Buffalo by a 5-0 margin, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin recording three points apiece. “Penguins beat hapless Sabres,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette headline screamed. It was one of several low points for a team that was trying desperately to break out of its incubator.
“The first year, we were further behind in the process than I thought we were when I had signed here,” says Gionta. “It was a really challenging year. Last year and this year have been kind of what I thought going into the whole process. As we're getting better, it's more rewarding."
That dreadful 2014-15 campaign, in which the team finished a league-worst 23-51-8, yielded Eichel, the No. 2 pick in the draft, a player many pundits said would have gone in the top spot had it not been for Edmonton Oilers draftee Connor McDavid.
Eichel’s arrival has undoubtedly accelerated the Sabres’ progression. Like any young player, though, he needed to acclimate himself with his new surroundings. Lending the rookie a helping hand, veteran forward Matt Moulson invited Eichel to stay with him and his family during that first season.
“It was great to have (Eichel) around,” Moulson says. “I think it’s something we felt as a family that would maybe help out a younger guy coming in, making his transition to the pros a little easier.”
The 33-year-old Moulson is no stranger to the benefits of living with a veteran teammate as a young player, having done so on Long Island when he signed with the Islanders in 2009 at the age of 26.
“My first year with the Islanders, I lived with [John Tavares] in Doug Weight’s guest house,” says Moulson. “It was always nice to have [Weight] to talk to if we needed. He was close by, so you definitely felt a lot more comfortable even though I wasn’t living in his house, per se. I think just having him there to ask questions and go over there for a meal or two every now and then was very helpful.”
He says there’s an inherent sense of responsibility among veterans to help with situations and things they’ve learned throughout their time in the NHL.
“You’re always trying to share that ‘wisdom,’ so to speak, of being in the league, and seeing things and being through things,” says Moulson. “It’s more of helping when there are questions to be answered and sharing experiences.”
One example of that “wisdom?” Asset management.
“I remember the first road trip, Jack asked me what to pack,” says Moulson.” Simple things like that sometimes go a long way.”
Nearly two years after that 5-0 drubbing in Pittsburgh, the Sabres returned to PPG Paints Arena to face the Pens on March 29, 2016.
With goals from Moulson, Ryan O’Reilly and 23-year-old defenseman Jake McCabe,Buffalo jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first period. It would surrender that advantage in the middle frame, giving up four unanswered goals and falling behind, 4-3. Undeterred, the Sabres netted the equalizer, as Zach Bogosian one-timed a Johan Larsson feed on the power play, just 2:13 into the third period. Though they ultimately lost in a shootout, the message was crystal clear: they were not going to be pushovers anymore.
All of those players joined the team over the past 3-4 seasons as part of the rebuild, bringing with them new perspectives and attitudes to a roster being made over.
“You always want to win,” says Moulson. “Everyone wants to win a Stanley Cup and wants to win every game, and when you don’t win those games, I think it’s a must to learn from that, or else you don’t grow and become better. I think that’s probably the biggest thing that you have to remember—you have to learn from things that you’re going through.”
Young players are constantly being challenged, not just in terms of reaching their potential, but to embrace new roles and adjust their games accordingly.
“You’ve gotta understand your role and what’s expected of you,” says McCabe, a second round pick of the Sabres in 2012. “Especially on a young team, we’re gonna have our growing pains for sure, but just have the confidence in yourself, bring the consistency every night and just grow as a player.”
That isn’t always an easy thing to do, especially when you’re used to playing a certain way your entire career.
“Each player is different,” says McCabe. “Certain guys are gonna have their same role, like Eichel and Sam Reinhart, two guys that are gonna be relied upon as a top-six forward. For a lot of young guys, like myself, you have to find your role. It does change a little bit, with the coaching staff and how they expect you to play and what they see you as. You’re just trying to stick around, make the team and force their hand. When you figure out what your role is, you really have to buy into it; otherwise you’ll find yourself in the minors pretty quick.”
As Reinhart—the No. 2 pick in 2014—notes, the key to finding consistency, regardless of one’s role, is to step onto the ice with an assertive mindset.
“You’re gonna get frustrated throughout the year,” he says. “You play 82 games; it’s not gonna go your way every night. I think the easiest way to stay with it and not get too frustrated is, if you have a bad night, more times than not, you’re playing the next night or the night after that. They come and go so fast that you can’t afford to stay frustrated. You’re gonna find that it could be one shift, one game, one period that gets your confidence back. You’ve gotta find that as much as possible when things aren’t going your way.”
That conviction is increasingly important for younger players as they navigate a new game. For many up-and-comers, the long-held belief that adjusting to the NHL level means leaving the flashy, freewheeling moves in juniors or college is being debunked.
“It’s not that you step in and you can’t do the same things you’ve done in junior; a lot of it you can do,” he says. “It’s just learning how to do it. It’s obviously not the same ease as it would’ve been in junior, but a lot of it is confidence, just allowing yourself to know you still can play the same way, you still can have success, you still can make plays. Obviously, you’re gonna find that and lose it throughout the season. You’ve just gotta learn to keep that as long as you can and roll with it when it’s there.”
Now in his second season, Eichel has moved out of the Moulson residence and bunked up with fellow sophomore Reinhart, his roommate on the road and, more often than not, his linemate on the ice. While their connection is strong, becoming a more competitive hockey team will require more versatility, both from them and their teammates.
“As you play together more, you’re gonna know each other’s tendencies,” says Reinhart. “On forward lines, you’re constantly being juggled, constantly getting mixed up. We’ve gotta keep trying to find chemistry and stick with that a little more.”
Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma, the man responsible for putting those lines together has he’s proven himself to be an excellent bench boss. His players agree.
“Dan has evolved into understanding how to deal with younger guys, probably has a little more patience than he would’ve with his teams in Pittsburgh because they were in a ‘win now’ mentality, whereas we’re trying to develop,” says McCabe. “And, not to say that we’re not in a ‘win now’ mentality, either, but it’s getting to the point now where there’s not as much patience as there was before.”
Bylsma and his staff have embraced the Sabres’ young talents, giving them every opportunity to step in and play key roles from the get-go. That there are more kids trying to grab those roles each year and only 23 chairs breeds stronger competition.
“You don’t want to sit on the bench when you’re out there,” says McCabe. “Everyone on our defense corps is capable of playing top-four minutes, so there is kind of an internal competition. You’re hoping for the best for your teammate, but you wanna play hockey and you wanna play a lot. You’re not gonna get handed anything, especially on this team. If you’re playing well and you deserve the minutes that you’re getting, it’s only gonna increase.”
Like their coach, the burgeoning Sabres believe now is the time to take things up a notch.“The growing pains are over with,” says McCabe. “(Bylsma) has a high level of expectation for our team, and it’s no different for us young guys. He has the confidence in us to make plays, and that’s what you need.”
Reinhart concurs. “We think we can be a lot better than we have been,” he says. “We put pressure on ourselves to get it done sooner than later, and I think that’s a good thing for us to have because we know we can have success now, but it’s gonna take a little more out of each and every one of us.”
Gionta explains that, if the Sabres are to move forward, they need to create a team culture and atmosphere that demands results, and the only true way to do that is to clinch a postseason berth. “Once you make the playoffs, you start to be a team that expects to make it every year,” he says.
Though there will be many highly-anticipated matchups between them in the future, Eichel and McDavid were not on the ice together on October 17, 2016.
Buffalo was facing Edmonton on the road in the team’s second game of the season. The Sabres had lost 4-1 to Montreal on opening night, and would be without Eichel for the next 44 days. Unfazed, they thrashed the Oilers 6-2 powered by O’Reilly’s four-point effort, a pair of goals from Gionta, another from Moulson and three helpers from 21-year-old defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. As an added bonus, the Sabres held McDavid off the scoresheet.
There have been plenty of signs that the team is starting to turn a corner, including that win against the Oilers. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but the Sabres can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Last year, our expectation was to make the playoffs, but we understood that maybe it wasn’t the most realistic goal,” says McCabe. “Whereas this year, we know that we have a team capable of making the playoffs and making strides.”
In order to reach that goal, Buffalo’s younger players have latched onto their more senior colleagues for guidance and support.
The Sabres have a unique group of veterans that fit two predominant categories: those players considered long in the teeth (Gionta and Josh Gorges) and those not that far from having their wisdom teeth removed (O’Reilly, Bogosian, Kyle Okposo and Evander Kane).
The fact that several of them are familiar with rebuilds, be it in Colorado, with the Islanders or the Winnipeg Jets, and are relatively-close in age, is something that Reinhart says is extremely helpful.
“A lot of our veterans are from 25 to 26, and some of them have been in the league for seven years,” he says. “So, we’re a young group, but that experience out of those young guys goes a long way for someone like myself that’s in my second year. It makes it easy for us to jell together and, as we play together longer, we’ll have more success.”
O’Reilly, in particular, has been a central figure in terms of Reinhart’s development and adaptation to his new surroundings.
“For me, the first guy—as a lot of guys look at—is O’Reilly,” he says. “Coming in last year, I spent a lot of time with him, played with him quite a bit and learned from him, just the way he conducts himself, both on and off the ice. So, for me to learn from that and really get better because of him, spending hours after practice working with him on the ice, that’s gone a long way for my game.”
That’s not to say the older guys haven’t been just as helpful.
“Brian (Gionta) as a captain has been a great leader for us,” says McCabe. “He’s won a Stanley Cup, he’s been a captain on multiple teams now—with Montreal and us. He doesn’t speak up a ton, but when he does speak up, you listen to what he has to say because of the presence he has.”
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the Sabres won’t be, either. Nonetheless, it’s been a spirited operation.
“The youthfulness keeps you young,” Gionta says.