• April 14, 2024

The human side of the Buffalo Sabres’ 18-game winless streak of 2021

For nearly all of March, the Buffalo Sabres were the punchline of the NHL. They slogged through an 18-game winless streak, the longest in the salary cap era. They fired yet another coach, Ralph Krueger, as captain Jack Eichel remained sidelined with an injury. In its weekly power rankings, the Buffalo News even ranked the expansion Seattle Kraken (a team without players or a coach) ahead of the Sabres.

When Krueger was dismissed on March 17, assistant Don Granato was appointed interim coach. Granato, 53, is a member of one of America’s most prominent hockey families. His younger sister, Cammi, is a Hockey Hall of Famer, and now a pro scout for the Kraken. His older brother Tony played 774 NHL games and now coaches Wisconsin’s men’s team. Don always dreamed of being an NHL head coach, but he finally got his opportunity at the most inopportune time — and at the expense of a friend.

“Awful, it was awful,” Granato said. “The emotions run through you. You’re in a little bit of a fog, like what is actually going on here? I certainly didn’t feel good about Ralph being dismissed, because as a staff you’re close and you believe in what you’re doing. Then you’re presented with a decision you have to make, and you don’t have time to contemplate it, you have to just make it. So that was not fun.”

But Granato had worked too hard to put himself in this position. And he had overcome too much. At age 38, while coaching for the St. Louis Blues AHL affiliate, Granato was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. As he took time away from the team to receive treatment, he thought he’d never coach again. “Absolutely I wondered that,” he said. “But it was more of a fear of, I need to make it through this.”

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Then last season, as an assistant with the Sabres, Granato nearly died.

He went to the hospital in October after feeling fatigued. “It was a combination of pneumonia and another bacteria in my blood,” he said. “And within hours, I couldn’t breathe anymore. I was just fighting for breath. I was just fighting for oxygen, just trying to catch air.”

Said Cammi: “His body shut down. He was ventilated. They put him in an induced coma. We were all there by his side. He went from grave condition one night, we were all so scared for him, and then the next morning, they said everything they had given him worked.”

Through each of his health scares, Granato has emerged with relentless positivity.

“The one you don’t know about is that I was hit by a car when I was 5 years old,” Granato said. “I’ve had some pretty crazy life experiences. So an 18-game losing streak, that’s nothing.”

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, the Granato kids played hockey in their basement. “Donnie was the kid who came up with how to train on the slide boards, with stickhandling,” Cammi said. “He spliced the Wayne Gretzky videos together. He also wrote to every NHL team — I don’t actually know what he said in those letters — but he got like 15 back. The letterheads had the NHL logos on it, and we all thought it was so cool. He was a coach even when he was a kid.”

Throughout Cammi’s career, she turned to Don as a confidant.

“If there was something a coach said that bugged me, I would go to him,” Cammi said. “And he’d say, ‘Listen, if you have the coach on your shoulder when you play, you’re not going to be able to play.’ It would always come down to what I could control, and the things I couldn’t control I needed to shed. It always came down to being powerful mentally.”

Granato began coaching the USHL Green Bay Gamblers in 1994. The next season, the Gamblers won the Clark Cup. He then moved on to the ECHL. He coached the Columbus Chill, then Peoria Rivermen. In his first season with the Rivermen (1999-2000), they won a championship. That earned Granato a job in the AHL, where he became head coach of the Worcester IceCats, an affiliate of the St. Louis Blues. In his first season, he was named the league’s coach of the year.

“He was definitely on the trajectory to being an NHL coach, doing all the right things,” Cammi said. “But then he got sick, and that kind of stopped things.”

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The 2004-05 season was Granato’s fifth campaign coaching in the AHL. The symptoms started in training camp. He got checked out by a doctor, and had some follow-ups, but they couldn’t identify what was wrong.

“It was very scary. A very, very scary moment,” he said. “It had progressed a little bit where it was almost confusing. Couldn’t really figure out what was going on with me.”

Granato began losing weight. He felt physically depleted.

“As a head coach, you feel the leadership responsibility and you don’t allow yourself to feel sick,” he said. “As the leader of the team, you don’t want to be vulnerable or see vulnerability.”

Finally, by February 2005, he got the diagnosis. Hearing the word “cancer” wasn’t easy. He began treatment in March.

“Larry Pleau was the general manager [of St. Louis] at the time; he’s a great person, great mentor, great friend,” Granato said. “He came to visit me as I was getting treatment. And I said, ‘What I realize through all of this, is that I’m doing what I love.’ So I couldn’t wait to get back to coaching.”

He ended treatment in August 2005. “Once I started feeling good, feeling like I could get to the other side, it was automatic. I had to go coach. That became very, very clear to me. I was living the way I should be living. And that’s coaching.”

This hasn’t been the Sabres’ best season in franchise history, but Don Granato, left, has seen improvement in his team recently. Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

Granato was back behind the bench the following season as an assistant coach with the Blues. He bounced around the NHL as a scout, then went back to the AHL bench, before he was named the coach of the U.S. National Team Development Program in 2011, for what would be a five-year stint.

Entering the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, you’ll hear a lot about how it’s a golden age of hockey in the U.S. Nearly every good young American player in the NHL today — J.T. Compher, Andrew Copp, Adam Fox, Matt Grzelcyk, Quinn Hughes, Seth Jones, Clayton Keller, Dylan Larkin, Auston Matthews, Charlie McAvoy, Josh Norris, Jack Roslovic, Brady Skjei, Troy Terry, Brady Tkachuk, Matthew Tkachuk, Jacob Trouba, Alex Tuch, Zach Werenski, Colin White — came through Granato’s program. The list also includes Eichel, Buffalo’s captain.

“I had Jack in the U.S. program when he was 16,” Granato said. “I got to know him then, and I thought the world of him then. It’s something I’m excited to be a part of when he’s back — because we expect him back, we’re hopeful he’ll be back before the end of the year — and I look forward to that, now in the position of head coach.

“He means a lot to me personally. I love the fact that he has such strong and visible emotions of the game. I’ve reminded him numerous times that he’s got to make sure he finds the fun in all of this, too. Sometimes a lot of these great athletes are so intense, and there’s so much demand on them that they feel like they can’t have fun. It becomes such a business. They’re judged on different levels. I’m speaking generally now, but when you lose that, or you stop being aware of that, it becomes even harder.”

Following his time with the NTDP, Granato was an assistant at Wisconsin in 2016-17, then it was two seasons as an assistant with the Blackhawks before joining Krueger’s staff in Buffalo at the start of the 2019-20 campaign.

When Granato took over the Sabres last month, they were already on a 12-game winless streak. Granato’s initial message to the team: “Everybody is telling us who we are. Are you going to listen to that?”

“My challenge to the players was: We cannot buy into that,” he said. “People look up to you guys. Your friends look up to you guys. This is a chance to be really strong. This the opportunity to really be a leader. Because a lot of people go through hard things in life, a lot harder than what we’re going through. So don’t shrug your shoulders and put your head down and talk about this being embarrassing. Play through it. Have a vision of how much better we’re going to be on the other side of it, because we’re going to get to the other side.”

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And so Granato wasn’t so focused on just getting the next win to break the streak. He focused on the team improving, so they could be better when they emerged from the stretch. Over his first week, the coach held longer-than-usual Zoom meetings. He also held really intense practices.

Granato said in his time in the NHL, and especially through his time scouting, it’s become “really simple to watch and see who wants the puck and who wants to get rid of it.”

“Possession is responsibility,” Granato said. “If you have the puck on your stick, yeah you can score a goal, but yes you can make a mistake. There’s a seriousness to possessing the puck in the NHL, because you don’t want to make a mistake. That’s sometimes a bigger headline than the guy who scores the goal.”

Granato knew he needed to help players recalibrate.

“We put in practices that you would usually have in preseason,” Granato said. “Very dynamic, explosive skating. Competitive. You’re tired after practice. And they’ve all looked excited after the next one, and been excited through the practice. They’ve all looked better to me in the game. There’s a little more jump, there’s a little quicker recovery, they’re waiting at the end of the bench for the call of who goes out next. They want the puck.”

Nothing will be easy for the Sabres from here on out. They have won two of their last three games, including a come-from-behind shootout win over the New York Rangers on Saturday. But while the playoffs are still a mathematical possibility, it’s not reasonable to expect that outcome. Though there is the silver lining of Eichel returning, the Sabres are likely going to trade away some players at the deadline, including Taylor Hall, as they gear toward next season. Granato remains undeterred.

“What we need is to create a culture here; we need everyone to want to hang onto the puck,” Granato said. “And within the last week, we’re starting to see movement in that direction. That’s awesome to see as a coach.”

Jump ahead:
Three stars of the week
What we liked this week
What we didn’t like
Best games on tap
Social post of the week

Emptying the notebook

The Toronto Maple Leafs‘ streak without a Stanley Cup stands at 53 years, while a Canadian team hasn’t won since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens. By now, you’ve likely heard these facts ad nauseum. A fun wrinkle to Toronto’s quest for glory this spring: two of their most important players who could lead them there are American.

One is Arizona native Auston Matthews, who has led the goal scoring race all season. The other is unexpected: Michigan-born goalie Jack Campbell.

The Maple Leafs have kept mum about the extent of starter Frederik Andersen‘s injury, though it sounds like he is improving and could return to the lineup soon. Meanwhile, the 29-year-old Campbell has sparkled in limited action.

Since joining the Leafs via a trade with the Kings in February 2020, Campbell has gone 11-2-1 with a 1.89 goals-against average, .934 save percentage and two shutouts. That includes a spotless 8-0-0 record this season, during which he has been especially impressive at 5-on-5. According to Natural Stat Trick, entering Sunday he had a 6.14 goals saved above replacement to go along with a .954 save percentage at 5-on-5.

Campbell has been lauded by media and fans as being the NHL’s most wholesome postgame interview this season, too. He’s constantly shouting out his teammates before talking about himself, gushing about how much he loves them. It’s clearly reciprocated.

“Probably the nicest guy you’ll ever meet,” Zach Hyman said last month. Or as Tyson Barrie told TSN in March: “He’s probably one the most positive people I’ve ever been around.”

Jack Campbell is 8-0-0 this season, with a 1.35 goals-against average and .951 save percentage. Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images

Campbell’s road to NHL success wasn’t a linear one. He was drafted No. 11 overall by the Dallas Stars in 2010. After a troubling first few years as a pro, and unable to make progress within the Stars organization, Campbell was traded to the Kings in 2016. For insight into how Campbell was able to turn his career around, I called Dusty Imoo, the head of goaltending development for Los Angeles at the time.

“When he came to L.A., I flew in the week before camp, and the idea was for him to stay with me. We could go on the ice, work out, shoot the s—, get to know him, and figure out what the deal was,” Imoo said. “And I learned really fast that he was a mess, up in his head.

“I don’t want to pin it all on Dallas or this or that, but he was not in a good spot in his life. I told him, ‘The big thing is you don’t like or love or appreciate yourself as a person.’ He was so goal-driven as a kid, and because he has this personality, he almost felt like he wasn’t worthy if he didn’t achieve anything. His success as a person was based around his achievements.”

Imoo knew he had to rid that from Campbell’s mindset. He told the goalie, “Let’s just be happy that we’re getting on the ice together.” They needed to reinstill the love for the game.

“It didn’t take him long to believe in me, or trust me,” Imoo said. “And once he did that, it just went fast. He had an unbelievable season.”

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In his first season with the AHL’s Ontario Reign, Campbell posted a .914 save percentage and made the AHL All-Star team. “Once we got past those barriers of how he was guiding himself, we were able to work on his game,” Imoo said. “It was so fun to watch. He wasn’t going to be denied. And when it’s a person like that — if your job is a development person, there couldn’t be a better feeling than seeing someone of that caliber achieve their dreams. It was just so awesome.”

Imoo is currently living in Vancouver, hopeful for another opportunity to join an NHL team after his stint with the KHL Red Star ended poorly during the pandemic. (Imoo and the other coaches settled out of court after being terminated). He said Campbell’s struggles are not isolated at all, as “in general, to some extent, every goalie has part of them that’s affected by the mental side.”

“Some are way more than others,” Imoo said. “Cal Petersen is a great example, he has a really great threshold for the outside noise, and he can deal with a lot. There are others that affect them greatly. Their talent could be exactly the same, but some guys could go for huge dips, and others can ride the wave.”

Imoo stays in close contact with Campbell. Even with the goalie playing in Toronto — the biggest media fishbowl in the NHL — Imoo believes Campbell is now poised for sustained success.

“When Jack was traded, I was flying back from Moscow for a four-day break, and it happened while I was on the plane. I landed in Vancouver to a million messages, and interviews, people from Toronto media, and everyone wanted to know: Was he ready?” Imoo said. “Four years ago, probably not. Most definitely not. But by the time he was traded, I felt really comfortable with where he was at.

“Each time I talk to him — I talked to him before [a game last week], because he wasn’t really thrilled with his game beforehand — he sounds like he’s in a really good place. Even if he’s looking for a reset, he’s all there. I’m not worried about him in the least. Because the pressure is going to get [higher], the media there is a lot — they talk about the Leafs goaltending every day! — but he’s ready. He’s ready for this.”

Three stars of the week

Martin Jones, G, San Jose Sharks

As the Sharks make a surprising surge for a playoff spot, they’re enjoying a resurgence from Jones, who has brought his season-long save percentage above .900 with a fantastic week. Jones went 4-0, stopping 113 of 120 shots (.942 save percentage) including a 30-save shutout in Los Angeles.

Brad Marchand, LW, Boston Bruins

He had a monster performance in Boston’s 7-5 win over the Penguins on Saturday, and for the week has five goals and two assists in three games. Said David Pastrnak: “He’s on fire and we love to see it. He’s energetic and we just need to feed off his energy more. He’s been on fire and, obviously, he does it all.”

Mathew Barzal, C, New York Islanders

Barzal is heating up, scoring three goals and four assists in three games this week, plus a shootout winner. All but one of his points came at even strength. He’s chasing Connor McDavid for the unofficial title of most highlight-reel goals this season, too:

Just stupid pic.twitter.com/4OktVCgnVP

— YESUV🚙 (@IslesWhiteSUV) April 1, 2021

What we liked this week

1. As the surging Nashville Predators make their case for a playoff spot, the emergence of Eeli Tolvanen has been a storyline to watch. I don’t think anyone is going to catch Kirill Kaprizov at this point for the Calder Trophy, but Tolvanen (10 points in his past eight games, and a recent six-game point streak) is asserting himself in the race.

Eeli Tolvanen can freakin shoot it 🚀 pic.twitter.com/BkW20WGbq6

— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) April 3, 2021

2. Speaking of rookies, if you haven’t been paying attention to Jason Robertson in Dallas this season, do yourself a favor. Since March 1, Robertson leads all rookies with 18 points in 19 games, with 15 of his points coming at even strength.

Talk about a beautiful pass from Jason Robertson (@JasonRob1999)! 👀 pic.twitter.com/swKoF63auB

— NHL (@NHL) April 4, 2021

3. These bunny pics are the gifts that keep on giving:

These two are now on the same team.

Playing a game on Easter.

Against the Devils. pic.twitter.com/PQYpyAZrTM

— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) April 4, 2021

What we didn’t like this week

The situation with the Vancouver Canucks isn’t great. It was bad last week, and only worsened over the weekend. I’ve been told that more than half the team has now tested positive for the coronavirus. Coaches and family members have also been affected. The Vancouver region has been a hotspot for the P.1 variant recently, and many players on the Canucks who have tested positive are symptomatic. “Fatigue, dehydration, the symptoms are intense,” one agent of a Canucks player told me. “It’s knocked a lot of guys out. Some can’t even get out of bed.”

It’s very unlikely the Canucks get back on the ice for a game on Thursday as planned, and the NHL will determine scheduling in the next few days, depending on what recovery looks like. This is the worst outbreak on a team this season.

The NHL is so close to the finish line, and some American teams, like the Golden Knights, are starting to get vaccinated. However, we’re not there yet. In hindsight, it doesn’t look great that Adam Gaudette was pulled from a practice on Tuesday, confirmed positive that evening, and the team trudged on and played a game Wednesday night anyway.

It’s too early to say how this will affect the rest of the NHL season, though we’re certainly going to get games scheduled into the “buffer period” in May before the Stanley Cup playoffs begin. With the Stanley Cup Final presumably needing to end before July 15, and the Canucks’ situation as a cautionary tale, we might start hearing about the possibility of a postseason bubble. This is something players vehemently didn’t want, and there will be pushback if the NHL brings it to the table. But the possibility is lingering — something I wouldn’t have believed even a week ago.

Top games on tap this week

Note: All times Eastern.

Monday: Colorado Avalanche at Minnesota Wild, 8 p.m. (ESPN+)

Since March 10, the Avalanche have gone 11-0-2, averaging 4.43 goals per game while allowing just 1.73. That stretch includes their last game against the Wild, which was a 6-0 Colorado rout. Minnesota is feeling good after a two-game sweep of the Golden Knights. Kirill Kaprizov may have looked like he was hitting a rookie wall but has since snapped out of it; the winger has scored four goals in his past 10 games.

Thursday: Boston Bruins at Washington Capitals, 7 p.m. (ESPN+)

The Bruins are a bit all over the place as they cling to the fourth playoff spot in the East. Their 7-5 win over the Penguins Saturday felt like a microcosm of their unpredictable season (some defensive lapses, relinquishing late leads, ultimately showing resilience). Boston is hopeful that the 5-on-5 scoring outburst could portend good things to come in that area. If not, they should be looking for scoring help at the trade deadline.

Friday: Los Angeles Kings at San Jose Sharks, 10:30 p.m.

Don’t look now, but the Sharks are clawing for a playoff spot. They’ve won four straight games to catapult ahead of the Kings and pull within one point of a playoff spot in the West Division. Sure, San Jose has a minus-17 goal differential, but captain Logan Couture says they’re “making strides.” It helps the Sharks have gone 8-1-1 against the other California teams this season.

Social media post of the week

To be honest, we need more of these types of debates in hockey. Good on you, Brandon Dubinsky, for sharing an uncomfortable opinion out loud — and stirring up hockey Twitter for a few hours.

Listen. Crosby is better then me I never said he wasn’t. He’s obviously one of the best ever. It was @ovi8 vs Sid. None of you played in the NHL and know how hard it is to score goals in the NHL. 724 is insane. Sid just whined way too much and Ovi just shut up and played hard. pic.twitter.com/rI2aSriYvY

— Brandon Dubinsky (@BDubi17) April 2, 2021

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