Sabres GM Kevyn Adams plans to retool '.500 team' with long-term plan in mind


Staff member

Gathered in KeyBank Center on the eve of training camp in September, the Buffalo Sabres listened attentively as their general manager, Kevyn Adams, set the stage for a season with higher expectations and playoff aspirations.

“I’ve said from the beginning that we need people that want to be here, and we’ve had enough time to start to build this the right way,” Adams told the group. “So, I get excited. I think we’re in a great spot.”

When Adams addressed reporters the following day, he declared, “Look, I think our window’s open right now and our goal is to be giving ourselves a chance every single year for the sustainable success I talked about for a long time.”

Three weeks later, as the Sabres hosted the New York Rangers to open the 2023-24 season, Adams and coach Don Granato received a raucous ovation from the sellout crowd when they were introduced. Missing the playoffs by one point six months earlier inspired hope in Western New York that the franchise was finally positioned to snap a postseason drought that dated to 2011.

Now, as Adams prepares for the NHL’s trade deadline at 3 p.m. Friday, he’s in a position where, if the right deal is offered, he will have to trade away his captain, Kyle Okposo; alternate captain, Zemgus Girgensons; and key free-agent signing Erik Johnson, a recent Stanley Cup champion who was brought to Buffalo to help shepherd the youngest team in the league into the playoffs.

Almost every scenario has been considered, excluding the trades of franchise pillars, as Adams tries to reshape a roster that has produced a 29-29-4 record through 62 games and sat 11 points out of a playoff spot entering Monday.

“In this job, you have to always be thoughtful about taking emotion out and trying to truly evaluate what’s real,” Adams told The Buffalo News during a sit-down interview Saturday evening. “We are a .500 team right now, period. That’s fact. Now, let’s take the emotion out and find out why.”

Critical eye​

Only a few players on the Sabres are performing better than last season, when the club won seven of its last nine games to finish with 91 points, Buffalo’s highest total since it had 96 in 2010-11.

Tage Thompson, Alex Tuch and Jeff Skinner have a combined 55 goals after the trio produced 118 last season. Dylan Cozens dropped from 31 to 14, Victor Olofsson plummeted from 28 to four and injuries, including a ruptured Achilles, prevented Jack Quinn from building on the 14 that he scored as a rookie.

At this point last season, the Sabres were third in the NHL in goals per game (3.71), their power play ranked fourth and they were only three points out of a playoff spot. Now, they’re 22nd in goals per game (2.94), their power play is 26th and, according to MoneyPuck, they have a 2.2% chance to break the postseason drought.

Complicating matters, Adams must decide which version of his team is real: the one that played at a 75-point pace from Oct. 12 through Dec. 30, or the one that’s at a 95-point pace since New Year’s Day.

Since Jan. 1, Buffalo is fourth in the NHL in goals allowed per game (2.29), its power play is 12th and its penalty kill is 13th. Conversations with the coaching staff, players and analytics department have shaped Adams’ perspective as he maintains a critical eye on a team that has allowed a league-worst 73 goals in the first period and has led at the first intermission only 12 times in 62 games.

Owner Terry Pegula has questioned Adams on what has gone wrong. Only so much can be done to alter the roster after the Sabres committed $246.15 million to long-term contracts for Thompson, Cozens, Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power.

“I do like a lot of the metrics that are even better than we were last year in some of the structure and the way we’re playing, but the best teams do it all: defend well, score, good special teams,” Adams noted. “We’re doing certain things better, certain things worse. The really important conversations are going to be how do we continue to do better in the [obvious areas], like scoring chances against and 5-on-5 defending … but how do you get that mojo of the skill that we have, the pace that we have and balance it? And then how do we make sure our power play is getting better, because if we have a top-five power play in the league then we have more points in the standings, I can promise you.”

Strategy is part of the problem and must be addressed with the coaching staff. The Sabres lost their identity as a fast-paced, aggressive team in their mission to become more responsible defensively. It took them too long to solve the poor starts and power-play issues that prevented them from winning more than three games in a row. Adams refused to lean on injuries as a viable excuse, though each of his top forwards has been impacted.

Though the defense corps is better than last season, bolstered by the signing of Connor Clifton, the Sabres know changes to the roster are needed.

Finding help​

Adams did not sign a forward in free agency once the Sabres learned in late June that Quinn would miss approximately six months. None of the prospects with the Rochester Americans was ready to earn a spot in training camp, creating an opportunity for 2023 first-round pick Zach Benson to make the opening-night roster. While Benson has earned his NHL ice time, he has only six goals in 51 games. It’s challenging for an 18-year-old winger to make an impact, especially one who is 5-foot-10, 170 pounds.

The Sabres thought they would be able to lure future Hall-of-Famer Patrick Kane to return to his hometown once he was cleared to return from hip-resurfacing surgery. The final training camp of Adams’ 10-year-NHL career included an assignment from the Chicago Blackhawks to room with Kane, who was a few months removed from his selection first overall at the NHL draft. Granato worked with Kane during his two seasons as an assistant coach with Chicago from 2017-19.

Once Kane opted to sign with the Detroit Red Wings in late November, Adams pivoted and tried to trade for multiple players with no-trade protection, only to learn that none was willing to go to Buffalo.

“It’s frustrating because we did that to ourselves,” said Adams, who was a center and alternate captain for the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup team in 2006.

The tone and substance of conversations Adams is having with his players are far different than one year ago, when the Sabres were putting the framework together on a trade that eventually brought 6-foot-6 power forward Jordan Greenway from Minnesota.

Okposo, Girgensons and Erik Johnson have shared with Adams where they prefer to play after the trade deadline. The Sabres’ general manager met with center Casey Mittelstadt recently to explain, while the club plans to begin contract talks with the pending restricted free agent’s agent, Neil Sheehy, following the deadline, it also must listen to and consider any trade offers that occur before 3 p.m. Friday.

Earlier Saturday, Adams met with Quinn, who is still wearing a walking boot stemming from an injury that occurred on the eve of the team’s bye week. Quinn, 22, had five goals with 12 points in 17 games before he hurt the same leg that he had to strengthen following Achilles surgery in June. He’s running out of time to return before the Sabres’ final regular-season game April 15.

“It’s just so disappointing,” Adams said of the situation around Quinn, who was the general manager’s first draft pick, eighth overall, in 2020.

Any significant change to the roster likely will have to wait until the summer. Adams has informed other general managers that the Sabres’ prospects and picks are available for the right price. However, those types of trades are easier to make in late June or early July. He’s open to moving notable young players – Mittelstadt and Peyton Krebs have generated interest – but only if it’s a move that improves Buffalo’s roster now. But general managers with realistic Stanley Cup aspirations, or who are on the playoff bubble, aren’t willing to move proven NHL players off their roster before a postseason run.

The Sabres aren’t in the market for more prospects and players in any trade involving a significant player who isn’t on an expiring contract. Adams, for example, won’t be interested in a trade like the one that sent Sam Reinhart to Florida for goalie Devon Levi and a 2022 first-round pick, which the club used on Jiri Kulich.

Bottom-six forwards and third defense pairs are areas in which Adams would like to improve for next season and beyond.

“I do think identifying players to play specific roles, especially in the bottom part of our lineup, is going to be important for us moving forward,” said Adams, whose bottom-six will take a hit if Okposo and Girgensons are traded.

Pressure points​

One of the strongest prospect pipelines in the NHL may produce another forward who is ready to push for a roster spot in the fall, particularly Kulich, Isak Rosen, Matt Savoie and Noah Ostlund.

Adams has stressed that he will never block a prospect’s path. How does he plan to balance winning with that strategy?

“It’s a million-dollar question, right?” Adams admitted. “I think the way I feel and look at it is if a player clearly earns the spot and deserves to be here and makes my job hard, then, like Benson did, we make room for him. We find a way because that’s the way it should be. You want your players earning that. You don’t want players to feel like ‘I belong and now they don’t have room for me.’ ”

The Sabres didn’t make room for Benson, though. They desperately needed someone to fill the void created by Quinn’s absence because a move wasn’t made in the summer. Does Adams consider how the players in his dressing room may feel if the Sabres introduce more rookies to the NHL next season when their focus will be on reaching the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

“For me, you can say let’s go get three guys in their early 30s and they have this experience and then their game falls off,” said Adams. “Or you can be like, we’re going with the really young guys and then it doesn’t look like they’re ready. It’s never a perfect science. In this job, until you win, you’re not making the right decision.

Everything we do, from this moment moving forward, is about getting better and winning hockey games. … Now, it’s really about managing the roster and putting it together where maybe you’re using assets to bring in a player who makes sense.”

While Adams expressed confidence that his core is strong enough to insulate a young player, he acknowledged that the circumstances have changed.

The Sabres’ development plan in Rochester, led by Amerks coach Seth Appert, has inspired confidence that prospects are going to improve with time in the American Hockey League and, as a result, the organization’s stance now, according to Adams, is to be cautious unless a player forces their way onto the roster, like Quinn and JJ Peterka did with their prolific play.

Different pressure points exist for Adams now. Fans aren’t going to heed calls for patience like they did two years ago. The team’s revenues will be impacted if season-ticket sales drop next season. And, despite its blemishes, the roster is strong enough to reach the playoffs with a few tweaks, especially now that Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen has emerged as a No. 1 goalie.

The noise surrounding the team, from the “Fire Don-ny” chants during a 9-4 loss to Columbus in December to the criticisms surrounding the roster, have not altered Adams’ approach. His focus is to follow through on a plan that began almost three years ago with the trades of Reinhart and Jack Eichel.

“It doesn’t change the way I do my job,” said Adams. “Of course, you hear it, you think about it and, in this job, you can’t give into the emotion or pressure and noise that can really build. You have to be able to handle that because if not, you just end up making mistakes.”