Sabres mailbag part 1: Don Granato’s job status, NHL trade deadline strategy and more


Staff member

For just the second time all season, the Buffalo Sabres have a two-game winning streak.

They needed a 40-save performance from Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and two successful challenges to reverse Penguins goals, but the Sabres escaped Pittsburgh with two more crucial points.

As of Monday morning, Money Puck’s playoff predictor calculated the Sabres’ playoff chances at 12 percent. That’s not a strong position to be in, but for a team that has won consecutive games just twice all season, it could be a lot worse. They are about to begin a six-game homestand in which five of the six games are against teams that are not in a playoff position. Seven of the Sabres’ next 10 games are against teams not in playoff position.

This next stretch of games represents what could be Buffalo’s last and best chance to make a push up the standings.

Given the position the Sabres have put themselves in through 40 games, there are a lot of questions about this team and where it goes from here. We’ll tackle as many of those questions as we can in part one of our midseason mailbag.

What are the chances Granato is let go? Has he reached his ceiling as a coach with this team? — Chuck R.

This was a running theme with the mailbag questions, and it’s arguably the most important question facing the team for the rest of the season. Only seven coaches in the NHL have been in their job longer than Don Granato. Changing coaches is the norm in the NHL, and general managers often fire a coach to try to give their team a boost or wake-up call. It feels too late in the season for the Sabres to make a change that will save their season. If that was going to happen, Adams would have done it sooner.

Unless things go completely off the rails in the second half of the season, Granato should get the rest of the season. The Sabres are finally fully healthy for the first time all season, so this is Granato’s chance to show the early part of the season was an outlier. Granato has done an impressive job with a lot of individual players on Buffalo’s roster and got the team to 91 points last season, so I’m OK with Adams giving him some leeway. Like the players, Granato is learning to navigate what it takes to coach in a pressure environment with high expectations. That said, if the Sabres don’t make the playoffs, Adams needs to think about making a change because there is only so much he can do to the roster, given how many players are locked into long-term deals.

Assuming that Adams will not replace Granato in the offseason, is it more realistic to expect a change of the assistant coaches and if so, do you think Adams would step in by making some (if not all) of the choices as opposed to allowing Granato to choose them?

Related to the assistants, do you think Adams would promote Appert to an NHL assistant role as a pre-emptive move against losing him to another organization?

I lobbied the idea of replacing Ellis with Kevin Dineen; Christie with Appert; Wilford with James Patrick; Bales with Craig Anderson; and targeting Jay McKee as the new HC for Amerks. All of the replacements have more proven coaching experience than the current assistant coaches. — Torsten S.

Torsten S. is frequently one of our most thoughtful commenters, and he presents some interesting solutions to Buffalo’s coaching dilemma. I do think if the Sabres don’t make the playoffs and Granato stays, Adams needs to step in and make some changes to the assistant coaches. As you would expect, we got a lot of questions about Matt Ellis since he is the one overseeing Buffalo’s 28th-ranked power play. As The Athletic’s Tim Graham pointed out a few weeks ago, the Sabres’ assistants are lacking experience in a big way, and that includes Ellis. Granato is also a first-time head coach. So if he’s going to get a fourth full season without qualifying for the playoffs, Adams needs to surround him with a more experienced staff. Not only would it benefit the entire operation, but it would also give Adams some interim options if he needed to make an early season change.

I like some of Torsten’s suggestions. Jay McKee is a name I’ve thought about given the way he’s established himself in the OHL and his connection to the franchise. Kevin Dineen is the right type of experienced coach who could be an asset behind the bench. He has almost two decades of coaching experience in the AHL and NHL, including some time as an NHL head coach. James Patrick almost makes too much sense, too. He’s coached and played here and also coached two of Buffalo’s top prospects, Zach Benson and Matt Savoie, in junior. He was the ultimate professional as a player and would be a great influence on the Sabres’ younger players.

I’m not sure if Craig Anderson would be ready for a full-time coaching role since he’s spending most of his time in Florida with his family. Mike Bales also has more experience than any other assistant on staff, but I’d understand if the Sabres wanted a fresh voice for their young goalies.

That brings us to the Appert question. He’s been a major asset to this organization with his work in Rochester. The fact that Adams had Appert come up and coach the Sabres a few weeks ago while Granato was sick seemed significant. He’s more ready to be running an NHL bench than any of Buffalo’s current assistants. Is he quite ready for the head role? Maybe not. But giving him a promotion would be a nice way to reward him for what he’s done in Rochester. It would be tough for the Amerks to lose him, though. These could be some interesting conversations at the end of the season if the Sabres don’t make the playoffs.

I know that I’m paying the price for my excessive optimism about this year’s team. Are these just “growing pains” or is this going off the rails as badly as it feels right now? — Ralph S.

Is it reasonable to expect the 2024-25 Sabres to return to the playoffs? — Admiral

These questions had a shared tone and one that a lot of commenters had. The question is, essentially, is this team on the right track? I would say yes and no. I’m willing to let injuries serve as an excuse for some of the Sabres’ early-season disappointment. I still think Tage Thompson and Alex Tuch are top-end players. Jack Quinn’s addition to the lineup has been a major boost. Adams should have done more to account for his absence, but he’s shown how valuable he is in his return. Owen Power, Mattias Samuelsson and Dylan Cozens haven’t played up to their standards this season, but some of that could be growing pains.

So I fall somewhere in the middle here. The Sabres aren’t in a place where they need to think about breaking apart this core and starting another rebuild. Not yet anyway. But Adams needs to recognize the shortcomings of this roster and make the necessary additions either at the deadline or in the summer. Yes, playoffs should be reasonable to expect in 2024-25. The Sabres have a bunch of prospects they can use as trade chips. Their salary cap is still in a healthy place, too. And the roster has a lot of young talent. Adams needs to take more action than he did last offseason, but the pieces are still there for them to become a contender sooner rather than later.

Are the Sabres buyers or sellers at the deadline? — Ryan C.

The Sabres would need a winning streak in January to justify being buyers at the NHL trade deadline. But they won’t be sellers in the traditional sense, either. They have Erik Johnson, Zemgus Girgensons and Kyle Okposo as unrestricted free agents who could be attractive to a playoff team. But none will fetch more than a late draft pick, and trading your captain doesn’t seem worth it. The Sabres could do right by Girgensons and Johnson by giving them a chance to play in the playoffs. The only other unrestricted free agents are Victor Olofsson, who should be moved if the Sabres can find a suitor, the players who have already been waived (Tyson Jost and Eric Comrie) and Eric Robinson, who just arrived in a trade.

Beyond those players, the Sabres could look at their restricted free agents. Casey Mittelstadt is the biggest name out of that bunch. He leads the team in scoring and has become one of the Sabres’ best five-on-five players They don’t want to get rid of him, but Adams needs to decide where Mittelstadt fits into the big picture. How much does he want on his next contract and does that fit into Buffalo’s salary cap plans? If he doesn’t, Mittelstadt could be an attractive trade chip. That said, the Sabres shouldn’t be in a rush to make that decision, so the deadline might not be the best time to move him. They shouldn’t sell him for picks or prospects. They have plenty of those. The only justification for moving him would be to make a hockey trade that improves the NHL lineup.

The same could be said for Henri Jokiharju, Peyton Krebs and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who are also restricted free agents this summer. They’re young enough that they still hold some trade value. If the Sabres want to change the makeup of their team, moving a few of those players would open up space in the lineup and could return some decent NHL talent. Those might be trades that are easier to execute in the summer, though, since teams that are buying at the deadline might prefer to deal picks and prospects.

That brings us to the possibility of the Sabres being a buyer. Buffalo’s prospect pipeline is loaded, especially at forward. But will there be room for all of them in the NHL? Adams has preached patience during the Sabres’ rebuild, but at some point, he needs to be willing to trade prospects or picks for established NHL talent to speed things along. The Sabres aren’t in a strong enough position to be trading for players on expiring contracts unless they are confident in their ability to re-sign those players. But if a player with term is available, Adams should be ready to make a move regardless of the team’s position in the standings.

Say Okposo and Girgensons aren’t brought back next year, which seems likely, who do you think will wear the vacant C & A? — Cam M

Alex Tuch is wearing the ‘A’ while Kyle Okposo is injured, so he seems like a strong bet to get one of those vacant letters. In my time covering the Sabres, Rasmus Dahlin has struck me as the most likely next captain. But I see the appeal of Tuch, who is always ready to answer for wins and losses and is such a positive presence in the community. Either one would make a fine choice for captain, but Dahlin is my best guess. As for the other vacant letter, Tage Thompson would be my pick. He’s an understated leader for the Sabres. He’s only 26, but Thompson is a guy a lot of the younger players on the team look up to. He’s also one of the most competitive players on the roster. Dylan Cozens would be another candidate, but Thompson seems more ready for the responsibility.

If the Sabres and the Bills are playing at the same level, is Buffalo a football town or a hockey town? — Patrick V.

This is a tricky question because the last time the Bills and Sabres made the playoffs in the same season was 1999-2000. The world was different then. The Sabres have put their fans through a 12-year playoff drought and lost a tremendous amount of goodwill in that time. The NFL has also become an even more dominant presence in the lives of sports fans than it was 24 years ago. I’d say this is a football town even if both teams are playing well. That said, I’d love to see what this market is like when the Sabres are a perennial playoff team.