Sabres mailbag, part 2: Don Granato’s future, prospects worth watching and more

The Buffalo Sabres should have been desperate entering the third period of their game against the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday night. At that point, the score was tied 3-3, and the Sabres had every reason to be scratching and clawing for every point. Instead, the Oilers scored five third-period goals, capping off a run of six straight goals to win the game 8-3 after the Sabres took a 3-2 lead.

The Sabres spent the third period committing sloppy turnovers and seemed disinterested in consistently back-checking as the Oilers generated 10 high-danger chances in the third period alone. According to Natural Stat Trick, the Sabres had just six high-danger chances the entire game while allowing the Oilers to get 22. This came two nights after the Canucks had a 26-7 advantage in high-danger chances against the Sabres on Tuesday.

Since getting within three points of a playoff spot this time last week, the Sabres have gone 1-3 in the first four games of a five-game road trip that concludes in Calgary on Sunday. They are now seven points behind the Red Wings for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. Three teams are between them and the Red Wings in the standings and all three have at least one game in hand. Whatever playoff opportunity existed a week ago has all but vanished in the span of four games.

Last season, the Sabres won nine of their last 12 games to come within a point of making the postseason. Without a similar run in the final 11 games, the Sabres will take a step back from the 91-point season they had last season. That should cause general manager Kevyn Adams to take a hard look at the roster and the coaching staff this offseason.

That’s where we’ll turn in our attention for part two of our mailbag.

I know you don’t think there will be a coaching change for next year. That said, do you think there should be and why? — Chuck R.

General manager Kevyn Adams told me before the trade deadline that he anticipates Don Granato coaching the team next season, so I’m not expecting a change. The Sabres played well enough to work their way back into the fringe of the playoff picture since those comments.

I think the Sabres would be justified in making a coaching change. Granato has coached the seventh most games among coaches who never reached the playoffs in NHL history. He’s also the sixth-longest tenured coach in the league right now. NHL teams change coaches often, but Adams has opted to take a more patient approach. That’s fine. Granato has done some good things in his time coaching the Sabres. The team made a lot of progress last season. But this season has been a step back. The power play has held them back, the team started the season slow and multiple star players aren’t reaching the potential they showed last season.

If Granato is returning next season, Adams needs to take a long look at who is on the bench with Granato and formulate a plan for what to do if the team gets off to another slow start. Mike Bales has proven to be a solid goalie coach for the Sabres, but Matt Ellis, Jason Christie and Marty Wilford are all inexperienced assistants at the NHL level. If Granato is going to continue as head coach, Adams should make sure he has a more proven staff around him. Not only would it help the team troubleshoot weaknesses that pop up the way the power play did this season, but it would give Adams an interim option if he has to move on from Granato in season.

Maybe it’s Stockholm syndrome at this point, but is it wrong that I’m encouraged by our play post-deadline and retain hope that next year everything will click? I know there were expectations for playoffs this year, and it hurts that they’re (almost) dashed, but somehow Adams and Donny just keep saying and doing *just enough* to keep me minorly bought in. I guess my question is, is it wrong I’m not as mad as others are about us underperforming this year? — Ryan O.

I don’t think you’re wrong, Ryan. Given what the team looked like when Adams and Granato stepped in, they’ve come a long way in returning the franchise to respectability. They also did it with an approach that requires patience. Adams has drafted well, and the Sabres haven’t done a bad job developing talent. When you build through the draft in the NHL, results can take a while. That doesn’t mean Adams gets an endless runway, but I understand your sentiment. There have been enough encouraging signs to have some hope it can all click next season.

That said, Adams can’t ignore this team’s flaws in the offseason and just hope it all clicks. He needs to do some serious work on the forward group. They need more players with the aforementioned competitiveness but also need to evaluate why their top scorers aren’t producing. Adams also has a lot of contract decisions to make that will impact the team’s spending flexibility in future years. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Peyton Krebs, Henri Jokiharju and Jacob Bryson are all restricted free agents, while a handful of other prominent players will be eligible for extensions this summer. Even the most patient and optimistic supporters of Adams would admit this is an offseason that could define his tenure as general manager.

Assuming the Sabres miss the playoffs, would you consider this to be a failed season? Will there be any ramifications for missing the playoffs again this year? — Brian F.

The Sabres weren’t shy about stating that the playoffs were their goal entering the season. So to come up short would be a failure. That’s not to say the entire rebuild has failed, but this season was a disappointment on several levels. The team has improved defensively and gotten elite goaltending for a long stretch of the season but will still be out of the playoffs because of regression from the top scorers. I’m not counting on any major ramifications for missing the playoffs, but it should make Adams more willing to consider trades similar to the Casey Mittelstadt deal. He needs to be aggressive about upgrading this roster, and that means making tough decisions about which players are going to be part of the core over the long term.

This is the third of his four professional seasons (including the two in Rochester — one of those, the weird, pandemic-delayed season) where Quinn has sustained an injury that took him out of the lineup for an extended period. How should that affect how much they count on him going forward? — Brian C.

The way the Sabres crumbled without Jack Quinn in the lineup earlier this season shows they need to build better forward depth. Some of Quinn’s injuries have been freak occurrences. But he is still developing from a strength standpoint and plays with a competitive edge. That combination puts him at more of a risk for injury. That said, Quinn has shown the potential to be an impact player and I’m not worried about the injuries adding up.

What prospects in Rochester other than Levi and those who were former first-round picks should we be most excited about? — Paul O.

The Sabres’ first-rounders get a ton of attention and for good reason, but the prospect pipeline is deep, too. Viktor Neuchev’s first season in North America is shaping up to be a success. The Russian winger has 10 goals and 16 assists for the Amerks and has points in five of his last six games. The 2022 third-rounder has an offensive game that can translate to the NHL given his skating and shooting ability. He and fellow Russian Nikita Novikov, a 6-foot-4 defenseman, both look like players who could develop into NHL players down the line. Nokikov has 18 points as an AHL rookie.

(Photo: Christopher Mast / NHLI via Getty Images)

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