Sabres fire head coach Don Granato


TAMPA, Fla. – A sellout crowd inside KeyBank Center roared when the public address announcer introduced Don Granato as head coach of the Buffalo Sabres during pregame festivities on opening night in October.

Granato won over the fan base by tailoring the Sabres’ systems to the speed and skill on the roster. His decision to shift Tage Thompson from wing to center changed the franchise’s trajectory after it traded Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen and Jack Eichel in a span of four months.

The Sabres shifted from perpetual rebuild to playoff contender in two years. Rasmus Dahlin became a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate less than 24 months after he had the worst plus-minus in the NHL. Their 91 points in 2022-23 was the franchise’s best finish since their playoff drought began.

By late December, a swath of the fan base was calling for a coaching change. The Sabres fell behind early in games, struggled to score and did not win three games in a row until February. They eventually recovered and remained in the race until Game 79, when their playoff drought officially reached 13 years with a loss in Dallas.

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Failing to meet or exceed the expectations created by his work as coach officially cost Granato his job Tuesday as General Manager Kevyn Adams and owner Terry Pegula fired the 56-year-old after a 4-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Amalie Arena that had Buffalo finish with a record of 39-37-6.

A search for the Sabres’ next coach will begin in short order, with two years remaining on the contract extension Pegula gave Granato in October 2022. The sixth-longest tenured coach in the NHL, Granato led the club to a 122-125-27 record in 273 games since he took over in 2021 on an interim basis amid a 12-game losing streak that cost Ralph Kreuger the top job in Buffalo.

The Sabres also announced that assistant coach Jason Christie, a longtime Granato confidant dating to their days in the ECHL in Columbus in the 1990s, and video coach Matt Smith have also been relieved of their duties. The team said Adams would address the media Tuesday afternoon.

“I would like to thank Don for his time in Buffalo and commitment to the Sabres organization,” Adams said in a statement released by the team. “He has been integral in the development of many of our players and has undoubtedly been the right coach to bring us to where we are now, but I felt it was necessary to move in a different direction at this point in time.

“My expectation is to be a consistent contender and unfortunately that goal has not been met. … This is not a decision I take lightly but know it is in the best interest of our team moving forward.”

News Sports Columnist Mike Harrington offers his initial reactions to the firing of Sabres coach Don Granato.

Mike Harrington

The roster wasn’t built to win when Granato was elevated to the full-time coach, though. Reinhart, Ristolainen and Eichel were traded following the 2020-21 season that was shortened because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Sabres used six goalies during Granato’s first full season, they had Casey Mittelstadt for only 40 games because of injury, and Alex Tuch didn’t join the lineup until late December because he was recovering from shoulder surgery when the Baldwinsville native was acquired in the blockbuster trade that sent Eichel to Vegas in November 2021.

Icing a lineup that lacked depth, the Sabres went 16-9-3 over their final 30 games to inspire hope in Buffalo that they were ready to take a step the following season. Owen Power, drafted first overall in 2021, joined the team in March 2022. Thompson’s breakout began with 33 goals as their first-line center.

Expectations were tempered entering 2022-23. Top prospects Jack Quinn and JJ Peterka made the team out of training camp. The defense corps was still thin behind Dahlin, Power and Mattias Samuelsson. The NHL soon learned, though, that the Sabres were a prolific offensive team.

The club ranked third in the NHL in goals per game (3.57), its power play was ninth (23.4 percent) and it scored four or more goals in 40 of 82 games. The Sabres couldn’t keep the puck out of their net, though. They were 26th in goals allowed per game (3.62), their penalty kill ranked 28th and their goalies didn’t make enough saves.

Still, they were in the playoff race until Game 80 when they lost in New Jersey to the Devils. Devon Levi, a rookie goalie, won five of seven starts to help Buffalo recover from a challenging stretch in March. The Sabres finished one point behind the eventual Eastern Conference champion Florida Panthers for the final playoff spot.

The troubling trends in Buffalo’s games caused Adams to consider which areas they needed to improve to live up to expectations in 2022-23. The Sabres signed Connor Clifton and Erik Johnson to bolster their defense, but Adams chose not to add another forward once Quinn tore his Achilles during an off-ice workout in late June.

Matt Savoie, a first-round pick in 2022, was among the prospects that the franchise was counting on to earn a roster spot in training camp, and Victor Olofsson was brought back with the thought that he could overcome the struggles that he had in the final weeks of last season.

Training camp showed that neither Jiri Kulich nor Isak Rosen were ready for the NHL after Savoie injured his shoulder and elbow in the finale of the Prospects Challenge in September. Zach Benson, an 18-year-old drafted 13th overall only a few months earlier, made the team with standout performances in exhibition games.

A season of inconsistency

Still the youngest team in the NHL, the Sabres were inconsistent from the opening puck drop of the season. They fell behind too often early in games, allowing a league-worst 97 goals in the first period. Buffalo seemed to lose its on-ice identity while trying to become a more mature, playoff-ready team.

Granato said when the season began that every decision he made would be with winning in mind, and it became apparent early on that his approach had changed. Thompson was shifted to the fourth line during a particularly challenging night for the 6-foot-6 center. Others were benched in the third period of games, including Peterka and Jeff Skinner. The latter’s ice time dropped considerably in the final months of the season because of his struggles.

Erik Johnson was benched after the first period in Florida in what ended up being the 35-year-old defenseman’s final game with the Sabres. Clifton was also a healthy scratch for a game early this season.

Five-on-five scoring usually wasn’t the issue for the Sabres. Their 174 goals at 5-on-5 were tied for the 10th most in the NHL this season after only two teams scored more than them in 2022-23. Buffalo’s power play dropped to 28th in the NHL.

The Sabres played at a 76-point pace before Jan. 1, then their play began to improve once Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen took over the crease.

Luukkonen was one of the best goalies in the NHL after New Year’s Day and, along with an improved defense corps, helped the Sabres allow the 12th-fewest 5-on-5 goals after they ranked 28th last season. The Sabres went 9-3 at home over the final 12 games at KeyBank Center and, gradually, their top players began to produce as expected.

Peterka improved from 12 goals to 28 goals this season. Mittelstadt was their best player until he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche two days before the deadline in March. Henri Jokiharju became an invaluable piece of the blue line. Benson reached double-digit goals, Power rebounded from a challenging first half and Dahlin had 20 goals while looking like the best player on the ice most nights. His 59 points were tied with Tuch for the most on the team.

Several important Sabres took a step back, though. Thompson finished with 29 goals and 56 points after he totaled 47 goals and 94 points the previous season. He only missed nine games after breaking a bone in his hand blocking a shot, but it seemed to impact his performance for months.

Tuch dropped from 36 goals and 79 points to 22 goals and 59 points because of a slow start. Dylan Cozens went from 31 goals and 68 points to 18 goals and 47 points while trying to become a better defensive center this season.

Quinn suffered another lower-body injury on the eve of the All-Star break after five weeks back in the lineup and returned last month to have a promising finish to the season. It became clear how much the Sabres missed the 21-year-old when he was out of the lineup. He had nine goals and 17 points in 27 games.

Despite the challenges, Buffalo managed to beat top teams at home and on the road, but the Sabres’ inconsistent ways were alarming. “FIRE DON-NY!” chants erupted during a 9-4 loss to the Blue Jackets in KeyBank Center on Dec. 19. They allowed six unanswered goals in an 8-3 loss to the Oilers in Edmonton after leading by a goal with one minute left in the second period. There was the five-goal outburst by the Senators in the first period of a game in Buffalo last month.

Even as the Sabres were packing up to head to home to Buffalo to begin exit interviews, Granato declined to say whether Adams or Pegula gave him any assurances that he’d remain as coach next season.

“Let’s just stick with the game tonight,” said Granato. “A lot out great efforts out there. Obviously, I can reflect on … not where we wanted to be. So, I’ll leave it at that right now.”

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