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'Win the moments' | How Kevyn Adams built the 2020-21 Sabres

Driven by WNY roots, the GM has prioritized detail and collaboration in the front office

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

It's a sunny August afternoon in Western New York, and Kevyn Adams is making the rounds to meet with season-ticket holders. The Buffalo Sabres days prior revealed their new royal blue uniforms, a return to the shade the team wore when a young Adams used to sit in the oranges at Memorial Auditorium.

Adams, two months into his job as general manager, walks into the lobby of a downtown apartment building and hands a box of bright-blue apparel to Eileen Nosek, who is joined by her son and husband. They chat about their favorite NHL arenas and talk about the upcoming season until eventually a mutual acquaintance comes up.

"My boss is Rob Walter," Nosek says. 

Adams lights up. "I just talked to Rob this morning." 

The interaction becomes a theme throughout the day. The next stop is Lackawanna to meet Ralph Galanti, a season-ticket holder dating back to the days of the Buffalo Bisons. After a conversation about the old Aud, Galanti reveals he had tried to recruit Adams back when he coached at ECC. Next is South Buffalo to visit James and Katie Blake - who, it turns out, have a son who plays with Adams'. 

These are the sort of run-ins Buffalonians know well, the type that are inevitable when a person has deep roots in the area. Adams fell in love with hockey skating on a backyard pond in Clarence and parlayed that passion into a 10-year NHL career. He is believed to be the first player who returned the Stanley Cup to Buffalo, having won it at the Sabres' expense with the Hurricanes in 2006. 

These days, Adams is focused on bringing the Cup to Buffalo in a different sort of way.

"It's something I think about every day," he says. "I honestly do. I think about, 'How do we do the little things and win the moments on a daily basis that always just get you stepping towards that goal?' 

"Because it's not like, when that happens eventually down the road, it's not like it would just happen. All these days and all these little things that lead up to it are kind of what you need to build off. It would be amazing. This town would be amazing."

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When the Sabres arrive to KeyBank Center for the start of training camp Thursday, it will - as coach Ralph Krueger stated recently - be the continuation of a story. The core group of young players headlined by Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin remains intact and will look to build on strides made on and off the ice during the COVID-shortened 2019-20 campaign. 

Video: Coming This Season: Jack Eichel

But if it is the same story, it is almost certainly a new chapter. Adams was named general manager in June and since then has reshaped the organization in his vision, with two basic tenets in mind. One was to build a deeper roster more capable of matching up with opponents throughout four lines and three defense pairs. The other was to recruit individuals, both on and off the ice, who believed in the Sabres' mission and truly wanted to be in Buffalo. 

First came a trade to acquire Eric Staal, the veteran centerman with whom Adams won the Stanley Cup in 2006. Free agent additions were sought out for specialized roles - Tobias Rieder for his aptitude on the penalty kill, Cody Eakin to bring stability to the third-line center position. 

The biggest fish, of course, was the signing of 2018 Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall to a one-year deal. Adams said then that the move would not have been made if he did not believe that Hall would be a true fit for Western New York.

Matt Ellis, a longtime colleague of Adams' who now serves as director of player development, is convinced that's not lip service.

"That's something that's lived and breathed every day," Ellis says. 

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Within Adams' KeyBank Center office sits a worn spiral notebook that has traveled with him since 1998, from Toronto to Columbus to four other NHL stops and now back home to Buffalo. Decades worth of quotes are scribbled inside, sayings Adams heard and found inspiring or thought might serve him well in the future. One quote, an excerpt from Teddy Roosevelt's "Man in the Arena" speech, hangs on the office wall. 

It's that sort of thinking - inquisitive, detailed, analytical - that friends and colleagues believe carried Adams on his unique path to becoming a GM, the same thinking that is now being used to build the Sabres. 

Video: Sabres: Embedded Episode 1 - The Man In The Arena

His curiosity is what drove him to begin chipping away at an MBA while he was still playing in the NHL. Later, after four years coaching in the Sabres organization, it inspired him to accept a job from Terry and Kim Pegula as director of the Academy of Hockey - which, at that point, was nothing more than an idea.

Charlie Mendola was one of the first people Adams recruited to his team. Mendola had played junior hockey with Adams, but his playing career ended after three years at R.I.T. He then spent 15 years in banking, offering a blend of business acumen and hockey knowledge that would prove valuable in building the Academy. 

With a directive to build a program that would turn Buffalo-bred players into professionals, an early team consisting of Adams, Mendola, Jeremiah Crowe, Adam Mair, Martin Biron, and Olga Khmylev worked to start the Academy from scratch. They watched NHL video and sought to identify the tendencies behind top skills. Was it head placement? Hand placement? Body position? They studied what times of day were best for performance and sought the most effective player-to-coach ratios.

It took nine months of development and 10 different iterations before the Academy of Hockey arrived at its first programming. They hoped to see professional results beginning with players from the 2002 birth year, which would give those players five years of development before their draft. 

Ellis, who worked with the Academy of Hockey following his playing career, said the principles that made the program successful translated to how Adams approached his first offseason with the Sabres.

"I one-hundred percent see some parallels there, communication being the first one," Ellis said. "At the Academy, whether it be a player or a program we were trying to get off the ground, we would have people with their background knowledge or their areas of expertise laying everything on the table and going through the process together to get to the answer we needed to get to. 

"A lot of that did hold true as we worked through the draft and free agency. Definitely doing your homework, making sure you laid everything in front of you out on the table, communication flowing where there are really no walls up, no barriers. Everyone's seeing things through a different angle."

Adams, Ellis, and Crowe were in the room together when the Tampa Bay Lightning selected Declan McDonnell with the last pick of the 2020 NHL Draft, the fifth Academy player selected from the 2002 birth year. 

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Adams recalls telling his Hurricanes teammates to prepare for an atmosphere unlike anything they had ever seen going into the 2006 Eastern Conference Final. He had seen it years prior as a visiting player with Toronto during the Conference Final in 1999 and before that during his youth. 

Seeing it again is what motivates him now. 

"I understand the DNA of this community, of our fan base, the passion, of what this town can and will be like when we gets this team to where it needs to," he said. "… It drives me and it drives all of us every day. In my opinion, it's about doing this the right way with the right people, to put ourselves in the right position to have sustainable success, set us up for year after year to compete to ultimately put ourselves in a position to compete for the Stanley Cup. 

"… So, how do you get there? And it's breaking that down. And I ultimately go deeper, and if you have that mentality day in and day out, and our players and our coaches and our staff and our business operations and everybody that works in the organization, you have that mindset, on a daily basis, then it starts to build and grow. Win more moments, then they become bigger ones."

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