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Sabres say change is coming at locker cleanout day

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

SABRES NOW (4/9/18)

SABRES NOW (4/9/18)

On locker cleanout day, the Sabres reflect on the 2017-2018 season while also looking ahead to next year

  • 03:14 •

Phil Housley had a common message for his players during exit meetings for the Buffalo Sabres on Monday: Get ready for training camp, because it's not going to be easy.  

"Obviously, to be at this position at this point in the season and [say] how disappointing it is, is an understatement," Housley said. "When I came here, I didn't envision being here in this place. We can learn from what happened in the past here, but obviously we can't change what's happened. 

"What we can do to change is make sure we're ready for camp."

If their comments on locker cleanout day are any indication, the players should be up to the task. As they dissected their last-place finish while meeting with the media, players seemed resigned to the fact that change is in order if they're going to right the ship.

There will be external change - Jason Botterill said as much back at the trade deadline, when he was blunt in saying that the current makeup of the team's roster wasn't working. But change must also come from within, according to Housley, and his players echoed the sentiment.

Jack Eichel was at the forefront in that regard.  

"We have to communicate a message to our fans, our organization, our city, that as bad as things were, we're going to change it," Eichel said. "We're going to change things around here. It starts with the guys in the room.

"… It starts with the guys that are our leaders. It's been a tough three years, but I'm fully invested in this team, this organization, this city. I'm here for a while. I'm excited about it. I'm excited about the future. I think things will get better, and it starts with me. I, personally, need to get better and I think that's one of the ways I needed to grow up a bit."

Video: Cleanout: EICHEL

The Sabres have missed the playoffs for seven-straight seasons. Jason Pominville, who was on the organization's last playoff team in 2010-11, said it became apparent during the season that the dressing room had become accustomed to losing. 

Other players agreed. Ryan O'Reilly, Kyle Okposo and Sam Reinhart all admitted to varying degrees that a culture of losing has crept into the team.

"It's unfortunate, but it's something that can't be acceptable," Pominville said. "And at times - I know everyone wants to win, no one wants to lose - you kind of have those habits where it becomes acceptable almost, without even realizing it. 

"I mean, you could ask other guys on the team that have been on winning teams, it's something that's noticeable and that has to change."

Scott Wilson was a late addition to the team, acquired from Detroit in December after winning the Stanley Cup last season with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He said that things as simple as habits in a morning skate can be what separate successful organizations from losing ones.

"I think just intensity," he said. "Simple passes, whether it's the first or the last drill. Just being intense and really taking it into your own hands to be ready for that night. I think sometimes we got away from that. But the good news is that's something you can clean up. It's not a lack of skill or a lack of talent in here. It's just being a pro every day."

Both Pominville and Wilson were adamant in their belief that the Sabres have the pieces to get the job done. Okposo was, too, having been on the New York Islanders for five futile seasons before they began a string of three playoff appearances in four years back in 2013.

"It's tough, but I saw it happen," Okposo said. "I went through the first five years of my career and we were not a playoff team, we were not a good hockey team. And then it changed. We didn't have a lot of playoff experience on the Islanders. The first time we played in the playoffs, we had 16 guys out of 20 playing their first playoff game. 

"But we learned how to become a good team after that. It's a mindset. It's working every day, like I said. So, it can change. It can, without playoff experience. But it has to be a complete buy-in from everybody and it has to be every game."

Several players said that consistency in habits is needed in order to have consistency in games. The Sabres won three-straight contests on just one occasion this season. They managed back-to-back wins four times. 

"It just seemed like we'd play a good game, feel good about ourselves," Eichel said. "We'd play a good few games, feel good about ourselves. And then there'd be a one or two-game, three-game lapse, and then you're back to questioning yourself again. I think that's the thing we need to change. 

"… I thought there were some really good moments but consistently it just wasn't there. You look at some of the games that maybe we weren't playing against the best team or there wasn't the most at stake during that game, I thought maybe we didn't come ready to play. 

"I think that's on us and it's something we need to change."

Of course, change must start at the beginning. The Sabres began this season with five-straight losses and went on to win just three games in October, which Housley said was particularly damaging to their confidence given the team's recent history. That early hole proved insurmountable.

Video: Cleanout: HOUSLEY

Next training camp, Housley won't have to spend time implementing a new system. Implementing a new culture begins on day one.

"We have to be ready to go," Housley said. "I think our start is going to be crucial for our season next year, and that starts in training camp. We can talk about the results that we had this year, but our playoffs start on the first day of training camp."


Okposo looks forward to a healthy summer

Video: Cleanout: OKPOSO

At this time last year, Okposo was in neurosurgical intensive care dealing with the effects of a season-ending concussion. He wasn't able to begin his typical offseason training regimen until the beginning of June as a result.

Okposo admitted to feeling the effects of that shortened summer during the season, which saw him score 44 points (15+29) in in 76 games.

"This summer, it's going to be a lot more focused on my body and getting my body where it needs to be," he said. "I played through a lot of stuff this year. There's reasons for that, because like I said, the training wasn't there. I didn't have that base, the mechanics. 

"I felt really disjointed this year and I think it reflected in my play. So, I'm just going to work, I'm going to get back to what I do best. I'll take a couple weeks here but then I'm going to get right back at it."


Ristolainen wants to step up as a leader

Video: Cleanout: RISTOLAINEN

Rasmus Ristolainen was another Sabre who admitted he needed to change for the better going into next season. In the big picture, he said he wants to be one of the top defensemen in the NHL. Within the dressing room, he said he wants to be looked at as a leader.

"I feel like I can be more vocal," he said. "I feel like I work hard every day on and off the ice, but I can be a better leader vocally."

Ristolainen scored 41 points (6+35) and averaged a career-high 26:30 in ice time this season, which ranked fourth in the NHL.


O'Reilly wants to be part of the solution

Video: Cleanout: O'REILLY

O'Reilly has been notoriously hard on himself in the past when it comes to the team's lack of success. He admitted that this season, losing has at times took his passion for the game. 

"We're stuck in this mindset of just being OK with losing," he said. "I feel too it's really crept into myself. Over the course of the year I lost myself a lot, where it was just kind of get through, being OK with just not making a mistake, and that's not winning hockey at all and it's crept into all of our games.

"It's disappointing, it's sad. I feel throughout the year I've lost the love of the game multiple times and just need to get back to it because it's eating myself up and eats the other guys up, too. It's eating us up, it's tough."

This summer, his focus will be on getting back to being himself.

"I really want to be part of the solution here," he said. "I love this city, I love it here, I call it home. There's some good pieces, but it's a big change I need to make mentally."


Wilson is confident in Botterill

Video: Cleanout: WILSON

Wilson knows Botterill well from their shared time in the Penguins organization and said he's confident that the Sabres GM is the man for the job. 

"Absolutely. If I could pick anybody, I think it would be Bottsy right now," Wilson said. "Just his personality and his love for the game, along with his demeanor. For a young group of guys, you've got a lot of high-end prospects coming in. I think he's definitely the guy you want here.


Johnson is open to returning

Video: Cleanout: JOHNSON

Chad Johnson is set to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, but said he's open to a return to Buffalo if other changes are made. Johnson went 10-17-3 in 36 games with a 3.55 goals-against average this season, but his numbers were inflated by poor defensive play early.

"Right now, I said to the management and stuff too, I would," Johnson said. "I would come back. As tough as a year as it was for myself and my family - I take everything home with me, I'm not that guy that can just flip the page - I would. But I have to be shown that.

"… I'd have to see the change, whether it's through players or somehow convince me through contracts, through whatever it is, then I would. Because I do believe that the organization wants to win, that they'll do anything they can to win."


Antipin not set on future plans

Video: Cleanout: ANTIPIN

Defenseman Victor Antipin, set to become a restricted free agent this offseason, has not made any decisions as to whether he'll continue a career in the NHL or return to the KHL next season. Antipin scored 10 assists in 47 games this season and was voted by teammates as Buffalo's rookie of the year.

"I like to play here," he said. "It's a good league."

Antipin's season ended in Nashville on March 31 when he was carted off the ice following a hit from Scott Hartnell. He estimated that he was unconscious for three minutes following the hit, but was released from the hospital later that night and diagnosed with a concussion.


Mittelstadt ready for Worlds

Video: Cleanout: MITTELSTADT

Casey Mittelstadt will represent Team USA at the IIHF World Championship in May, where he'll begin to apply some of the lessons he learned during his six-game stint with the Sabres. He scored a goal and four assists in those games.

"I think it gave me a look into what I need to do this summer to get better for next year," he said. "There's a lot of little things I can do, like little things defensively, closing my gap a little bit more, things like that."

O'Reilly will also play at the World Championship, representing Canada for the fourth-straight year. Eichel, Reinhart and Ristolainen all confirmed that they will not be playing in the tournament.

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