| (Photo Credit: Christian Petersen)
Dan Bylsma wished there were more games to play when he sat down for his season-ending press conference in early April. His first season as coach of the Buffalo Sabres had come to an end and, for the first time as a coach in the NHL, his team had fallen short of the postseason.
The team he took over in Buffalo this season was far less developed than the Pittsburgh Penguins club he coached from 2009-14. That team's roster was well established and he was able to lead the Penguins to a Stanley Cup championship in his first season.
In Buffalo, many new – and young – faces were trying to find their roles on the team early on. Ryan O'Reilly and Evander Kane would be counted on to shoulder a large part of the scoring load, but neither had played a game for the franchise yet. Neither had goaltenders Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson, both coming off of injuries.
Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart might one day resemble Buffalo's version of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but to begin the year, they were teenage rookies with high expectations, but little to no NHL experience. Eichel was one of nine players to make his franchise debut on opening night; Reinhart had just nine games under his belt.
Needless to say, there were going to be adjustments. The team struggled to develop consistency over the first two months of the season and dug themselves into a first-half hole in the standings that eventually proved insurmountable.
"I would say they didn’t gel right off the bat because we did make a lot of changes," general manager Tim Murray said. "That's a coaching staff, players, support staff – there was a lot of change here."
Once they did catch on, it was noticeable. The proof is in the numbers: the Sabres' points percentage jumped from 0.415 in the first 41 games to point 0.573 in the final 41. That latter mark, expanded over a full season, would have given them 94 points.
It left Bylsma wanting more.
"I'd like to start Game 1 right now," Bylsma said after the season ended. "I'd like to continue playing with what we established and how we play, roles for players and what you can expect from the Buffalo Sabres on the ice."
LEARNING TO WIN
After the Sabres dropped their second game of the season, a 4-1 loss at home against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Bylsma made it clear: his team was still in the early stages of learning how to win. They needed to come together, he said, and they were at the very beginning of doing that.
Murray reiterated that sentiment after the season ended in April.
"Young players have to learn how to win," he said. "It just doesn’t come to them through osmosis. They have to learn how to win."
You could see them learning how to win, not only as the season progressed but also in individual games. The Sabres had seven third-period comebacks, second only to the Los Angeles Kings' eight. They erased third-period deficits in 18 games, going on to earn points in 12 of them.
"We won some fun games this year," Murray said. "We're not fourth in the League to L.A.'s eight and Washington's seven and somebody else's six. It's our seven. It's our seven. So there were dramatic comebacks, there were different types of wins … I think it's going to turn out that it was very important."
The young players in particular seemed to figure out how to score when it counted. Eichel led the team with five game-winning goals, tied with Johan Larsson, who also played in his first full NHL season. Sam Reinhart and Evander Kane, both under 25, had three each.
Eichel and Kane connected on what was arguably the most memorable game-winning goal of the season, an overtime goal at the buzzer against Carolina on March 12.
For Eichel, the challenge was simply learning how to make the most out of the ups and downs of an 82-game season.
"You look at the best players in the League and the teams that are always in the mix, they're more consistent than anything else," Eichel said. "They don’t go on losing skids. They find ways to win games that maybe they shouldn’t and they're able to win those one-goal games in the third period or capitalize in overtime, get those extra points. And as a team, that's something that we weren’t able to do this year.
"I think we should expect ourselves to get over the hump and do that next season."
When the Sabres concluded their first practices under Bylsma at Training Camp in September, they were taken back by the pace and level of work. They enjoyed the structure, but it wasn’t the sort of practices they'd grown accustomed to in recent years. As they put it, there weren’t many water breaks.
"Speaking with the players throughout the year, there was a lot of new systems and a lot of new things of how we want to play and there was a good portion of getting comfortable with that," Bylsma said. "Getting comfortable with how we're going to play, how we want to play, how we want to work … I think you saw that evolve as the year went on."
Naturally, there was very little consistency in the Sabres' lineup in the early parts of the season. Line changes occurred on a near game-by-game basis. Players were not only getting used to playing with one another, but playing in their new coach's systems.
When it eventually clicked, you could see it in how they played.
"I think that was one of the biggest goals all year was to create a team identity right from the get-go," forward Marcus Foligno said. "I think it was around just before Christmas that teams thought we were really hard and never gave up on a game if we got down in goals and the compete level was always there. We were kind of a hungry bunch and I think you saw it all year."
They became a hard-working, hard forechecking team that proved able to play any opponent closely. Part of learning to win is grinding out close wins, and while the Sabres have work to do in that regard – their winning percentage in one-goal games was .390, which ranked 27th in the League – the 41 one-goal games they found themselves in this season ranked eighth in the NHL.
Lines eventually became more consistent, with players taking on specific roles and running with them. No example stands out more so than the line of Foligno, Larsson and captain Brian Gionta, who embraced their job as Bylsma's "shutdown" defensive line against the top lines of their opponents. It's no coincidence that as they became more comfortable in the role, each of their offensive numbers spiked too.
"It's huge," Gionta said. "When guys bought into their roles and the style of play that we needed to play as a team, what we needed to be as a team, that's when we started to take off. We needed guys buying into playing the right way and doing the little things that add up to wins. That's when we got to be a better team."
IN THE ROOM
If it took time for the Sabres to mesh on the ice, the process was much smoother off of it. Right from Training Camp, there was a noticeable chemistry in a group of players who largely had never played together before.
Eichel and Reinhart, the team's top prospects, struck an immediate friendship. Ryan O'Reilly and Jamie McGinn played prominent roles in the dressing after being traded from Colorado, with the former being named an alternate captain and eventually becoming known for the post-practice drills that helped Reinhart improve drastically over the season. At season's end, O'Reilly would be named Most Valuable Player by his teammates.
Most importantly, the veterans in the room allowed the team's young players to feel comfortable right off the bat.
"I think that's one of the most important things," Eichel said. "You come into the room and all of a sudden, you're playing with guys who you were watching your whole life and playing video games with. So it's a little bit weird. For the young guys, I think the older guys did an amazing job with welcoming us from day one and making us feel a part of the team, feel like we belong. It allowed us to be ourselves."
Perhaps when next season finally does arrive, the learning that occurred during the 2015-16 season will be looked back on as a stepping stone for the team and its young players towards reaching new heights. There will be changes, of course, but they will pale in comparison to the massive roster overhaul of last summer.
When Eichel looks back on his first professional season and his first NHL team, he'll simply remember the way a group of mostly strangers were able to band together both on the ice and off.
"For us to come together the way we did as a team off the ice, what a group of guys to be around," Eichel said. "It definitely made it fun coming to the rink every day, seeing the people in this room and being able to just hang out and talk.
"It's definitely been a whirlwind, but I definitely wouldn’t change the last 12 months for anything. Hopefully the next 12 are better."