The Buffalo Sabres will be going home for the summer after meeting with the media for the final time Sunday morning at First Niagara Center.
With the 2014-15 season and a frustrating last-place finish in the books, sights can be turned to potentially better days ahead.
Young players like Rasmus Ristolainen, Zemgus Girgensons, Johan Larsson and Marcus Foligno made great strides in their development during the year while veterans like Tyler Ennis, Matt Moulson and captain Brian Gionta put up consistent numbers, especially in the final half of the season.
The team will have some new healthy bodies available like left wing Evander Kane, who underwent season-ending shoulder surgery shortly before the Sabres acquired him in a trade in February.
Additionally, the organization will have either the first or second pick in the 2015 NHL Draft in June. The NHL Draft Lottery will be held Saturday night at 8 p.m. Any non-playoff team has the opportunity to win the lottery, but at 20 percent, the Sabres have the best chance at the top pick.
Gionta said he wishes the team was gearing up for a run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs instead of cleaning out his locker. But since that isn’t the cards, he said it’s up to each player to reflect and evaluate this past season and see how he can improve moving forward.
Eventually, Gionta will be able to look ahead to training camp in September and what the future may hold.
“It’s tough. It’s frustrating. You want to win. You’re a competitive guy and you want to win,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to be on some good teams and have some success.
“At the same time, with a few tweaks here and there, I don’t think we’re far off. We need to find some consistency in our game, but we show flashes where we can be good. So you know it’s there. It’s just pulling it out and doing it more consistency.”
Sabres alternate captain Josh Gorges, who missed the final 26 games of the regular season after having micro-fracture surgery on his knee, said developing a winning mindset is a continuing process. It starts with building around the right people who want to be a part of the culture change.
“It’s a big offseason for everyone on this team. We all have to take a look in the mirror and understand that what happened this year isn’t acceptable,” he said. “And we’ve better be willing to put the time in and the effort in to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
“…We’re not going to go through this again. The way things happened, we won’t accept it as players. I’m sure coaches won’t accept it, management, everybody. We need to change the way the culture is here. We understand what happened this year and trying to get our future put in place, but now it’s time to take a step forward.”
Gorges said he should be fully recovered by mid-August and ready to go for training camp.
The injury to Gorges marked one of the many holes the Sabres had to fill throughout the year, particularly in the last two months of the season. Girgensons was among the team’s leading scorers when he went down for the season with an ankle injury on Feb. 26.
Girgensons said he’s been skating the past few days and but isn’t sure when he would’ve gotten cleared by doctors to return. The team also finished in 30th place last season and he’s anxious to work towards changing that next year.
“Two seasons in a row, you win not many games. It gets tough after games. The feeling in the locker room isn’t right,” he said.
“[We have to work on] just playing 100 percent every game. That’s pretty much the only thing. Everything else will come if you do that.”
Between the injuries and moves made at the NHL Trade Deadline, the team’s centers down the stretch – Johan Larsson, Mikhail Grigorenko, Philip Varone, Tim Schaller and Matt Ellis – were all up on recall from the American Hockey League. Larsson made the most of his opportunity, playing on the top line and squaring off against the opposition’s top talent.
“With a depleted roster, it’s tough to insulate those young guys,” Gionta said. “You’ve got seven or so guys on call up. You’re not put in the best matchups or put in the best situations out there. At times, it was tough on them, but I thought they handled it great.”
Ennis, on a line with Larsson and Moulson for most of March and April, hit the 20-goal plateau for the second-straight season in a year in which the offense struggled overall. Buffalo averaged a League-worst 1.87 goals per game and were shut out 14 times.
However, Ennis has reasons to be excited about the future of the organization.
“I see a lot of optimism, excitement,” he said. “There are a lot of guys that a lot people – including myself – are looking forward to seeing play and if they’ve improved. I wish it was September right now.”
Ennis will be able to play a little more hockey before he takes the summer off. He’ll represent Team Canada at the IIHF World Championships in Prague starting on May 1. It’ll be his first international tournament since winning gold at the 2009 IIHF World Junior Championship.
“It’s a huge honor. I can’t wait to go,” he said. “It’s going to be fun, especially coming off a frustrating year. You’ve got to take it maybe as the playoffs for me. The Worlds will kind of feel like the playoffs. [It’ll be] a good way to challenge myself and continue playing hockey for the next few weeks.”