BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) Back in Buffalo for a second stint, former Sabres captain Jason Pominville is the only member of a retooled lineup with firsthand knowledge of how much buzz the team can generate around town when winning.
”Just walking in the parking lot to your car, that ramp was full of people,” Pominville recalled, referring to the crowds that assembled outside the arena, eager to catch a glimpse of players following games.
”It was completely absurd,” he said. ”Even landing from flights, people lining up. It was unreal. You were almost living in a dream at the time.”
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Those days are but a distant memory for a team that hasn’t won a playoff series since advancing to the 2007 Eastern Conference finals, Pominville’s second full NHL season. Since then, Buffalo has qualified for the playoffs just twice, and currently in the midst of a franchise-worst six-year postseason drought.
Pominville missed the lowest points – last-place NHL finishes in 2013-14 and 2014-15 – after being traded to the Minnesota Wild in April 2013.
Four years, four coaches and three general managers later, Pominville is once again wearing his familiar blue and gold No. 29 jersey after being acquired with defenseman Marco Scandella in a trade that sent forwards Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno to Minnesota on June 30.
”I never, ever imagined having a chance to put on the jersey again,” said the 34-year-old forward, who has spent the preseason playing alongside face-of-the-franchise third-year center Jack Eichel. ”You want to do whatever you can to try to help the guys out to be able to live that. I mean, you can live it once, but to live it twice would be pretty special.”
Pominville is part of Buffalo’s latest fresh start under first-time coach and Hall of Fame defenseman Phil Housley and first-time GM Jason Botterill . They replaced coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Tim Murray, who were fired in April after a high-priced but under-achieving team finished last in the Atlantic Division and 15th in the East. With a 33-37-12 record, Buffalo won two fewer games than the previous year.
Players blamed themselves for lacking accountability. And Sabres owner Terry Pegula criticized the team for lacking discipline, character and communication.
Goalie Robin Lehner likes the new vibe.
”We’re a talented team but we need structure, we need a lot of things that were lacking the last couple of years,” Lehner said. ”I feel like the new coaching staff here and the new direction we’re taking is very positive.”
Eichel has plenty of motivation . The No. 2 pick of the 2015 draft referred to his past two seasons as ”mediocre,” even though he led the Sabres with 24 goals as a rookie and had a team-best 57 points last year despite missing the first 21 games with a sprained left ankle. At 20, Eichel’s eager to take on a larger leadership role.
He’s also driven to produce while entering the final year of his rookie contract. The two sides have discussed an NHL-maximum eight-year deal but have yet to settle on its value.
BLUE LINE SHUFFLE
The most dramatic moves Botterill made this offseason was restocking Buffalo’s blue line with the additions of Scandella, Nathan Beaulieu (in trade with Montreal) and Victor Antipin (who made the jump to the NHL after playing in his native Russia). They’re puck-moving defensemen who are expected to fit the up-tempo, puck-moving system similar to the one Housley employed during his four seasons as an assistant coach in Nashville.
Aside from Pominville, there are several other former Sabres back in Buffalo.
Housley broke into the NHL in 1982 after being selected by the Sabres with the No. 6 pick in the draft. Botterill played 36 games for the Sabres and ended his career in 2005 with Buffalo’s American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester. And Botterill, who spent the past decade working up the ranks in Pittsburgh, also hired his former Rochester teammate Chris Taylor to coach the AHL team.
Forward Kyle Okposo returns having fully recovered from concussion-related symptoms which nearly derailed his career in March. Okposo was Buffalo’s prized free-agent addition in the summer of 2016, and quickly emerged as a locker room leader while also contributing 19 goals and 45 points in 65 games.
”There were some times where I know we all thought in that room that we could be better,” Okposo said. ”We need to mature as a team.”
A three-game winning streak vaulted the Sabres into playoff contention just before their five-day bye break in mid-February. Then they tumbled down the standings by going 2-8-2 over the next 12 games. Buffalo hasn’t won four consecutive games since a 4-0 streak from Dec. 9-15, 2014.
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