John Scott still remembers what it was like playing for the Buffalo Sabres two season ago when things went south for the franchise.
“We went from winning and then we just expected to lose a lot,” Scott said.
For the past two seasons the Sabres didn’t just lose a lot, they were identified by losing. They were dead last in the NHL each time, hoping that bottoming out could eventually springboard them back into contention in the future.
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The Sabres aren’t there yet, but much like the Edmonton Oilers they prepared to face Sunday to open a Western Canadian road trip, they’re in the process of burying the stink of the past two seasons and developing more of a winning culture. From the top down, the two organizations aren’t shying away from recent struggles as they try to make them a distant memory.
“We have to keep reminding ourselves as a staff and the new people in the organization, including new players, that there is a past, that players have felt pain at some point over the years,” Oilers coach Todd McLellan said. “One of our goals at the beginning of training camp was to make this group mentally stronger, more determined when it wasn’t going well. I used the term ‘folding your hand.’ And we’ve been able to do that.”
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Players understand it’s a process, that it’s hard to shake the stain of losing. Scott, now with the up-and-coming Arizona Coyotes, believes it’s about snapping out of the monotony of losing often.
“You’ve just got to kind of break that,” Scott said. “It just takes that mind-set going in and getting these young guys used to winning. … Get that mentality like, ‘No we’re not accepting losing.’”
The Sabres and Oilers are in the midst of that. Buffalo captain Brian Gionta, who wore the “C” for the Montreal Canadiens when they reached the 2014 Eastern Conference final, said part of the adjustment is mental.
“The biggest thing is when you’re in tight games — one-goal games or you’re down by a couple goals — knowing that you still have a chance to win, that you can still pull it out,” Gionta said. “Not much separates winning teams and losing teams in this league and if you’re down by a goal and you pack it in, you’re going to have no chance. It’s sticking with (it in) those games and finding ways to win those close one-goal games.”
All too often the past two seasons the Sabres have been on the losing end of those close games and some blowouts, too. Like the Oilers did by hiring new general manager Peter Chiarelli and McLellan, the Sabres have a fresh voice this season in coach Dan Bylsma.
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Bylsma said on the first day of training camp with pride that this season’s team is “not the Buffalo Sabres from last year.” Players immediately noticed the difference, with defenceman Mike Weber saying he couldn’t wipe a smile off his face because it’s “a different atmosphere, a different mindset.”
“You guys have seen the frustration, the pain, the misery that has been our last two seasons,” Weber said. “Before we were trying to do whatever we could to stay in games. There’s no more of that. That’s out the window.”
There has been incremental success in Buffalo and Edmonton on that front. McLellan hasn’t questioned his players’ desire to improve and come back in games, even if the results haven’t been perfect.
One big ingredient is new blood, not only in management and coaching but on the ice. While the Oilers’ Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle and Sabres’ Weber, Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno have been a part of almost constant losing, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Jack Eichel, Evander Kane, Ryan O’Reilly and others come in fresh.
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Bringing in new “culture” players was a conscious decision by Buffalo GM Tim Murray. It’s noticeable inside the locker-room.
“This year I think everyone’s attitude has changed a lot,” Eichel said. “You want to bring that winning attitude.”
The goal for the Sabres and Oilers is to become a winning team. Sabres owner Terry Pegula said his team was “on target,” something new Buffalo defenceman Cody Franson credits Bylsma’s system for.
“Once you start seeing success in your system, you’ll see guys’ minds start changing, you’ll start to see guys buying in, you’ll start to see the team playing better as a group,” Franson said. “That’s really the process in terms of changing that mentality, it starts through your system, your group starts to believe in that, and then one thing leads to another.