Buffalo, N.Y. (WGR 550) – After a number of players spoke over the weekend at their end-of-season press conferences, it was general manager Kevyn Adams' and head coach Don Granato's turn on Tuesday to meet with the media to close out the year.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts, Adams did say that it’s looking like 2019 first-round pick Ryan Johnson is going back to the University of Minnesota for his senior season with the Golden Gophers.
“At this point, he’s looking like he’s going to go back to school," said Adams during his end-of-season press conference. "We’ve had conversations, and it’s open-ended a little bit, but he’s indicated that's where he’s at right now. With the team they have and the ice-time that he gets there, at this point, he’s leaning in that direction.”
Of course, goaltending was a big topic of conversation on Tuesday.
Adams says Craig Anderson knows how they feel about him, and they’re just going to let him be for a little bit so the 40-year-old can sit down and evaluate his future.
As for Anderson’s presence in the locker room, his experience was a big deal for Adams. The Sabres general manager is not going to deviate from his plan of keeping a clear lane for the top prospects.
“Big picture, we feel good internally," Adams said. "We’ll look at different options, but what we won’t do is do something to box ourselves out, or that maybe we would be uncomfortable down the road, because we’re just trying to do something because we feel we have to do it right now.”
When looking at, what Adams calls, “the big picture,” the Sabres have three young goalies that they are developing in Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, Erik Portillo and Devon Levi.
Buffalo also traded for Malcolm Subban, who is set to be a restricted free agent this summer, but says he very much wants to be back with the Sabres.
"I’m excited about the internal answers we have here for down the road, and 'UPL' fits that," Adams said.
“I liked the way he played when he was here. I liked the way he’s battled through adversity, whether it’s injury or inconsistency, at times. Then if you look at his games over the last few weeks - they were basically in playoff mode where every game was do or die - he’s played really strong. He played confident, and he’s given his team a chance to win.”
In the last six games where it mattered, Luukkonen posted a 2.11 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage. Between Buffalo and Rochester, he did get hurt twice, but played 44 games.
“With injuries, it’s asking the question, why? Is it just a fluky type thing?" Adams said. "I mean, he got hit pretty hard there [Friday] night when he was in the crease, and I don’t know if there’s much you can do about that. But that’s something we’ll talk about.”
According to Rochester Americans head coach Seth Appert, Luukkonen will be out 1-2 weeks after that collision.
As for Levi, he won the Mike Richter Award this past season as college hockey’s best goalie.
“What he did was pretty special," Adams said. "Even in terms of my conversations with him, talking about where he’s at in his career, the next steps; one of the reasons he wanted to go back to school was because he said, ‘I want to feel the pressure of being the top goalie in the country, and having expectations on me and work through that.’ I mean, that’s a pretty mature answer.”
When looking at the young goalie depth in the organization, Levi is 20-years-old, Luukkonen is 23 and Portillo is 21. While many would like to see any of these three playing with the Sabres right away, Adams says the organizaton can’t hit fast-forward on anyone's development.
"You can’t just say we’re going from here-to-here. It’s a process," he said. "This is about us getting better. We’re not satisfied. We played some really good hockey at the end of the year. I like the growth of our team, but we have a long way to go. We have a lot of work ahead of us, so we want to make sure we’re setting this organization up for sustainable long-term success.
“Certain decisions that you can make in the short-term that maybe would push you a little bit further along, may come back to haunt you a little bit later. We have to be really disciplined and careful as we put this together, and we have to stay really thinking about not boxing certain players out, whether it’s a job here or even ice-time within our team.”
Adams has spoken about building a culture since he’s been here. It seems like he and Granato have done a good job of that. The general manager used the example of the short time that 2021 first overall pick Owen Power was in Buffalo.
“I’m proud that we now have an environment where people are accepted for who they are," Adams said. [When you] look at Owen Power, it’s not easy to come in, regardless of how talented you are, to come in to a team late. What I loved about the way Owen came in here was he was able to be himself and be accepted by his teammates. The way he wanted to fit in, you know, ‘I’m going to pick up pucks after practice or water bottles.’ That’s a big deal, and everybody feels that.”
Last season, I thought it worked very well having Kyle Okposo and Zemgus Girgensons share the captaincy. After the 2022 Heritage Classic, both Mark Pysyk and Rasmus Dahlin helped out by wearing the “A” on their chest too.
Heading into next season, it sounds like the team may be settling on naming just one captain.
“We’ll talk about it. It’s something 'Donny' and I have spent time already talking about," Adams said. "We feel that we’re in a different place than we were last summer, so we’re going to continue here over the next few weeks to have those conversations. But we feel we’re in a pretty good spot there.”
By the end of the season, the young core was almost all here in Buffalo. Adams says it took getting Power here to accomplish that.
“With getting Owen signed and in here, we really wanted to see how it all fit together," he said. "There’s less focus that we have to get a right-handed shot defenseman to play with Owen Power or Rasmus Dahlin, but more about is there the right person that fits what we’re doing here that can be added to all parts of the culture.”
This was Adams' first season to be the general manager of a team that played a full 82-game schedule. He is always evaluating himself, and now is the time for him to get into issues that he doesn’t have time for during a season.
“There’s certain things that I haven’t had time to really dig into and take a deep dive into, which I’m going to do this offseason," Adams admitted. "I want to get better. I want to get better at this job. I want to be a better general manager. I want to be a better leader in this organization. So part of it is going to be me trying to reflect and say, 'Where did I do things well, where could I have been better and why?'"
In one of our conversations this season with Adams, Brian Koziol and I asked if he would use any of the four first-round picks and four second-round picks that he has in the next two drafts as trade currency. He spoke about that again on Tuesday, and his answer hasn’t changed.
“We’ll be open," Adams said. "We’ll have conversations that if there's something that we can do that makes sense that we think is going to put us in a better position, then we’ll do it. But what we won’t do is do something that we think is just a short-term fix. That’s not where we’re at right now. I would expect that we’d make our three picks (three first-rounders in this year’s draft), because I believe in the pipeline that we have to build. When we talk about long-term sustainable success, you need talent, and you need talent that can come up from Rochester and you don’t have to rush him. You can let them grow and develop, and then when they’re ready, they’re here and ready to be impactful and not just surviving.”
The Sabres currently have nine picks in the 2022 NFL Draft. That’s unless the Vegas Golden Knights win the NHL Draft Lottery and move up a maximum of 10 spots.
Buffalo has three picks in the first round, and one pick in every round except the sixth, where they have two picks. Buffalo has the Calgary Flames' pick, which came to them through the Florida Panthers in the Robert Hagg deal.