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Hockey

NHL observations: Sabres downplay fast start

Buffalo’s Conor Sheary (43), Henri Jokiharju (10) and Marco Scandella (6) wait for a faceoff during the second period of their game against the Kings on Oct. 17, 2019.
Buffalo’s Conor Sheary (43), Henri Jokiharju (10) and Marco Scandella (6) wait for a faceoff during the second period of their game against the Kings on Oct. 17, 2019.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Ranking among the league leaders seems a good reason for the Buffalo Sabres to celebrate, especially since they were 27th last season and missed the playoffs for the eighth consecutive spring, but they’re holding their emotions in check.

They’re happy. They’re confident in the leadership of new coach Ralph Krueger. But they remember riding a 10-game winning streak to the top of the pile last November only to fall apart, so they’re not gloating about where they’re sitting. They hit No. 1 after Thursday’s games and were No. 3 after Friday’s action.

“That was a learning experience to go through that, to go through the highs and lows of last season,” defenseman Jake McCabe said during the team’s visit to Southern California. “I think we’re very excited about our start. It’s important. But in our sport, 82 games is a long time, so we want to manage those highs and lows and continue to get better every single game.”

There are many reasons to believe this edition of the Sabres will be better than last season’s rudderless bunch and that they’re progressing along a tedious path toward being competitive again. Rasmus Ristolainen has been an impact player on a reinforced defense. Eleven players scored at least one goal in a 6-1-1 start and 18 recorded at least one point. There’s good goaltending — Carter Hutton set a franchise record for saves in a regular-season shutout by stopping 47 shots in a 3-0 victory over the Kings on Thursday — and the expertise of Krueger, who quickly won players’ trust.

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“When he talks, everyone is listening and everyone is focused on what he has to say,” forward Sam Reinhart said. “He just commands respect and energy in the room, and it’s been very positive to see.”

Winger Jeff Skinner praised Krueger’s communication skills. “We’re lucky to have him,” Skinner said. “Every new coach that comes in, I think that’s the biggest challenge, to get their message across so everyone is on the same page. He’s done a good job of getting his message across loud and clear, and I think the guys have responded well to it. The big word around our locker room has been playing connected. Every team wants all five guys on the ice to know where each other are on the ice but putting it in place, I think, is the challenge.”

The Ducks’ path back to the playoffs is paved with good intentions they hadn’t been consistently carrying out in the early weeks of this season.

Krueger has an unconventional background, the least of which was coaching the Edmonton Oilers in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. He has coached in Austria and guided Switzerland’s national team before doing an excellent job taking Team Europe to a runner-up finish at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. He has written a book about leadership and has advised corporations on that topic, and he was chairman of Southampton FC in soccer’s English Premier League. His understanding of different cultures and personalities is an asset. “I’m definitely a big fan of open and honest communication, having no surprises, everything on the table whether it’s good or bad, and then working from that position,” he said.

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Getting people to listen is half the battle. When he arrived, “I thought the whole organization was ready for understanding the principles and concepts of sacrifice that are needed to be a competitive team in the NHL,” he said. “I felt I walked into a group that was with open ears and open minds to wanting to put the work in to get us connected, to get us able to compete at the highest level.”

Time will tell if they continue to listen when things get tough. “We are keeping our picture really small,” he said. “This start hasn’t done anything but confirm we need to stay on our path of constant learning every day, continual improvement every day. The standings aren’t hanging anywhere near anybody on this team.”

Golden Knights double down

It was odd that Vegas, in backing the NHL’s 20-game suspension of forward Valentin Zykov for testing positive for a banned substance, issued a statement saying Zykov had “knowingly used a banned substance without the consent, recommendation or knowledge of our team.” It was even stranger when team president George McPhee repeated that during a news conference after Zykov issued his own statement to say he didn’t know why he tested positive.

McPhee said the circumstances surrounding Zykov were “completely different” from the 20-game ban imposed on Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt a year ago when he tested positive for a banned substance. “We’re convinced with all the evidence that we have that it was accidental or involuntary. In the second instance, we have a player who knowingly took substances without our consent or knowledge or recommendation and tested positive and was suspended,” McPhee said. “I stand here without judgment. We’re supportive of our players. One we defended vigorously; the other is pretty black and white.” Translation: Zykov, a former Kings prospect, isn’t likely to wear a Vegas uniform again.

Coffee talk

Some Canadian news outlets appeared intent on shaming former NHL enforcer Donald Brashear when reporting that he’s working at a Tim Hortons in Quebec. It would be bad enough to mock a man who’s trying to straighten out his life, but Canada’s National Post newspaper made it worse by initially accompanying the story with a photo of Georges Laraque, also a former enforcer and also black. Laraque showed class by accepting the paper’s subsequent apology.

You know you’re in trouble when …

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Members of the Minnesota Wild called a players-only meeting Thursday, after a 4-0 loss to Montreal dropped their record to 1-6-0. New general manager Bill Guerin inherited coach Bruce Boudreau, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Guerin brings in his own coach. Wild winger Jason Zucker told reporters a meeting alone won’t turn things around. “It’s going to be each individual guy from Bruce on down. Bruce has got to be better. We have got to be better. Everybody’s got to be better,” Zucker said.

The underachieving New Jersey Devils were 0-4-2 when general manager Ray Shero assigned assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald to assist coach John Hynes. The Devils won their next game, boosted by the first NHL point (an assist) from No. 1 draft pick Jack Hughes. But Hynes’ job security is shaky, at best.

While the NBA grapples with its newly tense relations with China, the NHL remains on track with its strategy of strengthening its presence there.


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