At 53, Don Granato never felt it was too late for him land his first NHL head-coaching job.
Reflecting on a lengthy coaching career that began in 1993 with the USHL Wisconsin Capitols, who folded two years later, Granato recalled having faith in the experience he has gained, and always believed the right opportunity would one day come.
“I feel very well-prepared right now and comfortable, extremely comfortable,” Granato told The Associated Press in April, a few weeks after taking over as the Buffalo's interim coach following Ralph Krueger’s dismissal. “This feels really natural. I don’t know if I would’ve felt that way 10 years ago.”
The time is now: Granato was hired Tuesday to take over the Sabres as the head coach, no interim tag needed.
His ability to relate to a young Sabres core, vast experience in developing players and the patience he displayed during a tumultuous season made him the ideal candidate for the daunting task of turning around one of the NHL’s worst teams.
Granato becomes Buffalo's sixth coach since Lindy Ruff was fired a month into the lockout-shortened 2013 season. He takes over a team that finished last in the overall standings for a fourth time in eight seasons and extended its playoff drought to 10 years, matching the NHL’s longest streak.
Nothing went right for the Sabres in a season in which Krueger was fired with the team in the midst of what became an 18-game winless skid. Whatever early season momentum the Sabres generated was disrupted by a COVID-19 outbreak that forced the team into a two-week pause in early February.
The troubles then spilled over into the offseason, with captain Jack Eichel’s status uncertain. He expressed his frustration following another losing season, and cited what he called “a disconnect” with the team over how to treat a herniated disk, which sidelined him over the final two months of the season.
Granato emerged as a front-running candidate by surprise in how the Sabres responded once he was promoted. The Sabres went 6-18-4 and were outscored 95-58 in 28 games under Krueger. In 28 games under Granato, Buffalo went 9-16-3 and were outscored 101-76. The Sabres also rallied to win three times when trailing after two periods under Granato after going 0-16-1 under Krueger.
Granato’s biggest impact was evident by the jumps in production experienced by Buffalo's developing prospects, who struggled under Krueger.
Centers Casey Mittelstadt and Tage Thompson enjoyed double-digit boosts in point production under Granato. The team’s top young defenseman, Rasmus Dahlin, regained his confidence in being able to use his free-wheeling, two-way style under Granato after being forced into playing a more defensive-minded role in Krueger’s system.
“His way to play was how I learned to play hockey,” Dahlin said of Granato’s up-tempo style that focused on speed and transition, with defensemen jumping into the rush. “But the thing I felt was that he trusted me as a player. He really saw what my potential was and I felt comfortable playing out there.”
Now the question becomes when the next franchise-altering move will happen, with general manager Kevyn Adams entering his second offseason considering making sweeping changes to a high-priced and under-performing roster.
Eichel preferred having surgery, while the Sabres medical staff was against it by noting the disk replacement procedure has never been done on an NHL player.
At the same time, Sam Reinhart, who led the team in scoring last year, and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen also expressed a desire for a change of scenery.
If the Sabres are indeed rebuilding once again, they’ll at least benefit from having the No. 1 pick in the draft after winning the draft lottery for the second time in four years.
Though a first-time NHL coach, Granato brings a wealth of experience and a family name well-known in hockey circles.
His older brother, Tony, played in the NHL, coached the Colorado Avalanche and completed his sixth season as Wisconsin’s head coach. His sister, Cammi, is a two-time U.S. Olympian, the first female Hockey Hall of Fame inductee and a scout for the NHL expansion team Seattle Kraken. Another brother, Rob, also played Division I hockey.
Don Granato was regarded by his siblings as “the smart one” when it came to hockey growing up in Illinois.
He’s twice worked as an NHL assistant under Joel Quenneville in St. Louis and Chicago. He won an ECHL championship in 2000 coaching Peoria, been a head coach at the AHL level, and also worked as a scout. Granato also has a track record of developing youngsters, given his recent stint with USA Hockey where he coached Toronto’s Auston Matthews, Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk and Boston’s Charlie McAvoy.
“Maybe I could've gotten the job 10 years ago, But I wouldn't have taken it knowing what I know now,” Granato said in April. “Today, I’m happy. I’m excited that I have the experience I do.”
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