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BUFFALO, NY (AP) – The Buffalo Sabers had just finished a pre-game reunion and veteran forward Kyle Okposo was struck by what he noticed once the coaches left the room.

Rather than going their separate ways, most of the players stayed for a chat. Without referring to how things have turned out in the past, Okposo clearly brought out the current – post-Jack Eichel – composition of the Sabers and the bonds that were forming between a group of young people and developing companions.

“We all really love being together. And that’s a really special thing when you’re in the NHL, because it doesn’t happen everywhere, ”Okposo said.

This moment made him reflect on his youth hockey years where his teammates always hung out together and played mini-sticks in the arena lanes.

“This is the adult version of it,” he said. “I think we have a team in there and we have guys who really care about each other. And all of our stuff is going the way it’s supposed to. And I’m really excited about our future.

The Eichel era in Buffalo officially ended on November 4, when the former face of the the franchise was traded in Vegas. In fact, the players who stayed in Buffalo had left their fallen captain long before that.

It was nothing personal, said Okposo, who has a close bond with Eichel. It was about looking to the future, starting from scratch and evolving this group of players, as he said, organically and “writing their own chapters”.

There is a lot of blame for going around for how Eichel’s six seasons at Buffalo turned out to be a failure.

There were questionable exchanges and high-priced signings without any vision of developing a team culture by allowing cliques to form among the players instead. There was the decision to propel Eichel into the role of captain, perhaps before he was ready to take on that responsibility.

And there was the property’s impatience to lose, which led to a revolving door of front-office layoffs, leaving a Frankenstein monster on a list assembled by either former CEO for meet the needs of either former coach.

Add it all up, and the Sabers’ decision to essentially lead the 2014-15 season for a draft shot from Connor McDavid or Eichel allowed Buffalo to finish last in the standings four times and 10 seasons without making the playoffs to tie. the longest drought in the NHL.

With the departure of Eichel and the departures of forward Sam Reinhart and defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen in the offseason, the Sabers can start fresh with a core of youngsters and a first NHL head coach in Don Granato with a player development roadmap.

Replacing Ralph Krueger in March and Buffalo in the middle of an 18-game winless streak, Granato insisted the team play without fear of making mistakes and focus on sustaining the offense.

Too often, said Granato, players have a habit of playing for fear that a mistake could lead to being put on the bench. Granato removed this threat while acknowledging that it takes time for players to recalibrate.

It’s a philosophy and a system built with an eye to the future in the hope that players gain confidence through experience.

At 7-6-2, the Sabers got off to a better start than expected, while enduring the telltale ups and downs of a team in search of its identity. And they’ve been competitive despite missing four key players due to injury, plus forward Alex Tuch, who was acquired in Eichel’s trade but remains sidelined until January with an injury. At the shoulder.

Granato insisted on staying in the moment, but allowed himself to deviate from his message when assessing whether the Sabers had placed the hopes of a franchise on a single player.

“I think going forward there is more concern for me in the players than we have. We are extremely excited with what we have collected. But no one is our savior, ”said Granato. “No one has to come here to be a savior. Maybe that was the challenge of the past.

MUSIC CITY MAT

Matt Duchene found his rhythm again in his third season with the Nashville Predators. With nine goals – including three game winners – and seven assists, he’s only the fourth player in franchise history to total 16 points or more in the first 15 games of a season.

He’s already surpassed last year’s totals, having tallied six goals and 13 points in 34 games. And Duchene’s production explosion coincides with the Predators’ 8-1-1 record after a 1-4 start. All but one of the assists occurred in the 10 games.

“I really haven’t changed anything in my approach, in my mentality,” said Duchene, after scoring the decisive goal in a Win 4-3 in overtime at St. Louis Last week.

The 13-season NHL veteran is a nine-goal scorer with 20 goals who signed a seven-year, $ 56 million contract with Nashville in free agency in 2019.

Coach John Hynes saw a difference.

“He’s faster this year, a lot more competitive with the puck,” said Hynes.

LEADERS

Goals: Leon Draisaitl (Edmonton), 17; Points: Draisaitl, 33; Assists: McDavid (Edmonton), 19; Tied goals: Kyle Connor (Winnipeg), 11; Rookie goals: Lucas Raymond (Detroit), 7; Average goals against (minimum of 10 games): Jack Campbell (Toronto), 1.68; Whites: Jacob Markstrom (Calgary), 4.

GAME OF THE WEEK

After a 5-2 win over Edmonton in Winnipeg on Tuesday, the Jets travel to the Oilers to complete a home and away series Thursday night between two of the Western Canadian Conference’s top three teams.

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AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker contributed.

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