BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — In Buffalo, where futility has been the norm since the Sabres last reached the playoffs in 2011, success is being measured on a sliding scale with the team facing yet another lengthy summer break.
For a team that’s finished last in the overall standings four times since 2013-14, and too often been counted out of contention in February, if not sooner, captain Kyle Okposo saw distinct signs of promise even as the Sabres extended an already NHL-worst playoff drought to a 12th season.
“I’m extremely proud to be a part of this group and to see how far we’ve come. We’ve become a team,” Okposo said after the Sabres were eliminated with two games left in their season, following a 6-2 loss in New Jersey on Tuesday.
“And that’s the first time in a long time that I think we can say that about our squad here,” he added. “It was extremely gratifying in a way, but at the same time extremely disappointing with how it ended.”
For Tage Thompson, who became the Sabres first player to score 47 goals since the Alexander Mogilny-Pat LaFontaine era of the early 1990s, the positives far outweighed the negatives. That’s even as Buffalo’s playoff drought now ranks as the second-longest active streak — ahead of only the NFL’s New York Jets, who last qualified for the postseason in 2010 — in North America’s four major pro sports.
“The strides that this team in particular has made is definitely a step in the right direction,” Thompson said. “This team’s only been together a couple of years now. I think everyone in here is growing as a team, which is something that we haven’t been able to say for a while.”
Buffalo’s 42 wins and 91 points were the most since last making the playoffs in 2011.
Most encouraging for a team that opened the season with the league’s youngest roster, Buffalo returns many of the same players who enjoyed career-best seasons, and experienced their first taste of the intensity of being in the midst of a playoff race.
As much as Buffalo initially crumbled under the pressure of being in contention by spiraling into a 2-8-2 stretch over a three-week period in March, what impressed coach Don Granato is how the Sabres reeled off a 7-1-1 run before being eliminated at New Jersey.
“There were lots of people that thought this season was done three or four weeks ago,” Granato said. “We had a lot of guys in this room questioning whether they were good enough, and they fought through the self-doubt, bound together and went through those challenges and were successful. So lots of good things.”
FOREVER IN BLUE JEANS?
The Sabres believe they have their goalie of the future — and perhaps, present — in rookie Devon Levi, who went 5-2 after foregoing his senior season at Northeastern to sign with Buffalo last month. Levi, who won consecutive Mike Richter awards as college hockey’s top goalie, has the inside track to take over as the starter next season.
Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen finished 17-11-4, but faltered by going 2-6-3 over a six-week stretch spanning Jan. 28 and March 19.
HIGHS AND LOWS
Aside from their 2-8-2 slump, which immediately followed the Sabres moving into eighth in the East, Buffalo was undone by an eight-game losing streak in November to offset a 7-3 start to the season. Buffalo’s six-game winning streak in December was the team’s longest in the same season since a six-game run in 2010-11.
Buffalo finished tied for 27th in the NHL with 17 home wins, while finishing tied for seventh with a single-season franchise record-matching 25 road wins.
Okposo is a prime candidate to return after completing his seven-year, $42 million contract. Also free-agency eligible is forward Zemgus Girgensons, who completed his ninth season and is Buffalo’s longest active tenured player. Goalie Craig Anderson is retiring after completing his 20th NHL season and second in Buffalo.
The Sabres other notable players eligible for unrestricted free agency are forwards Tyson Jost and Vinnie Hinostroza.