Why Owen Power’s debut signals ‘a bright future’ in Buffalo, finally

Canada's Owen Power, right, challenges for the puck with Tage Thompson of the US during the Ice Hockey World Championship semifinal match between the United States and Canada at the Arena in Riga, Latvia, Saturday, June 5, 2021. (Sergei Grits/AP)

TORONTO — The thing that stands out about Owen Power is how much he stands out.

The Buffalo Sabres don’t slap numbers and nameplates on their practice sweaters, but it’s easy to spot the towering 19-year-old roll through his first full day of NHL drills.

Number 25 (squint closely at the helmet stamp) stands a very un-rookielike six-foot-six sans skates and weighs a very un-teenagelike 213 pounds.

“The size, first of all,” Rasmus Dahlin, a fellow first-overall draft pick, said is what he noticed about the new guy. “Then how he skates with the size and how he handles the puck. There’s not a lot of defencemen like that.”

No, sir.

That’s why bulldozing unicorns like Power get drafted head of class. Why a scout will tell you he could be the next Victor Hedman or Alex Pietrangelo.

And why the Sabres — now owners of the longest playoff drought in league history (11 years) — want media and fans to pump the brakes and keep their expectations in check ahead of Power’s pro unveiling Tuesday in Toronto.

“Nobody’s the saviour,” Buffalo head coach Don Granato said. “This group is going to do it together, and they’re building together. You can see the camaraderie and the passion that they have for each other and to put that jersey on. It’s fun to be a part of as a coach.”

Give Power, the Sabres, and all those in their orbit a moment to soak in this sweet moment amidst another squandered season.

“The Olympics and world championships, especially, have given me more confidence coming in here playing against pros. I know what it’s like,” Power says.

“It’s a team with a bright future. I’m extremely excited to be here and get going.”

The Mississauga product with the Mississippi reach was pushed into the middle of the Sabres’ post-practice circle to lead the stretch at Ford Performance Centre Monday and was greeted to a cacophony of cheers and enthusiastic beavertail stick-slaps by his new teammates.

“You saw the stick-banging when Owen went in there and you can see a group of 20-some guys completely immersed in themselves and nothing else in the moment. That’s fun to watch as a coach,” Granato says. “And when you add talent — and we feel we have a lot of talent although it’s young at this point — there’s always that energy and excitement for us as coaches knowing each day they’re getting better.”

Mom, Trish, and dad, Zee, watched proudly from a rinkside they’d stood at many a time before.

Trish is handling all the ticket requests from the flood of Power’s family and friends descending upon Scotiabank Arena for his debut. Owen only knows there will be “a lot” of them in the seats.

“I grew up in this building,” Power said. “Anyone’s NHL debut is a really special moment, but to be able to have it in my hometown with all my family here, I think just makes it that much better.

“Pretty much hockey’s everything in Toronto.”

Don’t get too excited. But get totally excited.

That appears to be the paradoxical sentiment around Power’s arrival to a city that needn’t glance too far back to remember the last great hope it traded away on sour terms.

Veteran Kyle Okposo reveals that the room had been keeping close tabs on the University of Michigan’s scores, eager for a Power jolt once his Frozen Four had wrapped.

A smiling Granato — who made a point to greet Power’s parents — says that he had overheard top-pair defence partners Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju arguing over who would get to play with the kid first. (The D-men were giddily oblivious that they were insulting each other by wanting a switch.)

Righty Jokiharju will get the honour Tuesday, meaning Power will link up with a former Blackhawk he observed closely when he was lighting it up for the USHL’s Chicago Steel.

It also means he’ll be thrown top-four minutes out of the gate.

Welcome to the Show, kid. Here’s peak Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner on the rush.

“It’s going to be pretty cool,” Power said. “I’m excited to see how they are and try and go out there and play my game.”

What has struck the Sabres over his first three days with the group is how calm and inquisitive he’s been. Jokiharju marvelled at all the nerves he doesn’t show on the ice. Okposo theorizes that Power is “a duck on a pond” — poised to the eye but racing underneath the surface.

“If you think of how many teams he’s been on in the last two years and the pressure he’s had on him, the hype he’s had on him, it just rolls off him. He handles it well — especially when he puts his hockey gear on,” Granato says.

The stage changes; the game, not so much.

“They’ve done this their whole life,” Granato says. “They’ve dreamt about it. They’ve visualized it.”

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The coach has been careful not to inundate Power with too much information about systems. The organization wants the projected star to trust his instincts and abilities, to cultivate his game organically and not stress over every mistake.

And in Dahlin, the Sabres are blessed with a very specific type of mentor who has been through the scrutiny and worn the burden of Number 1.

“It takes time, so that’s going to be my advice to him,” Dahlin says. “It takes time. Just let him be who he is and let him develop.”

Small world. The Maple Leafs’ Mark Giordano has been a witness to some of that development, having shared some summer skates with the mild-mannered Power in Toronto.

“He’s a huge kid who can really skate,” Giordano says. “You don’t go first overall in our league if you’re not a huge talent — and he is. So, it’s good for him to get his contract and get in league.”

Another No. 1 overall, John Tavares (2009), had an eye on Power as the then-18-year-old helped Canada’s senior men’s squad capture gold at the 2021 world championships, then represent the country strong at this year’s false-start world juniors and the Olympic Games.

“You see why he’s so highly touted, why he was a first pick, and why he’ll be a challenge for years to come,” says Tavares, who downplays the pressure of draft order.

“You’re aware of that. But I think at the end of the day, you’re living out a dream and playing in the NHL and getting the opportunity. I think you’re just so excited to finally experience that.”

And there are plenty of folks in Buffalo — and Toronto — who should be excited, too.

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