Nine games into the season, one thing is abundantly clear about the Buffalo Sabres: when they’re good, they’re really good. And, when they’re bad, they’re really bad. Just look at their last four games: two losses by a combined score of 9-2 (0-for-11 on the power play) and two wins by a combined score of 9-3 (2-for-5 on the power play).
Their roller-coaster season thus far has been filled with praise and cheers after a win, and vitriol and fiery words following a loss. And no one is more of a lightning rod than head coach Phil Housley.
At the beginning of the season, had fans been told the Sabres were going to split against the Western Conference champions, they would’ve taken that all day long. Instead, for many, it took a come-from-behind victory to “salvage” a five-game roadie. They left the western road trip with a successful 3-2 record. The team now stands with five wins and four losses–it’s their best October point total since 2011 (12 points) and they still have three games to play this month.
Love a Winner, Hate a Loser
Sabre fans’ short fuse is understandable. The team has been downright awful for nearly a decade. The team hasn’t sniffed the playoffs for seven consecutive years. Faithful fans in Western New York are desperate for a winner. The pressure to succeed is magnified by a woeful pigskin team; the Buffalo Bills are a trainwreck right now.
Even though expectations for this season hovered somewhere between “be in the playoff hunt” at the high end and “just be fun to watch every night,” Housley is social media’s whipping boy. He’s bearing the brunt of criticism after every loss.
Yet with the team hovering around .500 just nine games into the season, on track for an 82-plus-point season, after a loss, many fans call for head coach Phil Housley to be shown the door. Reasonable expectations get tossed in the garbage. They suddenly expect this last-place team to be a 100-point powerhouse overnight.
The Sabres Are Winning
Overreactions to losses are the new norm, and the second-year bench boss is constantly taking heat for everything and anything. Slow starts. Bizarre line combinations. Inconsistent, if not awful, special teams play. Not staying with a hot goaltender. Housley is a ‘Dudley-Do-Wrong’ when the team loses. The team has been booed off the KeyBank Center ice several times already.
However, when the Sabres do win, many fans mock victory. They belittle those wins as if the teams they’re defeating are awful; just pushovers. Teams in the NHL may have varying amounts of talent and skill, but every win in this league must be earned. They should be celebrated.
In reality, this team needs the very thing fans don’t have: Patience. There’s not much sympathy left in area code 716. The suffering of the Darcy Regier era is hopefully over. The tank-like culture fostered an aura of entitlement, an acceptance of losing, and a fractured fan base that welcomed the greater good for short-term pain. Years later, the team has made little progress. Sabres fans don’t want to have their hearts ripped out yet again.
But now is when patience is needed most.
Star players like Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner are invisible one night and then fill the scoresheet the next. Nathan Beaulieu has actually shown signs of decent play. Zemgus Girgensons and Casey Mittelstadt, while not on the scoresheet, have played well.
The season literally just started. Half of the team has been turned over. Unlike most teams, the Sabres never once played a preseason game with their opening-night roster. Even great teams often need a stretch to get on the same page.
Housley Isn’t Going Anywhere
Two weeks into the season and the team is winning as much as they’re losing. It’s way too early to even think about thinking about firing Housley, the franchise’s 18th head coach. It’s foolish. Firing the coach every two years is a recipe for disaster and continued futility. And for the restless souls who are on the ‘Fire Housley’ war cry so early in the season, who will be his replacement? Chris Taylor? Davis Payne? Barry Melrose? Don Cherry?
Housley isn’t immortal. He has to take some blame for not preparing his team for battle every night. Their effort should never be questioned though the losses have been tough to watch. The Sabres were thoroughly outplayed in Vegas and were horrendous in San Jose. But, when Housley ran his lines and power play units through a blender after the game against the Sharks, it immediately paid dividends. They have back-to-back wins, and the top line of Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner and Jason Pominville has 12 points and a plus-14 rating. The same fans that questioned him should be applauding him now.
Housley wants to play a fast, attacking, high-octane system with the defense jumping into the play. We’ve seen glimpses of it already. But the other thing fans need to come to grips with: there’s still not enough talent on this roster. General manager Jason Botterill is only on year two of his roster remodel that includes two teenagers: 18-year-old defenseman Rasmus Dahlin and 19-year-old forward Casey Mittelstadt. The good news is that the Rochester Americans are showing early signs of success. The cupboards appear to be stocked.
Expectations for the Sabres
Winning the Stanley Cup should be the goal this season and every season. The more realistic goal is making the playoffs. The team, now with more talent, needs to make significant progress. Though the New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche made the giant leap in recent seasons from league basement dweller to the playoffs, it’s still not that common.
This team needs to gel and find their rhythm. There will be more highs and lows. It’s important to remember that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. There are 82 games this season. Every team will have their fair share of losses. The key is striving for consistency.
Fans deserve to get bang for their buck. They want to be entertained. For years, they’ve been loyally buying tickets and supporting false promises and hope. But, for every fan yelling at Housley, how many are yelling at their $10-million captain to take control of a game?
Housley appears to be somewhat soft-spoken in front of the camera. That’s his decision. It’s behind closed locker room doors, behind the bench and on the ice that really matters. His effectiveness is not a function of his volume; rather, it’s his ability to communicate and motivate. The players appear to respect their coach.
Head coaches shouldn’t be kept based on time frames, but instead based on performance. With the marginal NHL roster Housley had last season, nine-time Stanley Cup-winner Scotty Bowman would’ve had a tough time finding success. Give him a chance to work with this team without perseverating over his every decision. Avoid knee-jerk reactions. Relax. Not everything in the over-sensationalized, over-hyped age that we live in is either the best or the worst. That is, unless the Sabres are already out of playoff contention by the All-Star game on Jan. 27, 2019. Then, in the middle of winter, Housley may find his seat feeling awfully warm.
Jeff has been covering the NHL for over a decade for various sites. He’s been with The Hockey Writers as a lead Sabres writer three years, while also writing a satire column called “Off the Crossbar.”