This season was supposed to be different. From the top to bottom, from Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill to Zemgus Girgensons and everywhere in between, this season was all about ‘actions speaking louder than words.’ It was the team’s marketing slogan, brimming with hope.
When all was said and the doors were slammed and the book closed on the 2017-18 season, Botterill vowed to be a better team in 2018-19. And they are in some ways. They’ve already amassed more points than last year. And they’re far more entertaining.
The Sabres Homestand
The team’s seven-game homestand ended much the way it started: with a drubbing to a non-playoff team. The New York Rangers skated circles around the Sabres 6-2 on Friday night, leaving them with a record of 3-3-1 and seven points. That’s two regulation wins in seven games on home ice with the season on the line. Squandered must-have points. It’s flat-out not good enough.
The Sabres came out slow once again and quickly found themselves in a 2-0 hole to the Rangers after the first period. They showed some fight in the second and early in the third, but were no match for the Blueshirts. Jeff Skinner, playing out the last year of his current contract, scored both Sabres’ goals.
These days, the Sabres’ inconsistency is the only thing that’s consistent. They haven’t won games two in a row since mid-December. They haven’t won two regulation games in a row since Oct. 21 and 25. That’s nearly four months. After their last nine wins, they’re 0-8-1. Look back over the schedule and aside from their ten-game anomaly, it’s horrible. They lost five of seven. Three of five. 10 of 14. We’re well past the point where their opening 25 games (17-6-2) is the norm. This isn’t a slump anymore. What we’re witnessing now is the true measure of this team: a sub-.500 lottery-bound club. Use regular stats, fancy stats, or the eyeball test – the standings don’t lie.
Housley’s Hard-Hitting Words
After the game, head coach Phil Housley was an open book of frustration. He called out his players for inexcusable play.
“We didn’t execute,” said Housley. “You look at our game, we didn’t come back and support on the breakout, we didn’t work. We were disconnected as five, we didn’t reload, we didn’t execute. When we don’t execute, we look slow and sloppy, we let guys off the wall in D-zone coverage. We were easy to play against in the first period.
“It’s very disappointing, because I feel we were taking a step in the right direction. We were trending in a good direction. You have to understand desperation at this time of the season. And every shift counts, every play counts–the details of the game. That’s what’s disappointing, because you feel we’re moving in the right direction and we take a step back.”
Then came the killer comment. “We didn’t kill a play. We just let them roam and now we’re just riding our checks and it just looks like we’re soft.”
While only the players know what’s said in the locker room, Housley has yet to call his team soft in public before. It’s a label no player wants to be called.
It’ll be interesting how the team responds. They’re still mathematically in the race for the last playoff spot, but the effort and execution displayed like Friday night won’t cut it.
Back in 2016-17, many of the players turned on former coach Dan Bylsma. Will they do the same with Housley? A constant carousel of coaches is usually a guarantee of mediocrity at best. Successful turnarounds like Barry Trotz has led with the New York Islanders are rare.
Is the problem Housley and his system, or the players he has to execute the system? There was missed coverage, poor passing and lazy plays all over the ice. Housley’s ice time was 00:00.
It was Botterill who slammed doors last spring and had steam coming out of his ears as he watched the franchise miss the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season. It was a sobering welcome to the bottom of the NHL for Botterill. Visibly irked, he vowed then to stir things up, including shaking up the team’s core group of leaders. “When you finish where we were, you have to look at everything,” said Botterill.
While he pulled off the heist of the century in the summer by snagging Jeff Skinner, he’s also the same guy who sent Ryan O’Reilly packing for Patrik Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka, Tage Thompson and a conditional first.
With the NHL Trade Deadline less than 10 days away, it remains to be seen whether he’ll give Housley some roster help now or ride out the season and try to swing a deal or two at the draft.
When Housley said, “we don’t have time to wait around” and “there has to be total urgency,” he was clearly referring to his players. The sentiments could also be stinging words for his GM.
Captain Eichel Moving Ahead
Jack Eichel looked and sounded defeated after the game.
“I don’t think we had a very good start to the game, said the Sabres captain. “I think it’s important for us to get back to work. We’ve got a nice little road trip here. You can really only worry about the next game. That’s what we need to do now. Obviously, it’s frustrating. We would have liked to end our homestand on a better note, but we play Jersey on Sunday, it’s a big game for us.”
His eyes darted, his body drooped. It was obvious he just wanted the interview and the night to be over.
If the team continues to play the way they did, he won’t have to worry about any post-game interviews in April.
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.”