Friday, April 1, 2016

The Bylsma-Sabres/Babcock-Leafs season series concludes tonight at Buffalo

Reprinted with permission from

A little over seven years ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins fired head coach Michel Therrien and promoted Dan Bylsma to coach the team on an interim basis. GM Ray Shero made the decision with the Penguins out of a playoff spot and said at the time, "I didn't like the direction in which the team was headed."

That direction had Pittsburgh five points out of a playoff spot and floundering the season after taking the Detroit Red Wings to Game-6 of the 2007-08 Stanley Cup Finals. They still had plenty of star-power and some very talented players, but the magic was gone. Bylsma's approach to coaching in that situation would be very simple. He had a highly-skilled, very fast team at his disposal and he wanted them to use those talents aggressively, "We need to force teams to deal with the quality of players we have at every position," he said at the time.

Dave Molinari, covered the press conference for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and even felt compelled to include a phonetic pronunciation of Bylsma's name, (BYL-zmuh.) In a rather short article that  included the above quotes he concluded, "Whether that name becomes one of the most celebrated in franchise history, or nothing more than a footnote, will be determined by how the next two months play out."

The Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit four months later after defeating the Red Wings in seven games.

The head coach of Detroit at the time was Mike Babcock. His only Stanley Cup came the prior year when his Red Wings squad defeated Therrien's Penguins. Babcock had made it to the Finals previously as he coached the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim to a seven-game Finals loss to the New Jersey Devils in 2003.

Both coaches would eventually leave their organizations. Bylsma was fired after the 2013-14 season by new GM Jim Rutherford only a month after the organization shook things up by canning Shero. Babcock moved on from the Red Wings last year at the end of his contract. At the conclusion of their time as the head coaches of those two organizations, Bylsma had a 4-3 playoff record vs. Babcock in the Finals and he was also 5-3 record head-to-head in the regular season (with four of those games going to OT or the SO.)

Buffalo fans are well aware of the drama that ensued after Babcock decided to leave Detroit. He was the apple of the Sabres eye, and rightfully so, but he spurned Buffalo to take on a rebuild with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Owner Terry Pegula and the Sabres would then turn their attention to Bylsma, who had been out of the NHL in 2014-15 but had been an assistant for the US Team at the World Championships. On that US squad would be Jack Eichel whom the Sabres ended up taking with the 2nd-overall pick in the 2015 Draft. On May 20th, Babcock signed with Toronto, eight days later, Bylsma signed on with the Buffalo Sabres.

Thus Bylsma/Babcock was reborn in the Eastern Conference within a rivalry whose links date back to 1970-71 when legendary Toronto Maple Leafs head coach George "Punch" Imlach took over as head coach and GM of the fledgling Sabres. Imlach had coached the Leafs to their last Stanley Cup in 1967 but was fired by Toronto after struggling in his final three seasons there.

Proximity has always been the most alluring characteristic of the Sabres/Leafs rivaly as the two cities are a only 100 miles away via the QEW. Both franchises have struggled mightily at times with franchise successes rarely crossing paths. Yet every year, the boisterous clans from each team make their presence known. It's been especially true as of late at Buffalo's First Niagara Center as economics have made it affordable for Leafs fans to take advantage Sabres tickets being offered at premium prices. Such is the price of a ticket to watch the Leafs at Toronto's Air Canada Centre.

Both franchises have been middling since 2007-08 when the Wings and Penguins were ruling their conferences. The Leafs have made the playoffs only once in those nine years while the Sabres made it twice and neither made it past the first round. To complicate matters from a talent perspective, the Leafs picked top-five in the NHL Draft only three times since then--2008 (5th,) 2012 (5th) and 2015 (4th) and up until the Sabres selected 2nd-overall in consecutive years (2014 and 2015) they only had one top-10 pick during that period (2013, 8th.)

Both franchises decided to rebuild with the Sabres being just a step or two ahead of the Leafs in the process. Although Buffalo's started in 2012, it went scorched-earth in 2013 while Toronto had begun in earnest only last season. The Sabres stripped away almost everything all the way down to their AHL affiliate in Rochester and went into the prior two seasons with a veteran-heavy lineup sprinkled with some select youngins. The Leafs tapped into a strong AHL affiliate this season and called up a group of hungry Marlies who've served the team well. And while Bylsma came in an extreme roster turnover with many from outside the organization, Babcock's rebuild begins with a large chunk of internal talent.

The 2015-16 season has been intriguing and hopefully when things come to fruition with both franchises there will be a strong playoff rivalry. As odd as it may sound, the Sabres and Leafs have met in the playoffs only once since Buffalo's inaugural season. Buffalo upset Toronto in the 1999 Eastern Conference Finals 4-1 before losing to the Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup Finals that season.

With that as a backdrop, one could look at 2015-16 as the inaugural season of a Bylsma-Sabres/Babcock-Leafs rivalry that hopefully will reach deep into the playoffs for a long time. As mentioned, Bylsma has the edge in their previous meetings when he was with Pittsburgh and Babcock with Detroit. Going into tonight's fourth and final game of the season between Buffalo and Toronto, Bylsma's Sabres won the first two games of the series in the shootout (their only two shootout wins in nine tries) but lost the last meeting to Babcock's Leafs, 4-1.

That last one in Toronto was particularly troubling as the Leafs stifled the Sabres at every turn. As we found out with Detroit, a Babcock-coached team is quick to the man and the gap and likes to be in control of the puck. Buffalo had trouble with that against Toronto and also had trouble with that during their last game against Detroit on Monday as it took them 57 minutes to finally crack the code.

Buffalo and Toronto have met 200 times. The Sabres have a 110-64-26 all-time record against the Leafs, according to Sabres PR, and they're 67-25-8 at home. Toronto has not won in Buffalo since a 4-3 OT win on January 29, 2013 and hasn't beaten Buffalo in regulation since February 16, 2011.

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