Wednesday, April 19, 2017

On coaches, the Sabres and the Leafs

Published by, 4-18-2017

Bucky Gleason has a very cool article in the Buffalo News today about the coaching carousel in the NHL which, he writes, is enough to make one's head spin. With Sabres head coach Dan Bylsma's status up in the air as he awaits the result of a GM/Ownership meeting this week, there is the possibility that the Sabres will have yet another coaching change, the fourth one since Lindy Ruff was fired. Ruff's tenure lasted just about 17 seasons and at the time of his firing was a part of the longest tenured head coach/GM tandem in the NHL.

But Ruff and GM Darcy Regier's long-time tenure is the anomaly in a league where coaches are hired to be fired, as the old adage goes. Professional sports is about immediacy and hockey is no different these days.

Gleason sets the ball rolling by starting with present St. Louis head coach Mike Yeo and does a Chronicles-like unwinding of the many coaches hired and fired. It's a pretty noble piece that moves well and in the end the simple conclusion is that there are three possibilities that preclude a coach being fired: "A) the general manager needed a scapegoat for a lousy roster he assembled because, heaven forbid, it's the GM's fault; B) the coach's message grew stale; C) players underachieved."

He concludes with "the most common factor is D) All of the above," which seems to be where Bylsma and the Sabres are at this point.

GM Tim Murray's 2016-17 team was flawed, maybe fatally although maybe not because of injuries. That's what he and owners Terry and Kim Pegula will be discussing when they meet in Boca Raton, FL this week to discuss the season. We also know that there was a disconnect between Bylsma and his players. How long this disconnect existed is up for debate but it could go back to the middle of December when disturbing trends on a team getting healthy again were starting to make their way into the picture.

And, no doubt, there were players that underachieved, most notably on defense and in the bottom-six. However, the top-six performed very well, at least statistically. Even Sam Reinhart surpassed his rookie output this season.

Something just wasn't right this season for Buffalo which brings it all back on the coach.

Gleason uses Buffalo captain Brian Gionta as a way go hoist some of the blame on the players. The supposed disconnect between Bylsma and the players had a lot to do with the coaches system, to which Gionta said two months ago that coaching systems didn't vary all that much in the NHL. Gleason writes, " It was the 15-year veteran's way of saying most teams approach the game in similar fashion and, therefore, his younger teammates and others needed to stop whining about Dan Bylsma," then concludes, "there are no secrets in the NHL. Hockey always has been, and forever shall be, an effort sport."

All of that is true, and motivating players to play their hardest in an "effort sport" apparently isn't one of Bylsma's strong points, at least with this team.

Former head coach Ted Nolan was a supreme motivator who employed (at most) basic X's and O's principles while touting the value of hard work, effort and accountability. His teams almost always overachieved yet he was always ridiculed as a dinosaur with no value in the modern NHL.

Yet, as Sabres fans watch the Stanley Cup playoffs for the sixth year in a row, it's not hard imagining a Nolan-coached team easily eclipsing the 78-point total that Bylsma's system-oriented team gathered.

And even if they didn't, there's one thing we Sabres fans could be pretty sure of.

When the Sabres met the Leafs for the final time this season at KeyBank Center with Toronto battling for a playoff spot and Buffalo in the role of spoiler, I'd almost bet the farm that a Nolan-coached team wouldn't have laid the colossal egg this team did in the embarrassment of that game. He'd have reveled in that playoff-like atmosphere.


Speaking of that game.

Toronto eeked into the playoffs by one point. Buffalo had played a highly motivated game against the Leafs 10 days prior at KeyBank and totally manhandled them 5-2. Beating the Leafs again may have put them on the ropes to where they'd have missed out on the playoffs.

It didn't happen and much to the dismay of many a Buffalo sports fan, not only is Toronto in the playoffs, but they're leading the top-seed Washington Capitals 2-1 in the series. If a Sabres fan wants to beat his or her head every time they watch the Leafs this post season, they should do so against a 2016-17 Buffalo Sabres team picture.


I get the consternation of Toronto in the playoff and as a Sabres fan I will always wish them to lose, expecting the same in return.

But when the anguish of a distraught fan comes in the form of "a little rant of 20+ reasons the Leafs have me bitter and salty," perhaps we're taking it a little too far.

When WGR550 morning host Jeremy White began is rant, I and every other Sabres fan can relate, but on the other hand, I get a kick out of watching Leaf Nation celebrate every goal as if it was the Stanley Cup winner.

The Leafs are a fun team to watch and it's good for the NHL as a whole that they're relevant again. Does it hurt a bit? Yeah, it does. Do I want to slit my wrists? Far from it.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Toronto was the epitome of health this season and I'd bet the house that if Auston Matthews was injured for 21 games to start the season like Jack Eichel was, they wouldn't be in the playoffs. In fact if they also lost William Nylander and Mitch Marner like Buffalo lost Evander Kane and Ryan O'Reilly, they'd probably not be in the playoffs.

Everything went perfect for the Leafs this season and more power to them. And it's great for the NHL that in it's 100th Anniversary season, Toronto is back in the playoffs.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

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