Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-12-2017
On day when the 2017 NHL playoffs begin,it would have been much easier for Buffalo GM Tim Murray to answer what it felt like to break a five-year playoff drought and face the Washington Capitals in the first round. Or to describe the progress his team had made while being in the hunt late in the season. But neither scenario came true this season as the Sabres finished with 78 points, three fewer than the previous season, and were out of the playoff picture in early March.
Murray will be facing a multitude of tough questions from the media today beginning with his decision on head coach Dan Bylsma.
Perhaps there's no decision to be made in Murray's eyes as Bylsma guided this team through a multitude of key injuries with a defense-corps that was generally panned league-wide . Injuries were an excuse up to a certain point but after most of the team returned to health, they could not get the job done. From that point forward, was it the coach or the construct that lead to the Sabres' demise?
Bylsma has three more years left on his five-year contact and his team followed a season of strong progress with a giant egg this year. From a construct perspective, his defense was a huge weakness as they could not consistently do what either the team needed or what his system was predicated upon. Then again, a seeming lack of adaptability on Bylsma's part when the team was near full health lead to a reported disconnect between some players and the coach.
Despite what Bylsma said at his end-of-season presser, something was amiss and it centered around 20 yr. old Jack Eichel and his reported disconnect with Bylsma's system. Eichel is the franchise player this team spent two years in the gutter for and has shown that he should be in the same conversation as young studs Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews.
It will be interesting to hear how Murray approaches this aspect of the conversation and whether or not he still believes Bylsma and his system are right for his team and whether or not it will have an adverse effect on his franchise player.
Murray himself is squarely in focus as a supposedly "tough to play against" team he constructed (or wanted to construct) turned out to be paper tigers. When the heat was turned up this edition of the Sabres turned to mush. All may have been forgiven had they made progress this season, but they regressed and one would think that owner Terry Pegula is uneasy with what transpired with the team Murray built.
If Murray decides to retain Bylsma, he'll be passing up the opportunity to land a veteran coach like Daryl Sutter who won two Stanley Cups with the LA Kings or Gerard Gallant who guided a young Florida Panthers team to a 103 point season and an Atlantic Division crown last season. They may also miss out on a young, up-and-coming coach in former Sabres defenseman Phil Houlsley who's been working his way up the coaching ladder for years.
Keeping Bylsma represents a huge leap of faith by Murray and failure may cost him is job.
Also on tap is the status of left-winger Evander Kane.
We all know the story of Kane's off-ice antics and his on-ice attributes. Kane has one more season on his contract and lead the team with 28 goals, most of them 5v5 which was a huge weakness on the team. Murray has already said that Eichel and Sam Reinhart, who have one more left on their entry-level deals, are on tap first and that Kane would be addressed later.
Another contract to discuss is that of goalie Robin Lehner whom Murray traded a first round pick for. Lehner had a solid season and looks to be a good No. 1 goalie in this league. Lehner had the numbers, and presumably still has the confidence of his GM, but he had his moments, especially in the shootout where he failed to stop a single shot in eight attempts.
The contract with Lehner may have huge implications when addressing the Cal Petersen situation. Petersen was a standout goalie through three seasons at Notre Dame and may turn pro. Should he decide to, the Sabres have until June 1 to sign him, according to Kris Baker of sabresprospects.com/sabres.com, or he'll become a free agent. How he fits into Buffalo's plans will be the key talking point in any Petersen/Sabres talks.
There's Kyle Okposo's health, the expansion draft and the NHL Entry Draft to address as well as the team's approach to free agency, but most of the questions should center around what happened and who's to blame. If Bylsma's still the coach after Murray's opening statement, then we'll have a pretty good indication that the players will bear most of the responsibility in Murray's eyes. If not, then old adages like "it's easier to fire the coach instead of trading players" and "coaches are hired to be fired" will come into play.
Murray's presser is scheduled for 2 pm today. Should be interesting.