Sunday, April 16, 2017

Would Murray gamble on a first-time coach with his job on the line?

Published by, 4-14-2017

Tim Murray's end of season presser was hardly vote of confidence for his head coach after a "very disappointing" Buffalo Sabres season, but then again, he said nothing of moving on from Dan Bylsma either. Murray even said that he "hadn't had any thoughts of firing him" as well. Yet the door was left open as Murray still has a meeting with ownership next week.

"He's the coach today," said Murray of Bylsma, "like I'm the GM today. There's going to be a review top to bottom.

"The reason I always say today is that something could happen tomorrow."

Murray has been general manager since January, 2014 which is a little over three seasons. He began his tenure with the continued tear-down of the previous roster, and drafted forward Sam Reinhart second-overall in his first-ever draft as GM. He's on his second head coach and has reworked his lineup somewhat to his liking. There have been failures along the way and places where he could have done better with the bottom line being, his team regressed this season.

When he goes in with his "book full of notes" to discuss this past season, Murray will make his case to ownership. No doubt he'll point to injuries that felled Jack Eichel for the first 21 games as well as a host of others, but owner Terry Pegula will probably focus upon the stumbling that took place after Eichel, and Evander Kane and Ryan O'Reilly were back in the lineup for the last five or so months of the season.

That's where Bylsma comes into play.

The Sabres fell apart post bye week but there were cracks and fissures noticeable before that. Those cracks stemmed from a disconnect between some players and the coaching staff--between the players abilities on the ice and the rigid system Bylsma employed. Murray framed the disconnect this way, "I think that maybe [the coaches] are stuck in that (video) room and maybe they could put a coffee in their hand once in a while and do two hours of video instead of three and get out and get to know our players and talk to our players.

"It's about coaching individuals a little more and coaching systems a little less."

At his own end of season presser, Bylsma sais there wasn't a disconnect, but Murray had just finished player exit interviews and it would seem as if the players thought there was a chasm between themselves and the coaching staff lead by Bylsma. Amongst the most visibly irritated at the way things were going during the season was Eichel. As the future of this franchise his words hold a lot of clout with upper management and ownership and one might assume that the disconnect between him and Bylsma that we saw on the ice and that was mentioned in the media during the latter stages of the season likely came out during his exit interview. Eichel, by the way, was the last of Murray's player interviews and was said to be held just before the GM's presser on Wednesday.

There was talk in Pittsburgh that Bylsma lost the room before he was fired and it looked as if he'd lost the room in Buffalo less than two years into his tenure. Perhaps the rigid way he coaches is just the way he is which means if he's still around next season, any ill will between players and coach may will eventually manifest itself in losing ways. Bylsma has three years left on his contract and when Murray said "he's our coach today," perhaps the prevailing thought is that he'll need to get the OK from ownership that they're willing to eat the last three years before he gives Bylsma the pink slip.

If the team has serious reservations about whether Bylsma is the right man for the job, it's better if they fire him now. Waiting until the season begins severely limits the coaching pool from which to draw from. Just this week, a prime candidate in Gerard Gallant was just snatched up by the expansion Las Vegas Knights.

Gallant was a veteran coach, some would say retread, on the market and there remains another one who might be of interest to the Sabres--former Los Angeles Kings head coach Darryl Sutter.

Sutter finished his six-year run in LA with two Stanley Cups wins with the Kings including their first-ever in 2012. He has a long history of coaching that dates back to the  1992-93 season and his teams missed the playoffs only three times in his 18 years behind the bench.

When Murray took over the Sabres it seemed as if he was modeling his build after the Sutter-coached Kings as he used the term "heavy" on more than one occasion. However the game has changed and it's probably what caused Sutter and his GM Dean Lombardi, to get canned. After struggling for two seasons, Murray himself is devoting more of his focus to "speed and transition" which may leave Sutter out of the equation.

Regardless of NHL styles, hiring a veteran coach would be safe for Murray. Perhaps the ideal one would have been Gallant who guided a young, up-and-coming Florida Panthers team to a 103 points and a division crown two years ago. With him gone, as well as another well known coaching retread in Ken Hitchcock, the last of the big-name vets that might be appealing to Buffalo would be Sutter.

Then again, there are two young coaches that will in the very least get long looks from teams with coaching vacancies.

Former Sabre and NHL Hall of Fame defenseman Phil Housley has been working his way up the coaching ladder having been hired as a Nashville Predators assistant after he coached Team USA to the gold medal at the 2013 World Juniors in Ufa, Russia. The captain of that USA team was Buffalo Sabers defenseman, Jake McCabe. From Preds GM David Poile, "Phil brings a unique skill set to our coaching staff. He was one of the most talented offensive defensemen to play in the NHL, and he has worked extensively with young players during his coaching career. He will continue to focus his efforts on our young defensemen and assisting on the power play."
At the NCAA level is up and coming Denver University head coach Jim Montgomery who just lead the Pioneers to the 2017 NCAA championship. Montgomery team was the epitome of speed and transition and will be a hot commodity in an NHL that is all about speed and transition these days. Montgomery also has a bit of a Buffalo connection as he coached Zemgus Girgensons with the Dubuque Fighting Saints 2010-12.

Montgomery has also been working his way up the ladder. He started as an assistant at Notre Dame in 2005-06 and went to RPI for four seasons as an assistant. After three years in the USHL he was hired by Denver and since taking over the head coaching position in 2013, his Pioneers are sporting back-to-back Frozen Four appearances with a Championship this year.

Should Bylsma get fired, Murray will have a tough decision to make. Were he in this position last year he'd have a bit more wiggle room as his team was still feeling the effects of the "tank years." However, should Murray make a change, the focus would be squarely on him and there'd be a tremendous amount of pressure placed on a rookie head coach as Murray is headed into his fourth season as GM with the club.

Housley or Montgomery, or even Boston University's David Quinn, might be well worth it but it might take a couple of years for them to establish themselves. Sutter, on the other hand, would have the best chance for short-term success. Hiring Sutter and having him succeed at getting the team to the playoffs may end up saving Murray's job.

On the other hand, if Murray hired a rookie head coach, he may end up falling on the sword in the event of another team failure.

This is all speculation at this point as Bylsma's still the head coach but in the event of change, one would hope that Murray keeps the best interests of the organization in mind.

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