Published by hockeybuzz.com, 8-29-2017
The Buffalo Sabres defense was a mess last season, plain and simple, but the reasons for that mess still aren't fully known and probably never will be. Injuries played a role, as did lack of depth and talent. Coaching shouldn't be dismissed either.
Former bench boss Dan Bylsma never could get the team on the same page last season, to the point where the face of the franchise, Jack Eichel, showed his dismay in-season and was rumored to be avoiding contract-extension talks if Bylsma was retained. The disconnect between Bylsma and his players was so pronounced that it eventually lead to his firing and as Sabres' players slowly begin to gather in Buffalo for workouts, things are beginning to trickle out on just what transpired last season.
Two players who are in Buffalo already doing workouts are goalie Robin Lehner and defenseman Zach Bogosian.
Lehner was the first to talk with the media at the HarborCenter workouts. Last season he established himself as a bona fide starting goalie with some strong numbers in spite of a defense-corps in front of him that was described as as one of the worst in the league. However, Lehner didn't look at it that way.
“The problem was we really didn’t know how to play,” he told the gathered media after a workout session last week. “The defensemen, it’s a common misconception (it was a problem). It’s how we play as a team. I was sitting watching the whole Stanley Cup playoffs last year. If you watch the good teams, look at Pittsburgh, everyone defends, everyone comes back and everyone plays as a five-man unit, and it’s fast forward and fast back in the defensive zone.
“I think that’s what [new coach] Phil [Housley] wants. He doesn’t want us to play slow. He wants us to play fast, and everyone attacks and everyone defends. That’s what we need to do. We didn’t do that last year. We were playing as three forwards and two defensemen.”
For many of the players, this was their second season under Bylsma's system and to have Lehner say that "we really didn't know how to play, furthers the conclusion that there was a serious disconnect between Bylsma and his players. His system was a "end-all, be-all," so rigid in it's X's and O's that it never fully took into account an individuals strength's and weaknesses.
Case in point, Bogosian.
Although he never lived up to his third-overall pick status, Bogosian still has the same traits now as he did when he was drafted in 2008. He's always had an NHL frame, and a rather large one at 6'3", 215 lbs., but he's also always been an excellent skater which allowed him to skate the puck out of the zone. Although his passing is good (and decision-making, meh, at times,) getting him some open ice to move the puck out has always been ideal for him.
But that's not what happened last season, or the year before either. “I think the last two years for me has been frustrating and disappointing," Bogosian told WGR550's Paul Hamilton yesterday. "Skating is definitely my strong point. Last year and the year before I felt like I was handcuffed back there. I don't think I got a chance to play my game in the way I know I can play and I'm just looking forward to a new start and play my game which is jumping up into the play.”
Handcuffed by X's and O's, as were others on both offense and defense.
That's not to give individual players a free ride either. Bogosian has his limitations as does Josh Gorges and both may see diminished roles on the team this season under Housley. Plus new GM Jason Botterill revamped the defense with trades for Nathan Beaulieu and Marco Scandella while also signing free agent KHL d-man Victor Antipin.
Regardless of who comes in and who goes out, it comes down to coaching and the best coaches fit their system to the players given them, not the other way around.