Monday, November 6, 2017

Sabres benchboss Phil Housley has some problems on his hands

Published by, 11-5-2017

This is the first go-round as head coach for Phil Housley at the NHL-level. Housley began his coaching career in Stillwater, Minnesota, which is a stone's throw away from where he was born in St. Paul. Housley coached their high school team from 2004-13. The other time he was the head man behind the bench was in 2013 coaching Team USA at the World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia. The Americans won the gold medal that year with Housley behind the bench and Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe as captain.

From there Housley began paying his coaching dues in Nashville as an assistant with the Predators. In four years he transformed a Nashville defense-corps into a force that drove the Preds to the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals.

Yet, despite his various levels of success prior to Buffalo hiring him, being a head coach in the NHL is a different ball of wax. No longer are his players boys and/or young men and he's now the one making all the decisions for the players on the ice for a NHL team. As a 4-8-2 record to start this season (and his head coaching career) would indicate, Housley has some adjusting to do.

In all fairness to him, Houlsey took over a team that doesn't have the overall talent of Nashville and he began his tenure in Buffalo with a defense-corps that was at least a couple of notches below what he had with the Predators. To make matters worse, he's been trying to instill a defensive philosophy in a defense-corps that has been over-run by injuries. Last night against the Dallas Stars, the Sabres had four defensemen that were projected to be in the opening night lineup with only one of them, Marco Scandella, as a legit top-four defenseman.

The talent/injury woes aren't limited to the defense-corps either. The Sabres have the makings of two good, solid lines up-top, but after that it falls to pieces, especially with the injuries to forwards Evan Rodrigues and Jacob Josefson which hurts the bottom-six. Housley has filled out his forward ranks but has players struggling to hold their own with minimal contributions on offense and some pretty poor defensive zone practices.

The Sabres have been run over in four games this season--at NY Islanders (6-3,) vs. NJ Devils (6-2,) at Columbus (5-1,) and at Dallas (5-1.) In those four games there were a total of 42 even strength goals against. The top-six, which average just over 14 minutes of even strength ice-time per player, was on the ice for 20 of the goals while the bottom-six, averaging about 10:30 EV ATOI, allowed 17 goals against. Justin Bailey who was a call-up, played a good portion in the top-six and is now injured was on the ice for two while injured fourth-line center Josefson was on for three.

Last night against Dallas, with the Sabres down 4-1, the discrepancy in talent, and speed, was on display as the Stars toyed with Buffalo's fourth line as if they were NHL'ers playing against Bantams. Dallas cycled in the Buffalo zone for 1:16 before lining up a tip from the slot. Although the goal made it 5-1 late in the third period, but the game was pretty much decided in the first period.

The Sabres really needed stout goaltending last night, and they got the opposite. Robin Lehner, who boldly proclaimed that he had "nothing to prove" during the off season, has been inconsistent at best and abysmal at worst, which is what we witnessed last night. Lehner allowed three weak goals on seven shots before getting yanked and is now sporting a 3.25 GAA and .896 Sv%.

Backup goalie Chad Johnson is worse with a 3.84 GAA and .878 Sv%.

All that said, welcome to the world of being a head coach, Mr. Housley.

Throughout his short tenure Housley has nobly kept his players from taking the brunt of criticism being thrown at the league's 29th place team. Credit should be given to the team for pulling together a 4-3-1 record prior to last night's game after starting the season 0-4-1, but the product is what the product is and right now what the Sabres are losing more often than they are winning and last night they lost in grand fashion.

After skating well in the first few minutes with nothing to show for it last night, the Sabres proceeded to allow four goals in the first 12:51 of play. And they looked terrible in the process. It was yet another collapse, from goalie on out, that Housley tried to defend post-game. "I thought our guys played well and did a lot of good things," he told the gathered media last night.

"When I evaluate the game," said Housley in a response to how he avoids being negative, "I think we played well" then went on to say that "a lot of people probably will disagree with [him]" while acknowledging "the score tells something different." Yet he was adamant that the team got the start that they wanted and that they were victims of some early bounces not going their way.

Everyone who disagrees with his assessment of last night's game are probably wondering what game he was watching. With all due respect his team failed in goal, failed on defense, failed on team defense and failed to score on the minimal opportunities they had and got steamrolled. It was over at the end of the first period with Dallas up 4-0 and there should be no coddling of the players after that stinker.

Once again, the product on the ice is what it is.

Housley's got his hands full right now and he really has no one to fall back on in his coaching staff. He's out there by himself with a lot of problems on his hands and that would include how he handles the players on his team. If they want to be treated like men and paid like men, they need to be addressed like men and that includes calling a spade a spade.

This team had the utmost respect for Housley when he came on board, but the horrific start meant the honeymoon was over pretty quick. Coddling these players does no one any good. If they played a poor game, and if that can be alluded to without calling a player out, then it should be done.

Buffalo didn't play well last night. Perhaps after Housley evaluates the game he'll get different view than what he had post-game. The next game is against a Washington Capitals team that's beginning to figure things out after a real rough patch. And if the Sabres want to survive that one, Housley and company will need to figure some things out as well.

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