Monday, November 20, 2017

With Sabres in a deep rut and out of answers, what will Botterill do (or not do?)

Published by, 11-19-2017

The Buffalo Sabres are in a rut that they just can seem to get out of. Last night's 3-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes puts their losing streak at five in a row (0-3-2) and their lone tally against Carolina means that they've only managed one goal in four of their last six games.

The litany of excuses and/or reasons for their demise are many and varied but the loss to the 'Canes added another wrinkle. After the game Buffalo head coach Phil Housley was asked this about franchise center, Jack Eichel, who was invisible up until about the last 10 minutes of the game, "How concerned are you about the body language?" asked a reporter. "He lollygags off the ice with the shifts, the way he floats back on the (Justin) Williams goal tonight.

"You're seeing a lot of these plays from your key guy who everyone is expecting to carry this team."

Housley's response to those gathered for the post-game presser was to defend Eichel's play as of late. He pointed out some positives noting that Eichel's play in his own end was better and that he liked the speed he brought through the neutral zone. The reporter then followed up with, "did you like his play through the first two periods?" Once again Housley came to his defense noting his special teams play before with "I think there's an improvement in that area."

We're not seeing the Eichel we saw during his first two seasons on a consistent basis nor are we seeing anywhere near the "Jack Flash" we were genuinely excited about through his first 142 games in the Blue and Gold. It would appear that the 21 year old has a huge weight on his shoulders that may be the product of a number of things which probably includes the struggles of this team. We might also add to the equation that he was put in a position of leadership this year and just signed a max-term contract that will pay him $10 million per season for the next eight years.

Although leadership isn't the main culprit in the Sabres tailspin, one would think that not having a genuine leader on this team isn't helping matters. Both Eichel and Ryan O'Reilly are looked to for that leadership but they've been faltering in that area. Sabres GM Jason Botterill once (famously or infamously) said that "the days of Mark Messier and one guy leading the team doesn't exist anymore," in reference to perhaps the greatest team captain of all time. It may be a small piece to a complex puzzle, but many in Sabreland might love having a player like Messier help guide this team through their early perils.

But that doesn't seem to be the way Botterill wants to do things and it would seem as if right now he's leaving his rookie head coach and 5-11-4 team to their own devices. Botterill seems supremely focused on the Rochester Americans and building a winning culture down there. It's something he set out to do in from the beginning as he and Amerks GM Randy Sexton built a veteran team, with a proven leader in captain Kevin Porter, that would produce a winner in Rochester while also serving as an incubator for their young talent.

Last night the Amerks lost for only the second time in their last nine games. That streak that put them in second place in the AHL's North Division.

Despite the Sabres woes, Botterill has kept the organization's top d-prospect in Rochester to continue his development. Buffalo's problems on defense include a rash of injuries and the ignominy of having zero goals from their defense through 20 games. It's a non-move that should really be lauded, however, as it keeps the focus on proper development of their prospects, something Botterill said he'd do from the get-go. "What we're trying to accomplish with our young players isn't just survive in the NHL," he told WGR550 Radio back in October. "For the long term projection it might be better to be in the AHL, playing 20 minutes a night, instead of in the NHL playing five minutes."

Fair enough, and what few prospects they do have in Rochester should be given the opportunity to develop at their own pace. It's good for the player, good for the team long-term and it's great for the local community as they have a winner right now after two very down years.

Good for Rochester but for those in Buffalo, it looks like it's going to be a long season. Many (myself included) felt that the Sabres could take a step forward, albeit not without early struggles while adjusting to a new coach and system. Very few thought that the team would be this bad and it's making for a very trying season with many exasperating and displeasurable subplots which include, but are not limited to:

--the aforementioned franchise player getting called out by the media
--a leading scorer who's in the final year of his contract and whose success may price him right out of Buffalo
--bad contracts in the form of a forward whom the league left in the dust and injured defenseman  who hasn't played yet this year
--underachieving players in the top six one of whom who has a contract that might be classified as bad in the not to distant future
--an inconsistent top-six center whom the Sabres paid a premium for to acquire and to keep
--a secondary overhaul of the defense after doing one this off season

There are more. The list should include a dud trade by Botterill for a defenseman and lineups from Housley that included forcing a young forward to play center when it's not his cup of tea and a heavy top-four reliance on defensemen more suited to a bottom-pair/reserve role.

Lest we forget goaltending, Buffalo's starter boldly proclaimed he had nothing left to prove prior to the season then promptly laid an egg, and their backup was shaky at best through his first few games of the season.

Any way you slice it, Botterill has a mess on his hands right now in Buffalo and it doesn't look like he's even cares about what happens with the Sabres, preferring to continue laying a foundation in Rochester. Case in point.

Forward Evan Rodrigues looked like he'd be a good addition to the Sabres bottom-six out of camp but suffered a hand injury. Very little was said about his recovery and most simply forgot about him until he showed up in the lineup card for Rochester on Friday. There was no press release that he came off of injured reserve, no release that he was sent down, and no announcement that he would be playing that night for the Amerks. Why it was kept hush-hush is a head-scratcher and why he was sent to Rochester instead of filling a need in the bottom-six for the Sabres was a curious move as well.

Only 20 games into the season, Housley seems out of answers and so do his players. Perhaps Botterill has some answers should he talk to the media this week, although Sabres fans shouldn't expect much besides lauding the Amerks and his insistence upon the youngins incubating properly.

However, there are a ton of questions concerning his Sabres that stretch from personnel to coaching to players and contracts. It would also be interesting to see if he has the same philosophy today as he did in October concerning leadership and what, if anything, the first time GM will do to help his NHL team out of their rut.

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