Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-10-2018
Buffalo Sabres GM Jason Botterill should have a ton of tough questions to answer about his team at his year-end press conference. A dismal season like the Sabres just went through took it's toll on a number of players and a lot of emotions came out yesterday as the players talked to the gathered media during locker cleanout day. Not only did they clean out their lockers, but some also cleaned out some pretty deep thoughts that lay deep in the recesses of their minds.
The big bombshell came from Ryan O'Reilly when he said there were times he lost his love for the game. That quote and others from him created a firestorm. On the one hand, his brutal honesty was refreshing but on the other, he was roundly chastised him for feeling that way.
O'Reilly accused the team of "being OK with losing."
"It's crept into all of our games. Yeah, it's disappointing. It's sad," he said. "I feel throughout the year I've lost the love of the game multiple times and just need to get back to it because it's eating myself up and eats the other guys up too."
WGR550 radio host Howard Simon offered up a rebuttal and rebuke of the Sabres second-leading scorer and assistant captain, with an opinion piece entitled "O'Reilly needs to suck it up, add him to the list of Sabres problems."
"You are supposed to be one of the leaders of this team," wrote Simon of O'Reilly. "I can’t have one of my team leaders moping around and feeling sorry about the sad state of affairs that is the Sabres franchise.
"No one wants to be on a losing team. I’d imagine coming to the rink these last two seasons hasn’t been much fun for anyone associated with the team, but that’s when you dig a little deeper and find a way to persevere. More so for a player of O’Reilly’s stature since many in the locker room could end up following his lead.
"But as the saying goes, when the going gets tough the tough get going."
To his credit, Simon did not bring up O'Reilly's salary and he did include the positives that the 27 yr. old brings to the table. However, the cliché's were flowing in his piece.
There were a ton of things wrong with the on-ice product starting at the top with an inexperienced head coach and stretching all the way to goaltending, but the overriding theme seems to be the lack of a professional mindset, of bringing it every day, not just on game day, or should we say, occasionally on game day.
Scott Wilson was with the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017. Botterill was an AGM with the Pens that year and he traded for Wilson early this season. Both have seen what it takes for a team to take it to that level and the theme of Wilson's interview yesterday centered around the proper mindset.
"We made some strides in the right direction in certain games and playing good teams," he said, "but the (proper) mindset is bringing that every time you're in the hockey rink, not just on the ice either."
Forward Evan Rodrigues played 48 games for the Sabres in the back portion of the season. The second year pro was injured in the preseason and spent eight games with Rochester before being recalled for good and he also mentioned mindset. "When we were committed to doing the right things and playing on the right side of the puck and doing the little things right," he said, "we were successful. And when we played those good teams, we kind of knew we had to do that.
"When we had the right mindset to do those things, I think that's when we won a lot of our games. We just have to find a way to make sure we're bringing that day-in, day-out."
"I think just overall our mindset's got to change," said Jason Pominville, who's on his second tour with in Buffalo. The former Sabres captain struggled to find the best way to put it when he continued by saying, "It's become kind of noticeable, when you lose and you lose so much over the course of three/four years, guys that have been here a while have been accustomed to that.
"I know everyone wants to wing, no one wants to lose, but you kind of have those habits where it becomes acceptable (to lose) almost without realizing it."
The losing aspect of the equation has been brought up numerous times over the course of the season and it's probably best to remember that ownership and management set their team on this course with consecutive tank seasons. Granted, after a season and a half of mostly positives with the team looking like it was headed in the right direction, the losing element pulled this club back into the abyss.
"Nobody's gonna be happy with a losing record or losing night in, night out," said Wilson citing that sometimes negativity rolls through the team. The way to break that cycle, he believes, may center around "just being positive, and coming together (as a team)."
Defenseman Zach Bogosian has played 10 years in the league and never made the post season. The 27 yr. old has never played a healthy season in Buffalo and underwent surgery after only 18 games this year. Bogosian said that he wasn't around the locker room that much this past season but still brought it back to pulling out as a team.
"When your in a losing environment where we were losing quite a bit, it's tough to pull yourself out. As a group we have to do it together."
Wilson echoed those thought when he was asked if they need to learn how to win. "I think it's a big confidence thing," he said. "A lot of guys struggled with confidence issues in this locker room, but we showed signs of good things.
"I think the winning aspect comes when you're rolling as a team and not playing as individuals."
There really are no saviors in a team sport like hockey. You have your great ones, legends who's skill and drive can carry much of the weight, but it's still up to the supporting cast to do their part. For evidence of that, look no further than this year's Edmonton Oilers lead by Connor McDavid, a player who is considered one of the best in the game at only 21 yrs. old. After an playoff adrenaline rush last season, the Oilers fell back to 23rd in the league despite McDavid leading the league with 108 points.
If it's not true in Edmonton, it isn't true in Buffalo either. Eichel was selected second overall behind McDavid in the 2015 NHL Draft. Although he's not quite at McDavid's level, his speed and skill package is up there with some of the best in the league. Eichel has been with the Sabres for three seasons and he hasn't tasted much success on a team basis despite leading Buffalo in scoring the last two seasons and finishing second his rookie season.
After his locker cleanout interview, many consider him to be the next captain of the Buffalo Sabres as he stood there answering all questions in a most mature, thoughtful and respectful way. He knows there are problems with mindset and consistency that have negatively affected the team. It's time to change that and he said it will begin with him.
"What we've been doing as a team hasn't been working," he said. "All you can really do is focus on yourself and changing yourself and I think that's what helps change the culture, change the team. It starts every day at practice, your work ethic, coming to work ready to compete, ready to get better.
"When you look at the good teams, they bring it every night."
Perhaps that drive was there early on a team basis, but with every loss in October, any fire and positivity this group had to begin the season ended up in a downward spiral as their poor start got worse and their playoff hopes ended early. "When you put yourself out of it a lot sooner than you'd like," said Eichel, "it's tough.
"We need to find a way to have a good start, come out in October and not be behind the 8-ball."
That's where Botterill comes into play. He's heard where his players heads have been this season and he knows he needs to add talent. Last off season he focused on the Rochester Americans in order to incubate his prospects in a positive environment. It's working as the team is in the playoffs for the first time in three years.
Of course, it's a lot more difficult doing that in the NHL. Establishing a leadership pecking order may help that and if that's the case, Eichel will probably be atop. Adding talent will help immensely while adding character and mental toughness may also be of supreme importance. They'll also need to bring in a goaltender to work the crease either as a backup to Linus Ullmark or as a starter until he can get himself anchored in NHL play.
Botterill will also need to take a good look at his coaching staff. Although Phil Housley's job as head coach looks safe for now, he may need more of a veteran presence from his assistants.
Tomorrow may be the most important end of season presser in Buffalo and Botterill will have plenty of hard questions to answer about his team. What he says will carry a lot of weight but it will be what he does in the off season that will really set the tone.
It was a long season for everyone, Botterill included, but it's over and time to move on.