Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-7-2019
The Buffalo Sabres surprised Sabreland this afternoon when they announced the firing of head coach Phil Housley. It was surprising in that the general manager wasn't thinking about a coaching change back in February when he was asked about it and it's something Sabres owner Terry Pegula reiterated some two weeks ago. They even had a 2:30 time-slot tomorrow for an end-of-season presser with Housley.
However, Buffalo GM Botterill pulled the plug on Housley only two years into his tenure in a decision that he said was exclusively his own. Botterill told the gathered media today that he "had discussions with [the owners]" about his thought process concerning his head coach but that he alone made the decision and went to ownership this morning with his recommendation. "They accepted it,"
A lot has been said about owners Terry and Kim Pegula lately (this blogger included) but they should be applauded for allowing their general manager, who is their defacto director of hockey operations, to make this decision. It couldn't have been easy as the Pegulas now look to be paying two coaches (Dan Bylsma and Housley) not to coach next year while also paying their new coach to be behind the bench. In addition to the financial aspect of the situation there's also the perception of how the club is being run. Since Terry bought the team in February, 2011 the Sabres are on their third team president, hired and lost a VP of Hockey Operations in a matter of months, are on their third GM and will be hiring their sixth head coach. Not exactly a track record of success and stability.
But what's a team to do when the results aren't there?
Botterill mentioned the word 'result(s)' eight times while answering questions during the Housley portion of his presser, which lasted roughly nine minutes. He came in this afternoon to face the media in what was also his end-of-season presser and began it with thanks and well wishes to Housley and his family before getting to the heart of the matter in a prepared statement. "Today wasn't an easy day," said Botterill about the firing, "but the results in the second half were just not there," and he was unquestionably right. The worst record in the NHL since the end of their 10-game winning streak in November. Only four wins in each of December, January and February and the kicker, a 2-12-2 record in March that probably sealed Housley's fate. Botterill was being kind when he said the team was "very inconsistent" and stated simply that "the fans expect more, we expect more."
The fans certainly made their feelings known. Buffalo had their worst average attendance since 2005-06, which includes the tank years of 2013-15, and the fans that did show up regularly booed their team off of the ice in the latter portion of the season. It's not a good combination and as the old adage goes, it's easier to fire the head coach than 20 players. Although it wasn't all on Housley, he didn't help his cause as he held firm to a message wasn't getting through. WGR550 Sabres beat writer Paul Hamilton recently talked of the defense corps not understanding Housley and his system. "You watch them in the defensive zone," said Hamilton to the morning hosts last week, "and they have no idea what they're doing or what they're supposed to be doing."
That was essentially the framework of Botterill's first question today when a media member asked him of Housley's primary shortcomings. He generally echoed Hamilton's sentiments saying, "it's mainly our results in the second half. Unfortunately we had the same lapses defensively in our structure. Especially when you come back after the All-Star break, playing in those tight games, those tight situations. Some of those same mistakes were continually showing up.
"At the end of the day it's a results-driven business and we didn't get the results."
Botterill did share in some of the blame for not "putting the proper roster out there" and "not giving [Housley] enough players, enough tools to have success out there" and he's taking a beating in social media and other outlets for trading away top-six center Ryan O'Reilly for a return that eventually put rookie Casey Mittelstadt in a top-six center role. Botterill also never addressed the defense adequately until he acquired Brandon Montour just before the February trade deadline. Plus the goalie tandem he put together fell to pieces after the streak.
That's all on him and his team-building, but in addition to (and maybe because of) the poor win/loss results, Botterill didn't feel as if his NHL players were developing properly in Buffalo. He went back to last year's presser where he put the onus on his players to come into camp focused and ready to go and they came in ready. "I thought our players did take a big step this past year in training," he said. "You saw that in the first half of the season, their preparation, their interaction with our performance staff, their interaction with our coaching staff.
"Unfortunately we weren't able to carry that all the way through the second half and that was the disappointing thing, that we didn't get those results in the second half."
No matter who's coaching next season, Botterill and his staff have a lot of work to do and he pointed out that the forward group needs attention. The Sabres got career years from Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Jeff Skinner, but he also said that they carried too much weight and that he'll need "develop and add skill" to the forward group. Some of that will come from within as players like Mittelstadt go into next year with a full NHL season under his belt, some will come from players like Victor Olofsson as he tries to transfer his skills and AHL success to the NHL full time. They'll also need to find scoring depth.
On defense the Sabres will need to continue to add to the blueline. Montour was a great step for the team and Dahlin should be even better coming into his second NHL season. But, "we still have a lot to improve upon defensively," said Botterill. "There's things we need to work on from a structural standpoint defensively, but I still think we need to move pucks out of our d-zone quicker and spend less time in our d-zone."
Housley came from a successful Nashville Predators organization where his active defense formed the best corps in the league and took the Preds to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2017. There's a big talent discrepancy on the back-end between Nashville and Buffalo but Housley, according to Hamilton, never deviated from the system he brought over as an assistant with the Predators. At the time of his hire, it was thought that a highly-regarded coaching candidate like Housley could bring that prowess to the Sabres but it never really worked out for the new head coach.
"You know you got through the process two years ago with the candidates," said Botterill, "you hope some of the skills can transfer. Phil was an assistant coach and you think some of the things can transfer over to becoming a head coach and, I think you learn a lot in that first year...it's tough learning on the job from that element."
As always, there's plenty of blame to throw around after a season that derailed like it did for the Sabres. Whether founded or unfounded, Housley took the brunt of that with his job and that leaves Botterill as the face of the organization moving forward. He's got a huge task at hand to try and get this franchise on the right track and it will start with two things, finding the right head coach and re-signing winger Jeff Skinner. After that it's adding more talent without mortgaging the future.
Next year his ass will be on the line. After all, it's a results-based business.