Friday, April 19, 2019

Of the coaching search, Kane, O'Reilly and Lehner

Published by, 4-18-2019

All's quiet on the Buffalo Sabres coaching front right now after Todd McLellan and Alain Vigneault were hired by the Los Angeles Kings and Philadelphia Flyers, respectively. Of the two, only McLellan was a consideration by the Sabres as he came in for an interview while his son was in the NCAA Frozen Four being held in Buffalo. Nothing came of it as reports suggest that the Sabres didn't even make him an offer.

If you're a fan like myself who is interested in seeing Buffalo hire a veteran hockey coach, pickins is mighty slim and none seem very appealing with a list that includes Mike Yeo, Todd Richards and Michel Therrien, among others. Former Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff's name has come up for whatever reason in Sabreland, mostly nostalgia, but it's a ship that's sailed even though I'd pick him over any of the "retreads" available on the coaching market right now.

It's not a good situation for the Sabres be in as they just finished a disastrous two-year stint with a rookie head coach and, barring any unforeseen firings of 2019 NHL playoff coaches, right now that's about the only thing left on the market. Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe seems to be the front-runner for a NHL job while back-to-back NCAA Champion head coach Scott Sandelin of Minnesota-Duluth might be the other hot rookie candidate. Rochester Americans head coach Chris Taylor's name is always mentioned but as of now there have been no reports of the team contacting him about the position, and there's a possibility he may not be interested in the job at this time. Also, Sweden national coach Rickard Gronborg's name is getting hot for a head coaching position in the NHL and the Sabres have been said to be interested in him dating back to last season.

It's quite the pickle general manager Jason Botterill has himself in right now and barring an unforeseen veteran coach hitting the market soon, we're in a situation where we could see another head coach go down the drain over the next few years and in the process the Sabres might be looking for another GM.

Considering the circumstances the Sabres find themselves in right now, the ideal situation in this bloggers eyes would be for any potential rookie head coach, if that's what it comes down to, to be surrounded by veteran assistants who command the respect of the players.

There's been plenty of talk concerning Sandelin and Keefe and their ability to develop young players which is great if this was a team that was heavy with rookies and first year players. But the Sabres are not as young as people might think. Chronologically Rasmus Ristolainen, Sam Reinhart, and Jack Eichel, a trio that has made up part of the nucleus of this club, are in their early 20's but they've all played at least four full seasons in the NHL and are entering their prime. Sure, there's 18 yr. old Rasmus Dahlin and 20 yr. old Casey Mittelstadt, and there will be young players making their way up the ranks, but the vast majority of this team will be made up by players 24 and older next season.

A group like this, with that much playing experience, needs a coach whom they not only respect, but will also trust as the road to becoming a winning franchise is fraught with pitfalls. A good example of that is in St. Louis where they fired a failing Mike Yeo in November and promoted assistant head coach Craig Berube. The Blues are a more veteran team than Buffalo but respect and trust was still a necessary ingredient in success. After going 8-9-1 and struggling badly to close out the 2018 portion of the schedule under Berube, the Blues ended up being the second-hottest team in the league from January 1 on (30-10-5) and are in a heated battle with Winnipeg in the playoffs. This was Berube's second coaching stint having coached the Philadelphia Flyers for two years (2013-15) and he commands a presence in the room.

It's tough to fathom a rookie head coach like Sandelin, Keefe or even Grönborg, who guided the resurgence of Team-Sweden, having the attributes to properly manage egos and guide a team through turbulence like that. The Sabres just went through a situation with a young coach where-in a Hall of Fame player who was a great assistant and supposed up-and-comer in the head coaching ranks couldn't get the job done.

The only other solution would be to hire a veteran head coach to take over the team with the heir-apparent on his staff as an assistant. Whether that's viable or not, or whether there's even a possible tandem out there willing to take on those roles for a year or two might be a stretch, but it might be all the Sabres have to work with this off season.


Former Sabres general manager Tim Murray has had a lot of warranted criticism thrown his way for how he handled the post-tank rebuild. Murray's drunken sailor approach to landing his coveted "young-vets" depleted many of the assets the they horded after trading away Buffalo's former core group. That he paid a high price for Evander Kane, Ryan O'Reilly and goalie Robin Lehner is indisputable. That they were very good players entering the middle of their prime and not living up to expectations in Buffalo was cause for an endless, heated debate in Sabreland as to just how good they were and just how much of an idiot Murray was made out to be.

Turns out that all three were exactly what Murray was looking for, but were ended up being a bad fit in Buffalo individually and as part of the group.

Kane was the first player traded away by the Sabres. He went to San Jose at the 2018 trade deadline and has posted 39 goals in 92 games for the Sharks since which includes the second 30-goal campaign of his NHL career. Both the 27 yr. old  Kane and San Jose felt there was a good enough fit for him there and he was re-signed by the Sharks to a 7yr./$49 million contract extension last May.

O'Reilly was also traded by the Sabres. He went to St. Louis and proceeded to have a career year for the Blues with 77 points (28+49) while enjoying a complete 180 plus/minus rating turnaround going from a minus-23 in Buffalo to a plus-22 in St. Louis. He was named one of three Selke finalists yesterday and has a good shot at winning it.

After three rough seasons in Buffalo, Lehner left the Sabres as a free agent and signed with the NY Islanders. That Buffalo let him walk is not too surprising as he struggled in 2017-18. However, Lehner found his footing on Long Island, which included exorcising some personal demons, and was one of the top goalies in the league this past season with a 2.13 goals against average and .930 save percentage, both career highs in a full-time role.

Despite the very high price Murray paid, he did well in acquiring talented young vets, albeit he did so with the intention of speeding up a rebuild something that rarely, if ever, works out. As we look at the idea and the talent involved, it was a good idea, but the execution and timing were off. While Murray was busy adding to a "bigger, stronger, faster" mind-set from the previous regime, not only was the league changing, but the coach he hired seemed to have a system that wasn't a good match for the talent acquired.

Dan Bylsma came from the Pittsburgh Penguins where he coached a Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang-led team loaded with Eastern conference speed, skill and smarts. With that trio on top, nearly any X's and O's system has a high chance of succeeding and they won the Stanley Cup. Murray may have been thinking that Bylsma had the horses to pull of a Cup-winning system in Buffalo, but it didn't seem as if he had the right ones to fit Bylsma's system and after a year and a half it began to fall apart.

If one wants to trace Buffalo's woes back to something we can rightfully attack Murray for the cost of his personnel choices and his focus upon rushing the rebuild, but we might also want to take a long look at the choice of Bylsma as his head coach. If you're building a  rugged Western conference style club with heavies and straight-ahead speed, it doesn't make a lot of sense to have a coach who's system is based more upon skill, hockey IQ and saavy.

It's no wonder that O'Reilly and Kane have found success in the West where the teams around them and the style of play fits them better than it did in Buffalo.


As for Lehner, good for him that he's found his game. Murray gave up a first round pick for him which drew the ire of the entire hockey community. Those views ended up being justified as the Sabres gave up a valuable first round pick, Lehner floundered in Buffalo, and he was eventually allowed to walk in free agency. But Lehner is yet another player, and the third of the trio, that was miscast in the Sabres system.

Lehner was subjected to a distraught and disorganized defense his entire time in Buffalo under two coaches who's systems ended up leaving their goalies hung out to dry. Under Bylsma it was a system where the stretch-pass was king but he didn't have the players to properly execute it on a nightly basis. As breakdowns occurred chaos ensued and nobody knew what anyone else was doing. Under Housley, the Sabres were so keen on activating the defense on offense that they had no idea what to do in the defensive zone. It was a train wreck.

However, when Lehner signed in NY he had the reigning Stanley Cup champion head coach on and was part of an Islander squad that already had a sound structure in place. Even though they lost a possible Hall of Famer in center John Tavares, head coach Barry Trotz molded his players into a team that takes care of every zone.

The Islanders just finished sweeping the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs. Lehner had a 1.47 gaa and a .956 save percentage in the series.

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