Firing Housley may be lone choice for Sabres
There’s no way Terry and Kim Pegula thought they’d be at this point. And Jason Botterill acted in astonishment when the subject was dared to be broached three weeks ago during his impromptu press conference in Tampa. But here we are. Again. The Sabres have been shut out three times in a row after Thursday’s dreadful 5-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. It’s the second year in a row they’ve sunk to that level, after it never happened in the franchise’s first 48 years of existence.
The players have been terrible the last 45 games – putting up a 13-25-7 record that’s second-worst in the NHL in that stretch – and the general manager is 2 for 2 in putting together flawed rosters, but we all know what happens in these situations.
You can’t fire 20 players, although Botterill would do well to dump half of them again this summer. And it’s hard to imagine the Pegulas reserve a spot for Botterill at the Osteria 166 bar with the ghosts of Tim Murray and Doug Whaley less than two years after they hired him to undo the damage they blamed Murray for.
So that means the nuclear option is upon us: Phil Housley is in real trouble.
Now, the disclaimer right from the top: Regular readers of this space know I do not believe in firing coaches – or GMs – every two years, which is what this franchise seems bent on doing. But it’s
increasingly apparent that Housley has to go.
Maybe the owners and the GM keep Housley on a short leash and tell him he has to remove all his assistants except perhaps for defense and penalty kill coach Steve Smith.
But if they keep him, what do they have to sell?
The KeyBank Center organist was playing Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” at one point in the second period and it’s clearly been the Pegula Mantra. Because we’ve never gotten to today around here.
There was Sam Reinhart coming. A full tank to land Jack Eichel. A Stanley Cup coach in Dan Bylsma. A 27-point improvement. Then the hiring of Botterill and Housley when the players and fans tired of Bylsma. Then the lottery win of Rasmus Dahlin after last year’s 62-point disaster.
What can they possibly do this year to get anyone to keep season tickets? Unless they strike Jack Hughes gold in the lottery, the only card they may have left to play is the coach.
Housley is no dummy. He knows how these things work.
There’s little pride left on this team. Too many guys are quitting on him. Housley tried to point out it was scoreless after the first period Thursday and that’s true. And so was the Sabres’ 9-2 advantage in shots on goal at one point of the second period. But when you haven’t scored a goal in three games, that’s grasping at straws.
Asked his level of concern about his status, Housley said simply, “I’m not concerned about anything except tomorrow when we come to work and get ready for Carolina.”
But pressed about how this team’s performance is a direct reflection of his job, Housley had a little more to say.
“I don’t think about that right now. I have to come to work,” he said. “I have to continue to teach our guys the right things, how to play the right way, how to go to the net and continue to work. We’ve got a lot of games left up here against good opponents and that’s what I have to get our focus to.”
Kyle Okposo passionately disputed the notion there’s a lack of pride in the dressing room, even dropping a very out-of-character expletive. Then Jason Pominville brought up the word “pride” to reporters three times -- unprompted -- less than a minute later.
Okposo talked about the lack of “jam” in the Sabres’ game and he’s right. It’s flat-out galling how soft this team is.
How much longer do we have to see the likes of Rasmus Ristolainen, Marco Scandella, Vladimir Sobotka, Johan Larsson or Matt Hunwick? Why in the world was Tage Thompson in the NHL all year? Why was nothing done to turn this season around when it was still salvageable?
Where is this going to end? No team in NHL history has won 10 games in a row and lost 10 games in a row in the same season. The Sabres are at six losses in a row now (0-5-1) and they look like they can get there.
They’re 2-9-2 in their last 13 games and 3-11-2 in their last 16. They’re in Carolina on Saturday and have lost eight straight to the Hurricanes. Ryan O’Reilly and the St. Louis Blues are here Sunday and Toronto fans will fill the building to cheer on the Leafs here Wednesday. That would be nine. And next Saturday in Montreal would be 10.
Which of those games would you expect the Sabres to win at this point?
No matter how you slice it, it’s a bad reflection upon the coach. Housley already has demerits to his name with the over-reliance on Sobtoka and Scandella, the constant juggling at both forward and defense and the stunning stat that the Sabres haven’t even won two in a row since mid-December. And don’t even get me started about the pounding he’s taking from the analytics community for his player usage.
Still, players routinely threw Bylsma under the bus and that’s not happening here yet. Conor Sheary pointed out the game plans proved they worked earlier this year. Of course, what really worked was overachieving goaltending and puck luck in overtime.
“Xs and Os will give you ideas of how you want to play but it comes down to who wants it more and battling,” Pominville said. “To me, that’s all it comes down to. We have to find a way to dig deep and do it for each other.”
My favorite leatherlung in Section 316 was back again in the second period. In the great spirit of “Fire Regieeeer” and “Make a move, Murrrrrrray’, this night’s good howl was “Botttterrrrilllllll, this is garrrrr-bage.”
It sure is. The GM really has this team messed up again. But it sure seems like Housley is going to take most of the blame. COLLEGE HOCKEY
Buffalo’s Evan Rodrigues and Pittsburgh’s Marcus Pettersson both try to come up with the puck Thursday.