BUFFALO – The Sabres fired Phil Housley this afternoon, less than a day after the team completed a disappointing season in which it fell from first overall in late November to sixth in the Atlantic Division.
Even as the Sabres stumbled and lost their grip on a playoff spot early in the winter, it seemed like Housley would return for a third season unless the team totally imploded down the stretch.
Well, the Sabres fell apart, losing 16 of 17 games before winning their final two outings. That two-game winning streak marked the first time they won back-to-back games since Dec. 11 and 13.
“The bottom line is look at our record,” said an emotional general manager Jason Botterill said inside KeyBank Center. “You look at our record in the first 25 games, you look at our record in the last 25 games. Unfortunately, the message wasn’t getting through.”
After their 10-game run ended Nov. 29, the Sabres finished the season an abysmal 16-33-8, compiling the fewest wins and points in the league, just 40.
“The results in the second half were just not there,” Botterill said. “We were very inconsistent. Our fans expect more, we expect more. In the end, I thought this decision had to be made for our organization to move forward.”
He added: “Whenever you have a coaching change, everyone’s trying to pinpoint who’s at fault. Coaches need to take some blame, players need to take some blame and management needs to take blame, because we didn’t put the proper roster out there. We didn’t give Phil enough players, enough tools to have success out there.”
Botterill said Sabres owner Terry Pegula and president Kim Pegula “were not involved firing Phil.” He said he didn’t seek input from players.
“I had discussions with them about where I was at in my thought process,” Botterill said. “I made my recommendation this morning to them, they accepted it.”
After that, Botterill informed Housley he was being dismissed.
As the season dragged on, the Sabres kept regressing. In March, they went an awful 2-12-2. Opponents shut them out five times, including three straight games in the middle of the month.
By then, it seemed like Housley’s job was in jeopardy. Surly fans kept calling for his dismissal.
Following a wretched 31st-place finish a year ago in which they mustered only 62 points in Housley’s first season, the Sabres went 33-39-19 overall this year, a 14-point improvement.
Fresh off a season widely considered the worst in franchise history, the Sabres became the second team in NHL history to have a 10-game winning streak and miss the playoffs, joining the 2016-17 Philadelphia Flyers.
“We had, unfortunately, the same lapses, defensively, in our structure, and especially when you come back after the all-star break and play in those tight games, tight situations, some of those same mistakes were continually showing up,” Botterill said of the second half.
Overall, the Sabres went 58-84-22 under Housley, winning just 35 percent of their games.
With Housley gone, the heat is now on Botterill. If he botches his next hire, he likely won’t get another chance.
The Sabres next coach will be their sixth in barely six years. That, of course, is not healthy for any organization. The Sabres haven’t made the playoffs since 2011, the NHL’s longest drought.
Hiring Housley in June 2017 to replace Dan Bylsma was lauded. Less than two years ago, thanks to a successful run as an assistant with the Nashville Predators, Housley was the NHL’s hottest coaching candidate.
After the Predators lost in the Stanley Cup final, Botterill, who had just taken over as GM, quickly scooped up Housley, whose defense in Nashville played fast.
In addition to his coaching credentials, Housley was coming back to Buffalo, where he spent the first seven seasons of his Hall of Fame career as a defenseman.
Now, 22 months after he returned, Housley is gone.
Botterill said the new coach can decide if he wants to keep Housley’s assistants.
So who could be on Botterill’s radar? He wouldn’t offer much insight.
“Those are things I’m not going to talk about too much right now, and the simple fact is I just had a conversation with Phil Housley a couple of hours ago,” Botterill said. “Those are things I’ll talk to (assistant general managers) Randy Sexton about and Steve Greeley about and move forward from there.”
Botterill could stay within the organization. While Rochester Americans coach Chris Taylor has never been behind an NHL bench, he has enjoyed a solid two-year run with the Sabres’ AHL affiliate.
Botterill and Taylor are friends from their days as teammates with the Sabres and Amerks. Taylor is popular with his players and has coached in the AHL in some capacity since retiring in 2011.
Botterill developed as an executive with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who won Cups in 2009 and 2016 after promoting Bylsma and Mike Sullivan from the AHL.
Since Housley was a first-time head coach, Botterill might want to pursue a more experienced candidate.
Joel Quenneville, who won three Stanley Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks before getting fired Nov. 6, will be hotly pursued by some teams with a vacancy. The Florida Panthers reportedly want him badly.
Alain Vigneault, who sat out this season after the New York Rangers fired him a year ago, has a successful history over 16 seasons. He led the Vancouver Canucks to the Cup final in 2011 and the Rangers in 2014.
Todd McLellan, who was fired by the Oilers on Nov. 20, enjoyed a strong run with the San Jose Sharks before stumbling during his tenure with in Edmonton.
Todd Richards, who has coached the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild, is now an assistant with the powerhouse Tampa Bay Lightning. Richard coached Pittsburgh’s affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to the Calder Cup final in Botterill’s first season with the Penguins.