Jack Eichel pins the Sabres' woes on the players. ©2019, Hickling Images

Sabres’ inability to find coaching stability has contributed to demise

BUFFALO – In less than five seasons with the Sabres, defenseman Zach Bogosian has already played for three coaches.

“Three coaches in this amount of years, you’ve got to really take a long, hard look (at yourself),” Bogosian said Monday, a day after the Sabres fired Phil Housley following an awful second half.

Not long ago, the Sabres were a model of coaching stability. Lindy Ruff lasted through three ownership regimes over 16 years. When he was fired in February 2013, he was the NHL’s longest-tenured coach.

In seven seasons since Ruff left – just over six years – the Sabres have employed five coaches. Not surprisingly, the Sabres haven’t made the playoffs in eight years, the league’s longest drought.

Bogosian wasn’t around for Ruff or his replacement, Ron Rolston, who lasted only 51 games. But since arriving in town in February 2015, he has played for Ted Nolan, Dan Bylsma and Housley.

No one has lasted more than two seasons.

“It’s definitely disappointing for the city, the team,” Sabres winger Jason Pominville, who played for Ruff during his first stint in Buffalo, said of the coaching turnover. “Hopefully they can find some stability.”

Until the Sabres find coaching stability, they almost certainly won’t enjoy any success.

Multiple reports on Monday had them zeroing in on Todd McLellan, who coached superstar Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers for more than three years before getting fired Nov. 20. Before that, he led the San Jose Sharks for seven seasons, making the playoffs six times, including two Western Conference final appearances.

McLellan, 51, won a Stanley Cup as an assistant with the Detroit Red Wings in 2007-08 and led the Houston Aeros, the Minnesota Wild’s old AHL affiliate, to a Calder Cup title in 2002-03.

Despite a tough run in Edmonton – the Oilers did make it to the second round in 2017, their only playoff appearance in 13 years – McLellan has drawn interest from teams with vacancies. The Los Angeles Kings are reportedly going after him hard.

McLellan’s son, Ty, is a junior defenseman at Denver and will be participating in the Frozen Four later this week in Buffalo. So the elder McLellan will likely be watching.

Clearly, Sabres general manager Jason Botterill wants an experienced coach this time. Housley, a Hall of Fame defenseman who played 22 NHL seasons, had never been a head coach before the Sabres hired him two years ago.

Just days before Housley’s dismissal, captain Jack Eichel was adamant the Sabres’ woes should be pinned on the players, not the coach.

Eichel’s words, which he repeated Monday morning, couldn’t save Housley, who was fired less than a day after the Sabres completed a disappointing 76-point campaign.

“It’s on us in the room,” Eichel said as the Sabres cleaned out their lockers and held end-of-season-meetings inside KeyBank Center. “We’re the product on the ice. It’s unfortunate that had to happen, because Phil’s not the one playing the game.

“I’ve said this to you guys before, it’s on us as players to do better on the ice every night. The product on the ice hasn’t been good enough. That falls on nobody but ourselves.”

Eichel’s teammates agreed with him. Pominville, the oldest Sabre at 36, said Housley’s dismissal surprised him.

“Phil is not the guy that plays the game,” Pominville said. “He has a plan, he gives us his plan. I think as players, we should definitely take full responsibility of this happening.”

Sabres goalie Carter Hutton said: “You can’t fire a whole hockey team, right, so it’s just the way sometimes it happens. It’s frustrating and I think for us it’s hopefully a rude awakening here that we need to improve because we do have the talent to get it done here.”

But other than saying they must change and could be more accountable to each other, the Sabres offered few answers for what turned into a dreadful season. Following their torrid 17-6-2 start, they earned the fewest wins (16) and points (40) in the league.

Eichel and others said there was no disconnect between the players and coaches.

“Maybe we were looking for answers,” Eichel said. “When things went bad, I think guys were probably looking for answers. I think we kind of spiraled a bit. I think we were trying to find something, grasp on something that was going on early in the year. We just couldn’t quite find it again. It kind of spiraled a little bit, unfortunately.”

Bogosian said the line of communication stayed open.

“The thing I always liked about Phil was he had an open-door policy,” Bogosian said. “He always had time for you. If you needed to say something or if he felt he needed to say something, it was brought up.”

Here’s something that will be brought up until the Sabres end their eight-year playoff drought: the Sabres’ young core of talent – Eichel, winger Sam Reinhart, defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen and some others – only knows losing in the NHL.

They’ve never experienced any team success other than the Sabres’ 10-game winning streak and brief run to the top earlier this season.

3 thoughts on “Sabres’ inability to find coaching stability has contributed to demise”

  1. I’m not convinced that this action is going to result in advancement of the team into a contender more quickly than if Housley had been given 1 more year. When Ruff got fired, It wasn’t the solution. I don’t think Bylsma or Housley were given a fair amount of time to implement fully the system they wished to instill in the players, nor were enough talented players present to put a consistently competitive team on the ice. The two glaring deficiencies throughout this hellacious mess have been no continuity in coaching, and a continuing lack of depth both defensively and offensively. The latter has been improving, though some changes , for example, the O’Reilly trade, have pretty much been a bust. Now Jeff Skinner is wavering. I don’t totally blame Botterill, it’s hard to make advantageous trades when you are dealing from a position of weakness which is what the situation has been for 7 or 8 years. But look at both the Sabres and the Bills in recent history. Every time there has been a coaching change, there was a regression the second season. Starting at the bottom of the heap requires a lot of changes that are disruptive and creates an atmosphere of uncertainty. Every player knows there will be major changes in those situations, which isn’t conducive to producing a tightly knit team. Nor is the prospect of a protracted rebuild and several years of not contending for a playoff position attractive to prospects or potential trades. I believe there has been way too much impatience, constantly grasping for the quick fix. Few if any of the present players have experienced winning consistently at the pro level. Situations like this years turnarounds with the Islanders and the St. Louis Blues are fairly rare. Now we’re back to square one again, the only difference being the talent pool is better than the last 3 coaches had the opportunity to work with, and our rookies have a year of experience (both of which are a good thing, especially for the next coach). The Sabres have some good talent in Rochester that I find exciting and look forward to seeing next season. I just personally believe another coaching change isn’t a great move at this time. I hope I’m wrong.

    1. I could not have said it better. Have thought this way too. Same for some of the personnel changes particularly ROR. I said we should have waited another year as we had no one to replace what he brought. Traded him a year to early. I understand the whys maybe but doesn’t make it a good decision long term. Same with the coaches. Housely should have been given one more and a little more depth to work with. If no go then termination is justified. Sabres are too quick to pull the trigger.

    2. Kirk – well said, and I agree. Coaching changes every 2 years with a new system/scheme that may or may not fit the current players and requires a matching roster overhaul is a recipe for perpetual losing and starting over. We’ve seen it with the Sabres and the Bills – most egregiously when the Bills had the #4 defense in the NFL under Jim Schwartz. They could have maintained defensive continuity by promoting Schwartz, but ownership was bedazzled by Rex Ryan’s big mouth. Ryan proceeded to overhaul the defensive scheme with disastrous results, scapegoat and fire OC Greg Roman, architect of the Bills’ league-best running game, and bring in his brother, who had failed in Dallas and New Orleans. The Bills are still digging out from that colossally dumb coaching hire.

      The common denominator in all of this turmoil with the Sabres and Bills is ownership. A President of Football Operations (e.g. Mike Holmgren?) and Hockey Operations (Pat LaFontaine who only lasted a few months) is sorely needed in my opinion.

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