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.