BUFFALO – Even as the Sabres stumbled and lost their grip on a playoff spot early in the winter, it seemed like coach Phil Housley would return next season unless the team totally fell apart down the stretch.
Well, the Sabres imploded, losing 16 of 17 games before winning their final two outings. That marked the first time they won back-to-back games since Dec. 11 and 13.
On Sunday, a day after the Sabres finished one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history, general manager Jason Botterill fired Housley after two years.
“The bottom line is look at our record,” said an emotional Botterill on Sunday afternoon 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 25 games, the Sabres owned a sterling 17-6-2 record and first place in the NHL. Thanks to a 10-game winning streak in which they seemingly found new ways to win every night, they became the league’s early-season darling.
Few figured the Sabres would stay on that perch all season, but it looked like they would end their eight-year playoff drought, which has become the NHL’s longest now that the Carolina Hurricanes qualified this season.
Then the Sabres began a stunning regression, morphing back into a laughingstock. After their 10-game run ended Nov. 29, the Sabres finished the season an abysmal 16-33-8, compiling the fewest points in the league, just 40.
In their final 25 games, they went an awful 5-17-3.
“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.”
In dismissing Housley, Botterill has made his own seat hot. In two seasons on the job – he took over weeks before he hired Housley – the Sabres have been downright terrible.
Botterill and Housley received a mulligan for last season’s ghastly 31st-place finish. They inherited a mess and needed time, right?
Following a wretched 2017-18 season in which they mustered only 62 points, the Sabres went 33-39-19 overall this year, only a 14-point improvement after adding defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, the first overall pick, and 40-goal scorer Jeff Skinner.
As the season dragged on, the Sabres kept getting worse. In March, they went a pathetic 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.
“Whenever you have a coaching change, everyone’s trying to pinpoint who’s at fault,” Botterill said. “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 handcuffed Housley by trading Ryan O’Reilly, one of the league’s most versatile centers, for virtually no immediate return. O’Reilly enjoyed a career season, compiling 28 goals and 77 points while leading the St. Louis Blues to a playoff spot.
The trade, Botterill said, hasn’t “been completed yet.”
The players acquired in the deal – forwards Patrick Berglund, Vladimir Sobotka and Tage Thompson – combined to score 15 goals and 27 points this season. The Sabres also received a first-round pick.
“We also think that there’s development with young players there,” Botterill said. “There’s development with draft picks that are going to help us in the future. We also think that trade gave us resources and cap space and draft resources to go out and get Jeff Skinner, so there’s a complement there.”
Fresh off finishing dead last, 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.
Botterill said Sabres owner Terry Pegula and president Kim Pegula “were not involved firing Phil.” He said he didn’t seek input from any players.
“I had discussions with them about where I was at in my thought process,” Botterill said of the Pegulas. “I made my recommendation this morning to them, they accepted it.”
After that, Botterill informed Housley he was being let go.
If Botterill botches his next coaching hire, he likely won’t get another chance.
The Sabres’ new coach will be their sixth in barely six years. That, of course, is not healthy for any organization.
Less than two years ago, Housley was the NHL’s hottest coaching candidate. His hire by the Sabres was almost universally lauded.
It felt like a perfect match. The defense corps Housley ran as an assistant with the Nashville Predators played the fast style needed to succeed in the modern NHL.
After the Predators lost in the Stanley Cup final, Botterill quickly scooped up Housley.
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. Housley never hid his love of being a Sabre and his fondness for the city.
Now, 22 months after he returned, Housley is gone.