By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
Monday was Locker Cleanout Day for the Buffalo Sabres, the time to look back on the season just past and look ahead to what’s ahead on a personal and team level. It hasn’t been a happy day around these parts in some time, since no one wants to stop playing before the local golf courses are even open.
Last year’s break-up day was a time for almost brutal introspection. You might remember how Ryan O’Reilly admitted that some of his passion for the game had diminished because of all of the losing. The honesty helped O’Reilly earn a ticket out of town, as well as get him booed during his one appearance in Buffalo during the 2018-19 season.
There were no such dramatics on Monday at the KeyBank Center. We didn’t need a psychologist to interpret the remarks this time.
The major newsmaking topic of the day was the status of Jeff Skinner. The forward is coming off the best season of his career, hitting 40 goals for the first time. Skinner was happy to be in Buffalo, happy to play most of the season with Jack Eichel, happy about the reception he received from Sabre fans, who needed about a week to take to him.
“I love it here,” he said. “I like the guys and the city. I had a great time.”
Time to think
So what could go wrong?
Free agency, that’s what. Skinner will be able to pick his next stop, and the thought of a departure can put a shudder through the team’s fanbase like no other concept right now.
The rule generally is if a player hasn’t re-signed by the end of the season, he might as well do nothing and see what sort of offer might be there. If Skinner is leaning one way or another, he’s not saying anything.
“I think I said all year my focus was here and on playing the games and finishing the season,” he said. “Now that the season is over, questions are going to start coming in. It’s been two or three days, but it’s not enough to give it the proper thought it deserves.
“I haven’t made any decisions. It’s a big decision. It’s going to take some time.”
Certainly Skinner will receive a barrel of money when he signs his next contract, as he picked the exact right time to have a good year. The Sabres certainly are willing to do that, and others will be too. Is playing for a team with a chance at a championship more important than playing for a team that’s feels cozy? That might be the deciding issue in this negotiation.
“It’s tough to put a percentage on it,” Skinner said. “I want to win. It’s not a good feeling where we are right now. No one wants to go through it. You go through a season and don’t accomplish your goals, you’re disappointed. It’s not a good feeling.”
If Skinner needs encouragement in his decision-making process to not put any houses on the market, he only needs listen to his usual linemates.
“The nature of the business is that Jeff Skinner has to worry about Jeff Skinner. He’s going to make a decision. It’s out of my control,” Jack Eichel said. “I love Skins. He’s an unbelievable person, he’s an unbelievable hockey player and we want him in the room. He’s really close with all the guys, he adds a great dynamic to our team. You can’t say enough good things about him.”
“I think we’ve all expressed that to him – all year and the last couple of days,” Sam Reinhart said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. He’s a hell of a player. Hopefully he’s here and hopefully we’ll get to play with him.”
Tough to take
Winning proved elusive for the Sabres again this season. The collapse of this edition of the team was particularly devastating because of the way the season unfolded – from first place in the overall standings in late April to last overall the rest of the way.
“It’s a tough league, 31 good teams,” Rasmus Ristolainen said. “But the way it started, it’s hard to imagine we ended up where we are right now. We’ve been in this situation every year, and it’s tough. It gets tougher every year. You want it more and more, and it’s still not there.”
“I think we showed ourselves how we can play and compete, that we had the ability to win games against top teams,” Evan Rodrigues added. “Things went south and didn’t go the way we wanted to. I think it puts that much more emphasis on the summer, and (how we need to) come back in September ready to work.”
Maybe the most telling number was that the Sabres went from October to April without winning two straight games in regulation. (The ten-game winning streak was filled with wins in overtime and shootouts, which are to some degree coin tosses.) Teams must be able to earn wins on a regular basis to move up in the standings, and instead the Sabres spent the final four months of the season dropping in relation to the competition.
“We just weren’t able to string games together. We were consistently inconsistent,” Kyle Okposo said. “We said it the last couple of months. It was kind of a slow death. We couldn’t put back-to-back games together. If you want to look at one specific game, there’s the Winnipeg game at home. I think that was a game that we played extremely well. If we were able to get that game, it might swing some positive momentum for us.”
And the collapse probably made the fate of coach Phil Housley inevitable. The players certainly knew that someone pays a price for a record like that, and it usually starts with the coach and then later extends to portions of the roster. It was difficult to detect a great deal of emotion from the players on Monday when asked to comment on Housley’s firing, perhaps because of that fact. Most did say the right things – centering on how the coach should be blamed for the performance of the players.”
“It was a shock for sure,” Reinhart said. “It’s tough as players because we’re the ones out there. We as a team feel responsible.”
“Obviously it’s tough to see people leave,” Rodrigues added. “It’s a cliché, but people say it – you don’t like to see a guy be unemployed. It’s one of the sour spots in our business.”
The offseason is already underway for the Sabres. It started the moment general manager Jason Botterill made the decision to fire Phil Housley. He may have even reached out to Joel Quenneville about the coaching job on Sunday, only to find that the Florida Panthers had wrapped him up (the formal announcement came early Monday morning). It continues on Tuesday with the draft lottery; the Sabres hope to hit the correct numbers for the second straight year.
The Sabres will search for a new coach, prepare for the draft, and look over the free agent market in the coming months. The calendar pages keep turning.
But the fans realize how they had embraced the hope that the 2018-19 Sabres offered at the start of the season, only to let it go as the calendar wore on. It’s left a bitter feeling behind, again.
This team has to be good enough to earn those good feelings back – and soon. We’ll find out soon enough if this organization is good enough to do that. Otherwise, the franchise might have to start over … again.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)