By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
The most noteworthy moment of the Buffalo Sabres’ just completed road trip – which featured three straight losses – was general manager Jason Botterill’s “vote of confidence” for his coach Phil Housley. Botterill didn’t use those exact words, because sports fans know that “vote of confidence” has become known as the warm-up for the exact words “on the unemployment line.”
Botterill seemed a little surprised that the question came up. Maybe he shouldn’t have been, since the team responded to a poor performance in a home loss to the Rangers (and an accompanying uncharacteristic blast of the team by Housley after the game) by showing an equal amount of lack of life against the Devils in New Jersey. And maybe Botterill hasn’t been poking around social media lately, which in that job probably isn’t the worst idea.
Yes, the Sabres are much better this season than they were last year, but part of the fan base is hurting because the 10-game winning streak raised expectations. But then again, anyone connected with the team in the last few years should realize that we never know what to expect when it comes to the coaches. In other words, conventional wisdom has been useless in determining what might happen.
The drama started in 2013-14, when Pat LaFontaine brought in Ted Nolan to coach the team once LaFontaine took over as team president. However, Patty lasted less than four months. That left Nolan without a guardian angel in the front office to deal with general manager Pat Murray and the tank season of 2014-15. Nolan at least got a nice financial package when asked to leave after that season.
After a public courtship with Mike Babcock, who wound up in Toronto, the Sabres settled on Dan Bylsma as their new coach. Bylsma got Buffalo up to 81 points in 1015-16 and 78 points in 2016-17. That looked pretty good after a couple of seasons in the 50s, but there were stories circulating that Bylsma wasn’t too popular in the Sabre locker room. Not only was Bylsma sent packing in 2017, but Murray followed him out the door. Who saw all that coming?
That led to Botterill arriving as GM, and he picked ex-Sabre Housley as coach. Even though Buffalo was trying to win throughout the 2017-18 season, it didn’t do it very often. The Sabres earned 62 points, good for last place in the NHL. Admittedly, Buffalo was short on talent, but it was a little surprising that Housley didn’t take a little more heat in the public for that season.
So now, with the team on schedule to be somewhere in the 80s in points – which would be the third-biggest increase in points by the team in 20 years – some of the fans are angry again. It’s almost as if the winning streak drew them back into caring again, only to see their hopes for at least a playoff spot on their way to being dashed again. And they have to take it out on someone.
Fact number one about the coaching business is that it is a results-oriented business. Heck, Scotty Bowman didn’t even win here, and was shown the door. Fact number two is that I always assume that the amount of brainpower among NHL coaching staffs is more or less relatively even. Finally, fact number three is that the biggest determining factor in winning games is talent, and no one can look at this Sabre lineup and be convinced that missing the playoffs should be a huge disappointment.
From an outside viewpoint, it’s tough to believe a coaching change is necessary here. Teams lose for a reason, but it doesn’t look like Housley and Co. represent that reason. (Disclaimer: There may be stuff going on that I am clueless about, so don’t take this to the bank.)
Even so, history teaches me that surprises are part of the equation in Buffalo hockey when it comes to coaches. Therefore, if Joel Quenneville turns up at a news conference for the announcement of his new job this summer, I’ll try to be surprised but not shocked.
We’re occasionally reminded that a single moment can change everything.
Then again, sometimes it doesn’t.
The Sabres were reminded of that during a sequence of events during their 5-2 win over the Washington Capitals before a sellout crowd Saturday afternoon.
Early in the second period, top forward Jeff Skinner was brought to the ice by Capitals’ Carl Hagelin. The replay, for those with the stomach to watch, showed Skinner’s ankle bending in a gruesome way. He crawled a bit along the ice before help arrived after a whistle to carry him off the ice and into the dressing room.
Lots of thoughts went through everyone’s mind. Were we talking season-ending injury? Could it affect Skinner’s contract talks? Would the Sabres become sellers before Monday’s trading deadline?
And then the third period started, and there was Skinner, on the ice and ready to go. Scratch all those thoughts.
“Obviously, you think the worst when he’s down there in a lot of pain,” Jack Eichel said. “It was great to see him come back. He was in the locker room (between periods). He was all right then, and it seemed like he was ready to go.
Skinner’s return meant the Sabre faithful could fully enjoy the ending of the team’s four-game losing streak – against the defending Stanley Cup champions no less.
There were plenty of heroes as the Sabres put together one of their best games of the month. One hero was Sam Reinhart, which comes with the territory when you score a hat trick. In fact, it was the first one of his career at home.
“It’s always nice to score goals,” he said. “But anytime you do that at home, it’s something special.”
Then there was the play goalie Carter Hutton. He had 31 saves as he played like he did in the first six weeks of the season. The guy who was so good back then has been missed by the Sabres for the past few months.
“You just try to compete,” he said. “There’s lot of things that I can and can’t control. I think that’s something I can control – my attitude, and my compete level. It’s something I try to bring all the time, no matter. Tonight there were some timely saves that went my way.”
Everyone else chipped in enough to get a good win against a quality opponent – a victory that was badly needed after the road trip.
“I just liked our urgency and our desperation,” Housley said. “It was good to see 60 minutes of hard work.”
There’s no rest for the Sabres in terms of the schedule. Buffalo has to play in Toronto and Philadelphia. By Monday, when the trading deadline passes, we’ll know if any new jerseys are needed for some new players.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB.)