A specter is haunting the Buffalo Sabres.
The specter of “the streak.”
The 10-game winning streak that came in the month of November for the Sabres has become a haunting presence. It drastically altered the expectations for a club that finished in last place a season prior.
Though a recent trade by Jason Botterill to bring Brendan Montour to Buffalo has alleviated some of the distress among the fanbase, the past two-and-a-half months have largely been a trying time.
Fans have been mostly confused and dejected in trying to make sense of it all.
Who can blame them?
On November 24th after Sam Reinhart buried a game-winner in the shootout against Detroit, Sabres announcer Dan Dunleavy exclaimed: “say hello to your first-place Buffalo Sabres!” The next game Rick Jeanneret evoked the nostalgic phrase of “these guys are good, scary good” in a win against the San Jose Sharks.
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) November 25, 2018
Rasmus Ristolainen scored a goal that game against the Sharks, that may be one of the flashiest ones you’ll see this season. To top it off he did a “razzle-dazzle” celebration that just oozed swagger. It was brash and cocky. It epitomized the height of the team’s success.
But as the old proverb goes, “pride goeth before a fall.” The downfall that soon followed was just as unpredictable as the epic rise that preceded it. The “razzle dazzle” Sabres seem like a distant memory or a remnant of a dream we may or may not have had.
Since the glorious 10-game win streak, the Sabres have strung together a paltry record of 12-18-6 – one of the worst records in the league through that span of time. They are winning (or losing) at a pace reminiscent of last year’s team at this time. It’s unacceptable.
With a pitchfork in one hand and a finger pointing with the other, fans are projecting blame onto anyone and everyone. The Pegulas, general manager Jason Botterill, and head coach Phil Housley are all sitting cooped together in the proverbial hot seat.
One of the disturbing and most unfortunate manifestations of fans’ anger has been directed at captain Jack Eichel. Apparently a 22-year old on pace for 90 points is not doing enough and lacks leadership skills.
So, the fans are angry. Truth be told, though, they may be the only ones who are angry. Aside from a few reporters who ask the tough questions and who are tapped into the mood and emotions of the fans, no one else seems to be displeased. Sabres management eerily appears content with the situation – bringing the organization’s standard for winning into question.
A recent and rare media appearance given by Botterill has confounded the situation, even more, raising more questions than answers. From the livid fan’s perspective, it could appear that Botterill was gaslighting them with overly-polished and scripted answers – that their anger and frustration is misguided and has no place in reality.
Buffalo News reporter Mike Harrington challenged Botterill after claiming he’s seen “growth” in his team. Winning only 11 of 34 games and failing to string together two-straight wins since December are salient points that contradict the general manager’s claim.
Harrington, the mouthpiece for a large contingency of fans, continued with a fair and reasonable assertion: “The No. 1 message from fans is they want to see a coaching change. What’s your reaction to that?”
Jason Botterill just spoke to us. I asked him if a coaching change would be on the table. Answer: “No.” So that is that #Sabres
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) February 20, 2019
Botterill had a sudden and visceral reaction of shock run across his face at the mere idea of a coaching change. He defended Housley and stated, “We’ve made progress as an organization compared to last year. We’ve been in a position where we’ve been in games. I’ve seen the results on the ice, I see the communication we’re going through here. There’s not going to be a coaching change.”
The rest of Botterill’s interview was loaded with a sort of ‘moral victory’ sentiment that Eichel and others have so publicly grown weary of. The clichés of ‘we’re better than last year’, or ‘we have a young team’ were unapologetically used.
We can draw a couple of conclusions from what has been said over the past few days. One is that Botterill and Housley are in over their heads and are in the same precarious position Tim Murray and Dan Bylsma found themselves in not too long ago.
Or, that all is going according to plan. That the Sabres management didn’t foresee a playoff birth this season despite a 10-game winning streak. The only people’s expectations that were radically changed were the fans, not management’s.
While though obviously a pleasant surprise, the streak left Botterill unfazed. He is “proud of the accomplishment” and admits overall team improvement, but none of this is motivating enough to force his hand in a trade to help improve the team. He has sat idle while other teams like Carolina and Columbus have been proactive in making additions for a playoff push.
So let this stand corrected: the specter of the streak is haunting the fans of the Sabres, not the organization itself. The Buffalo faithful’s expectations have been radically transformed since the 10-game win streak – it’s time for the ownership and management’s expectations to follow suit.