As we approach the mid-way point of the 2016-’17 season, there are still glaring issues with the product on the ice. The Sabres have failed to put together consistent 60-munite efforts night in and night out, and a lion’s share of the blame falls on the shoulders of head coach Dan Bylsma.
Fans have criticized him for his inability to solve the team’s goal scoring woes (they currently rank 29th in the NHL in goals for), and his habit of constantly juggling the forward lines. Currently sitting in last place in the Eastern Conference, Bylsma’s seat is heating up as the Sabres’ loyal fan base is running out of patience. Buffalo had a great opportunity to close the gap in the Atlantic Division this past weekend, with a home-and-home matchup against the third place Boston Bruins, however Bylsma’s team failed miserably in both contests. Even with a convincing 4-1 victory over the New York Rangers on Tuesday, the winning needs to be more frequent.
Coming into the season, many fans and pundits expected the team to be part of the playoff picture, however at 14-15-8, the Sabres appear to be only slightly improved from last year. Dubious line combinations and a milquetoast demeanor have not helped Bylsma’s cause, as many fans have clamored for his firing since the start of the 16-17’ campaign. While his employment may not be totally safe, we do not expect a firing until the end of the season at the very earliest.
As the owner of both the Sabres and Bills, Terry Pegula has faced some harsh media criticism this past week on both a local and national level. The Bills front office appears totally out of sync and downright dysfunctional. It would stand to reason that Pegula would want to avoid that rhetoric as it pertains to the Sabres. He has also been known to give coaches a fair shake before showing them the door, and firing Bylsma after one and a half seasons doesn’t really fit his prior history.
While his most of his criticisms are justified, Bylsma has not at any point this season had a healthy roster to work with. Jack Eichel missed a considerable amount of time with a high ankle sprain. Zach Bogosian and Dmitry Kulikov have just recently returned from long term injuries suffered early in the season, and the team is still without Tyler Ennis (who just recently started skating with the team while recovering from a groin injury). Ryan O’Reilly also remains out of the lineup after his appendectomy procedure. Pegula may feel that his head coach was dealt a really bad hand on the injury front and could reasonably give him one more full year with a healthy and improved roster.
General Manager Tim Murray certainly shares part of the blame for the roster’s disappointing performance. He has failed to address glaring needs on defense and only made one relevant addition at forward during the offseason when he signed Kyle Okposo to a six-year contract. With over $12M in additional cap room coming available when players like Brian Gionta, Dmitry Kulikov and Cody Franson come off the books, Murray will likely also get one more off-season to make improvements to the roster. Both his job and Bylsma’s depend on it.
Though the current campaign outlook seems bleak, there is still a lot of hockey left to be played. Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News reported that;
“The anger after Thursday’s meltdown against Boston was palpable. There was Jack Eichel pounding his stick on the ice at the final buzzer and sitting steely eyed in the locker room while shaking his head and talking to captain Brian Gionta. There was the screaming voice of an unidentified player in a restricted area of the room letting the profanity fly. And there was the clenched jaw of coach Dan Bylsma as he appeared for his post-game news conference, trying to decipher what had happened.”
Based on this observation, the players seem to be just as frustrated as the fans. It is up to the coaching staff to harness that frustration and drive and convert it into on-ice results. Stay tuned.