Sabres fans are angry.
And they should be.
Having not made the playoffs since 2011, and not winning a playoff series since 2007, the Sabres are prompting their exceptionally loyal fans to start looking for pitchforks. It wasn’t too long ago though that fans we’re cheering for this team to lose – a bizarre, yet sensible thing to do – which invariably led to this team getting their best shot at success since the days of having guys like Chris Drury and Danny Briere.
Needless to say, this team faced serious expectations this season both from fans and within the organization itself. Ownership and management had undoubtedly hoped for a playoff birth, while head coach Dan Bylsma went so far as to predict a 95-point campaign from this Sabres team.
The Sabres will fall notably short of that 95-point season, and ‘Disco Dan’ seems to be bearing the brunt of the blame-game as this season winds down.
Of course the coach deserves his fair share of blame. Everyone does and “everyone needs to take a look in the mirror” as the old locker-room cliché goes. There is a difference though between taking a share of responsibility and then being the poster child for everything wrong with this team.
Before one can speculate on whether his “system is too complicated” or “there’s a disconnect between him and the players”, among other intangible and unqualifiable assumptions, one must take a look at tangible and viable information, you know…numbers, like his coaching record.
Bylsma ended his six-year career with the Pittsburgh Penguins boasting a record of 252-117-32. In two of those six seasons his team reached 51 wins, while in the 2010-11 season the Penguins won 49 games. The 2010-11 season is also the year he was awarded the Jack Adams Award, or ‘Coach of the Year.’ Bylsma’s best season obviously came in his first with the Pens, leading them to the Stanley Cup and winning it 2008-09. Bylsma did only coach 25 regular season games with the Pens that year, coming in relief for Michel Therrien who was fired after almost 4 seasons with the club.
And that brings us to the first jab at Disco Dan. Apparently, in the eyes of some ‘expert’ fans, Bylsma’s cup win is a complete farce, and should be attributed to Therrien because it was ‘his system that won it’, not Bylsma’s. It’s true that maybe Bylsma’s philosophical disposition towards the game of hockey wasn’t completely imposed upon his players in that short of a time with them, but if “Therrien’s system won the cup” then Therrien wouldn’t have been fired, and Bylsma wouldn’t have a fat Stanley Cup ring around his finger. Not to mention Therrien has no rings to his credit and also got relieved of his duties again this season.
The point is Dan Bylsma won a Stanley Cup.
The next point of contention among the fans is that Bylsma’s system is too complicated. It may be, but we’ll never know definitively. We don’t play. Some outsiders may confuse ‘having structure’ with a ‘complicated system’, after all the Sabres previous two coaches prior to Bylsma were Ron Rolston and Ted Nolan – two coaches whose results speak for themselves with Rolston ‘being in over his head’ and Nolan ‘having no system.’
Sources are sparse for direct quotes of players or personnel critiquing Bylsma’s system. Even if there was some juicy gossip to quote, it wouldn’t isolate him from any other coach in the league. Coaches take heat all the time. Players most certainly don’t always agree with or like the coach, and still manage to win games. Dan Bylsma, and whatever his system entails, is not an aberration and most certainly not worthy of the majority of criticism for how the Sabres season has gone.
As far as a ‘disconnect between the coach and players’, it’s irrelevant. Most of the team hasn’t won anything at the NHL level, additionally they’re barely old enough to even drink legally in this country. We’re talking about a ‘disconnect’ between a bunch of un-credentialed kids and a seasoned veteran-coach with a ton of clout and hardware to back it up.
The Sabres lack of success in the standings this season can be attributed to a few things not relating to the coach at all. Injuries have been a major factor. Even though the team has been relatively healthy for a long stretch now, one can only wonder where the Sabres would be with a healthy Jack Eichel playing the full season. Those 21 games he missed left a mark on this team, both tangibly and intangibly. It’s a tough hill to climb when you don’t have your face-of-the-franchise in the lineup for an extended period of time, just ask Carey Price and the Montreal Canadians of last season.
Another big reason for the Sabres’ woes can be found on the blue line. The Sabres defense, aside from players named Ristolainen and McCabe, has been pretty dreadful on both sides of the puck this season. The Sabres rank at the bottom in shots allowed per game, as well in goals-for from the defense. Again, Ristolainen has carried much of the load with 44 points (5g, 39 a) in 74 games.
Guys like Josh Georges, Cody Franson, and Zach Bogosian have had sub-par years to say the least. It’s not that these three guys are particularly terrible in and of themselves, it’s that each of them, based on their play, should be locked into the 5th or 6th defense position. These three guys have all had to play above their respective roles this season due to injuries and lack of depth. It especially stings when you have a guy like Bogosian making over $5 million this season; he just needs to be better.
Dmitry Kulikov has been one of the more polarizing defenseman this season for the Buffalo Sabres. If it wasn’t for an open bench door in the pre-season, we might be having a different conversation about this player. It’s almost unfair to criticize him due to his perpetual injuries all season long. True, his play was nothing short of awful this season and his numbers back it up, but it may be in the interest of General Manager Tim Murray to bring him back on a one-year deal next season. After all, he did trade a solid defenseman in Mark Pysyk for him while also gloating about Kulikov’s playoff performance the year before.
Not to mention the free agency list for defenseman this offseason will be short in supply.
The next punching bag for Sabres’ fans happens to be Tim Murray. His biggest critique is that he failed to put together a formidable defense in his time with this team. That may be true. Actually it is true, but take a step back here for a minute. In his short time here, at exactly what time was he supposed to grab that stud defenseman we’re all hoping for?
In his short time here, in response to some of the worst offensive outputs by a team in modern NHL history, Tim Murray acquired both through trades and the draft some extremely talented players. Of course any rabid fan could have done what he did in drafting Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel, but the trades he pulled off to acquire guys like Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian, Ryan O’ Reilly, and Robin Lehner, while also luring the top free agent of last summer in Kyle Okposo, is a testament to his aggressiveness and certitude. He knows what he wants and he will certainly get it.
Most of the onus should be on the players themselves. And that’s fine. This is an extremely young and inexperienced team. Even most of the Sabres veterans like Kane, O’Reilly, Okposo, among others, have little to no playoff experience – a few playoff rounds at most. Captain Brian Gionta to his credit has won a cup, but other than that this team has almost no idea how to win at this level.
Can you really blame Bylsma’s system when defensemen repeatedly refuse to box out in front of the net? Can you blame his system when forwards refuse to keep moving their feet on the back-check? There’s a plethora of things players do that Bylsma simply has no control over. If he could I’m sure he’d strap on some skates and fix the issues himself. But he can’t.
Rewind back prior to the beginning of this season. What were the Sabres expectations?
Playoffs were definitely a hopeful, at least competing for a final spot, right? A lot would have had to go right for this team to make a playoff run. Fact is, a few things went wrong. When you lose your star player and have glaring holes on defense, where do you expect to find yourself? Hovering around .500 hockey is exactly where this team is and should be. When you have a team this young, inexperienced, lacking depth, going up against the mighty parity of the entire league, this is the logical result.
A few more goals, a couple more saves, maybe a handful more of successful penalty-kills would have this team in a better spot. Bylsma’s system wouldn’t be under such scrutiny if the Sabres won, say, 5 more games. Point is, the margin for error is very small and the narrative of this entire season could be drastically different if not for a high-ankle sprain to your best player and having one more or two more defensemen who could actually skate and move the puck.
The Sabres are undoubtedly a competitive team. No question. They rarely throw in the towel during games, hence multiple comeback wins this season. The nickname “cardiac kids” has been thrown around frequently and for good reason. With the few, yet detrimental circumstances that have plagued this team this season, the Sabres were just no match for the parity in the NHL. That may be a harsh reality fans do not want to acknowledge.
If the Sabres are drenched in disappointment and mediocrity by next Thanksgiving then by all means, be irate. But for now, put down the pitchforks.