A season of regression

Let’s cut to the chase. This season of Sabres hockey has to be one of the most frustrating in recent memory. The team decided to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday early by going on the now-infamous 10-game winning streak through late November to give long-suffering fans a hint of salvation.

The playoffs seemed assured, and there were pundits that actually broached the idea of the Sabres being a deep-run caliber team. Then the wheels came off.

When I say the wheels came off, I really mean, the wheels flew off the truck, the gas tank ignited, and all that was left was unfortunate flaming wreckage. (With a safe driver, of course!)

What went wrong?

Seemingly, the first answer to this question has revolved around Phil Housley.

The coach’s decision-making has come under fire over the past months, with particular attention to his player usage and explanations for same. Vladimir Sobotka is the name that comes screeching to mind here. The forward has been incredibly lackluster from an offensive point-of-view, with only 12 points through 62 games this season, and also has been deployed in scoring situations, such as centering the second line on occasion.

The coach’s explanation?

“He’s good on face-offs.”

The collective face-palms of Buffalo sports fans everywhere were audible. Indeed, the Sabres options at forward have been limited due to injury, poor play, or just sheer lack of chemistry. However, Sobotka has been a major reason for two of those three reasons.

Then there’s the defense.

Marco Scandella.

The name brought a fair amount of buzz around Western New York when he was brought in from Minnesota two summers ago. A left-shot defenseman who primarily played well in his own end. In his first season in the Blue and Gold, Scandella compiled a Corsi-for percentage of 47.9. Not earth-shattering, but not demonstrating a complete lack of proficiency in the zone.

How has he fared this year? 45.9% Corsi, and an astounding -5.4% Relative Corsi percentage. The advanced metrics tell you his play has dropped off. The eye-test has told you his play has dropped off. There is no way around the fact that his play has, get this….dropped off.

Thus, you would think the head coach would not only recognize this but make changes accordingly. Not so. Scandella has played in 53 games and has averaged nearly 18 minutes of time on the ice. A vote of confidence for a player that hasn’t demonstrated his worth this season.

Meanwhile, a perfectly acceptable left-shot defenseman in Lawrence Pilut plays for the AHL affiliate for no discernible reason.

Then there’s the goaltending scenario. In fairness, neither Carter Hutton nor Linus Ullmark have had stellar seasons, specifically since the streak ended. Ullmark seemed to take the reigns as the starter at the mid-point of the campaign but has since regressed.

The platooning of goalies does actually seem to make sense when you don’t have a clear-cut starter like a Carey Price in the net. However, once again, it’s more the explanation provided by the coach that is infuriating.

Paraphrased, the coach basically said he was going to start Hutton because he won his last start. Fair enough on its surface, however, the start that the goaltender “won” saw him give up four goals, while he was largely unimpressive. It just seems Housley has lost touch with his players and how they fit into his system.

There, of course, have been bright spots this year that were lacking from last season. Jeff Skinner and his current 36-goal total have been outstanding for Jack Eichel, as he seemingly has found that winger the organization has been looking for that can finish his passes.

Rasmus Dahlin has been quite good for the squad, posting near-record numbers for an 18-year-old defenseman. Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson have found tremendous chemistry and have formed 2/3 of a very good fourth line.

Sam Reinhart has set career-highs in points as well. I would even go so far as to say that Evan Rodrigues has shown enough improvement for me to think he’ll have a long-term future in the middle-six of the Sabres rotation. So even though these positives do exist, there is still something missing from this team. The 17-6-2 start was nice, and it gave a sense of hope for the season and future. However, the 13-22-7 mark since has doused all of that enthusiasm and leaves fans clamoring for answers.

Jason Botterill has been fairly tight-lipped when it pertains to the future of the organization. He stayed true to his word when he said he would acquire players via trade with some short-term help and potential to help the future of the team when he traded for Brandon Montour. Montour has been good for the team already. So there has been some progress, though it’s been much slower than fans and experts alike thought it would be. So, what can the GM do?

The first step for Botteril should be to make sure Jeff Skinner is re-signed. By all accounts, talks have happened and are positive to this point. It’s the top priority for him to make sure the team’s leading scorer is in the Queen City long-term.

Secondly, a few more trades, such as the Montour one would be the order of the day. There are always clubs that are looking to acquire young players and draft picks for more established talent, and the Sabres need to be in on that. Buffalo had a glut of talent on the back-end, and particularly on the left side, hence Brendan Guhle was dealt, along with one of the three first-round picks the Sabres owned for Montour.

There are always other options on the market just like this. The pro scouts need to target some forwards to help with the struggle of the middle-six portion of the team.

Lastly, and this can’t be stressed enough, the third step in this work-in-progress for this off-season, find a new head coach. Housley may be an excellent dry-erase board coach, with excellent teaching skills. However, he has shown a strong lack of game-management skill and adjustment-skill.

Given the pace and fluidity of today’s game, these are traits a coach has to have. After putting these ideas into place, maybe, just maybe, any sense of future optimism would actually be well-founded and sustainable.

Craig Schutts
Craig Schutts
Millersville Alumni; Life-long Buffalo sports fan; Part-time writer and podcaster until they throw me out!
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