1) The Sabres have gone 6 straight seasons without making the playoffs. That is currently the 2nd-longest playoff drought in the NHL next to the Hurricanes. It also doubles the longest playoff drought in Sabres history. So, congrats? The Sabres were in year 2 of the official rebuild and finished with fewer points than last year so that makes for a pretty disappointing season. Hell, you could make a case that this was really year 4 of the rebuild. Don’t let anyone (see: WGR) try and tell you that this was expected because when you spend this much money on players and assets, you deserve better than 78 points, especially since the Sabres division wasn’t very good. It shouldn’t be that hard to make the playoffs. It sucks.
Playoff hockey is so awesome as every game is an event. The blood, sweat and tears for all the players hard work during the season finally culminates in seeing what your team is really worth when the stakes are at its highest. Seeing the town painted blue and gold while Sabres flags are on cars and homes. Seeing fake and real jerseys at Party in the plaza (Remember those?) is such a treat. Hoping RJ’s gets to call a playoff series win since his time in the booth is coming to an end. Hell, I’ll even take hearing Rob Ray spew out sentence fragments and pop a playoff boner if Marcus Foligno drops the gloves.
The town would go crazy because it would have met we survived going through tank hell to finally get to hockey heaven or the playoffs. It would be such a thrill to see what Jack Eichel could do in the playoffs and actually have his goals REALLY matter. Heroes like Drury/Briere and anonymous guys like Brad May/Dave Hannan engraved their names in playoff folklore for game winning goals here…can you imagine what Jack could do if he had that chance?
It would be great to NOT have to argue about the tank, bitch about cheap Sabres glasses, and shit on season ticket holders for selling their tickets to Leafs fans. We would avoid the trivial things that have nothing to do with the actual hockey product and join as one fighting spirit who wants one goal: Playoff wins (Yeah, I’m channeling Ted Nolan’s spirit, dammit!)
Instead, we are back to the all too familiar feeling of it being another year where the only way we are watching the Sabres in the playoffs are through the archives of Beyond the Blue/Gold.
2) So what do the Sabres have to do? The consensus seems to be that the blue line is basically a subway turnstile and they need as much help as possible. The Sabres gave up an average of 34.3 shots a game which was tops in the NHL. They also gave up 40+ shots in 17 games which was the 2nd most in the NHL. We saw too many goals this season where it felt like guys either didn’t tie up players in their own zone or were just out of position.
Despite giving up all these shots, the Sabres goals against wasn’t quite as bad as they were ranked 19th. While the Sabres blue line was struggling in the defensive end, they weren’t doing much on the offensive end either. Aside from Risto being 15th in scoring for blue liners, the Sabres only had one other player in the top 100 for d-men scoring (McCabe was 88th). The Sabres also lacked a puck-carrying d-man which they haven’t had since Christian Ehrhoff was bought out during the initial tank. I hear people say Murray didn’t fix the defense enough, but I don’t think it was from lack of trying. It isn’t like the blue line is filled with cheap talent. He gave a long-term deal to Risto, Bogosian made 5.5 million, Kulikov made 4.5 million, and they gave contracts to Gorges and Franson in free agency. Based on cap numbers, the Sabres spent the 8th-most money on the blue line this past season. The problem is money doesn’t equal success and aside from Risto, who wore down as the season went on, a lot of these moves on the blue line backfired.
3) Do the Sabres still have scoring problems? Yes. Don’t let the blue line get all of the angst because scoring is still a problem here. They were 24th in goals and had the 25th fewest 3+ goal games in the NHL. Now, if you view it since Eichel returned on December 1st, things did change a little as the team was 20th in goals during that stretch. Still, the Sabres just didn’t get enough scoring from their 3rd and 4th lines and it seemed like the top 6 wore down. Overall, the Sabres didn’t have a top 50 scorer for the 5th straight season. The last time they had a player get over 60+ points in season was Pominville during the 2011-2012 season. In the last two seasons, the Sabres have scored 2 or fewer goals in 88 games which is the 5th most in the league. Of course things may have been different if Eichel didn’t miss his first 21 games as he did finish the season with the 15th best PPG at 0.93. The Sabres scored just 201 goals this season (same tally as last year) and over half of those goals (108) came from Kane-Eichel-Reinhart-O’Reilly-Okposo. So, it is a double edge sword as by comparison to the league, the top 5 isn’t really as good as their league peers, but in comparison to the bottom 6 here, they are Gods.
4) So what do the Sabres have to do? You need at least 2 blue liners. One who is a boring ass stay-at-home defenseman and one who can carry the puck in and score. I also think they need to get probably another top 6 forward as the Tyler Ennis ship has sailed and sunk. Also, more guys on the 3rd and 4th lines would help as there’s been too much dead weight between guys like Moulson, D-Lo, and Girgensons. The Sabres are 26-million under the cap next year which is actually the 4th most in the NHL. So, while they have to make room for extensions to 15, 23, and 9 next summer, they are in a position to spend. They still have 5 draft picks within the first 3 rounds which you can use to trade for vets. I would love to get someone in that 27-32 range who has all those leadership intangibles, won elsewhere, and can still play. Basically I’d want what Drury was when he got here in 2003. Yeah, I’m sucker for nostalgia.
5) What does Tim Murray have to do better? Aside from fixing the blue line and getting depth..I think development needs to be front and center. Look, I’m not a prospect guy and I usually decide to judge the kiddies when they play at least 100 games at the NHL level and not in the minor leagues. Even with my lack of prospect acumen, I’ve grown frustrated with not finding diamonds in the drafting rough. Where are the new age Jason Pominvilles, Derek Roys, or Brian Campbells? I hated Darcy Regier with a passion, but he always seemed to find mid-round gems, guys who were found in the mid-rounds who came out of nowhere and became legit NHLers. I haven’t seen that with Murray. Like where are the guys picked in 2014 who aren’t Sam Reinhart?
Sabres Prospect Twitter talked up Baptiste-Bailey-Fasching last year at this time as being the “young guns” to watch because they did well in whatever league they were in that wasn’t the NHL. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, hockey twitter seems to overrate Sabres prospects before they even step on the NHL ice. Then once they do and don’t fuck up, they seem to get a little too much love because they are different than what they’ve seen. It is your classic falling in love with the new girl in school because the new girl is different and you are sick of seeing the old class (IE: Zemgus, D-Lo).
While B&B didn’t fall on their face when they got on the ice and were better than D-Lo, Fasching was non-existent and was buried in Rochester for the most part. These guys have to start scoring more. I’m not saying these guys can’t be good or are busts as they are just kiddies, but we are going on season 5 of Murray being the GM and this will be his 4th draft. Outside of the tank picks, they need more help from their other picks. Murray has drafted 25 players since being the GM and if you take away 23/15, his picks have played just 7 NHL games.
Look, I’m probably not giving Murray enough time as I do realize players outside of the 1st round over the last two seasons probably shouldn’t be up here yet, but if you want to help the roster depth, you gotta start with those 2nd-6th round selections. As it stands, the roster doesn’t seem to have too many home grown players from his selections. I’m hoping next year is when some of the pipeline starts to make their way here because that’s how you build your depth and you gotta hope 1 or 2 of the prospects become legit NHL 3rd or even 2nd liners. I’m not asking for 30 goals from someone, but give me 10-15 goals and not having to watch D-Lo or some chump stain take up ice time on the 4th line.
Sabres Twitter seems to think Brendan Guhle is the next “BIG THING” and will help the blue line next year. While I hope they are right, I have the memory of an elephant in remembering the sucking off of Luke Adam, Grigomania, Zadorov, Larsson, Zemgus and a few other prospects to know I ain’t believing the hype until I see them here as regulars. Said it once and I’ll say it again, there is such a huge difference between the NHL and minor/college league systems that just cause someone does well there doesn’t mean it will progress right away here.
6) Who wants some tank media takes?! The Buffalo News thinks management has shackled Disco Dan with a shitty roster and some entitled kids. WGR thinks Bylsma is Dick Jauron of the Sabres and that he’s ruining everything! This isn’t shocking when you consider that WGR/BN have been battling out the tank narrative because “what is dead will never die,” as the Greyjoys say on GoT. I can’t help but laugh when TBN uses the Leafs to try and piss off fans when their team did the exact same thing as the Sabres did with tanking for high picks. You can’t commend them when your lead columnists called us losers for cheering the tank. The Leafs did the same thing the Sabres did except they did it better with building the roster in the short term which means there’s still a lot left in this “race”. Furthermore, stop using the Leafs as a barometer for what we should strive for. To have Bouffant Sully go off about how the Leafs/Sabres could be the Bills/Patriots rivalry is laughable. It isn’t like the Leafs finished with 110 points. They had a heroic march to 8th which he used to make fun of the Sabres for doing. If anything, the measuring stick should be Pens/Caps/Hawks, but I guess we gotta troll Sabres fans who hate the Leafs.
Then you’ve got WGR, which went from “they will contend for the playoffs” in September to “What did you silly fans expect?” when they struggled in January to “Fire Dan because he’s lost the room!!” by March. I feel WGR is trying to shit all over him because the tank was supposed to be this fool proof plan to make them contenders and someone has to be the fall guy since they ruined a 2 year narrative about how things were gonna be fixed over night. Don’t let Jeremy #Jamm White tell you it is a strawman argument against him and the station because that’s crap. There’s exhibit:
Bottom line: Stay neutral as both outlets are serving their own agenda and are going to do this for the rest of Eichel’s career and we’ll be having this same conversation yearly. It is classic reaction to the reaction with both entities feeding off each other. And while BN has been smoking an obnoxious victory cigar the last two years, you damn well better know if the Sabres were the Leafs right now, Jeremy White would be sending dick pics to Harrington with the caption “Suck it!”
For the 200th time, getting Eichel was worth the tank and trading guys like Brayden McNabb, Chris Stewart and Brian Flynn during the tank weren’t the reasons they missed the playoffs this year. They missed the playoffs because of what happened AFTER the tank and that’s Murray’s building a roster with a bad blue line, little depth, and a possible disconnect between the coach and players. Yes, THE GM AND COACH ACTUALLY MATTER?! WHO KNEW?!
WGR was unbearable during the tank, and they deserve criticism for how they approached it as a get rich quick scheme where finishing last was bigger than a Cup (my favorite Mike Schopp tweet) and that the GM didn’t matter or could be a giraffe (my favorite White Tweet).
My problem through all of this is that the fans who find both POVs logical in some aspects and lacking in others aren’t being heard. It is as if we don’t exist. I didn’t fall for the extremes of both sides of that narrative and I’m just eye-rolling like the Undertaker when it comes to the wars against each other. It was logical to be pro-tank and know that A LOT of other pieces needed to fall into place THEN and TODAY. Unfortunately that didn’t seem to happen during the tank because believing in nuances and having shades of gray is very boring in today’s media climate.
7) Who is Public Enemy #1? Dan Bylsma. I’m not going to pretend to be some sort of sage of hockey systems. I don’t know dick about it. Twitter seems to hate Dan having his blue liners make cross ice passes and dump and chase is archaic, even though I see teams still do that. I don’t know, but I do recall seeing Jack Eichel carry the puck into the zone a bunch of times. Something tells me this is like when people assume Rex Ryan is dropping DL back on every play when that wasn’t the case. It just seems we are stretching the truth a bit. The Sabres don’t have many puck-carrying guys to begin with as it seems to be just Jack, Kane, and Ennis (Who is always hurt). I always felt hockey systems are basically the same. I don’t get how complicated a hockey system could be unless your players don’t feel like learning it because they wanna freestyle like it is pond hockey.
While it hasn’t worked so far here, I cant ignore what Bylsma did with the Pens. Yes, I know, he had Crosby/Malkin, but he did win the Jack Adams award during a 108 point season when both his star players missed a lot of time. They also had other 8 different scorers who aren’t named Crosby/Malkin score 20+ goals.
Furthermore, the Pens gave up the 8th fewest shots during his time there which tells me he knows how to coach defense. A big reason why the Pens “Failed” was because of goaltending more so than players not liking him. I know some players went Off the record with Dan at the end of his tenure, but I think it was more of being at the same place for too long. I mean were they complaining when they won the cup? The Kings just fired Daryl Sutter and one of the reasons was because of disconnect with the locker room. Yet, I don’t think it means he’s a shitty coach since he won 2 Cups. Just that he was there too long and that happens and I’m not there with Dan since it is only year 2 of his coaching tenure. Plus, he’s won in this league while the GM and the majority of the players haven’t. I’m know I sound like an apologist for him as I get why there’s criticism (More on that at #8), but I think the narrative against him has been over the top and the GM/Players aren’t getting as much.
8) What does Disco Dan have to do better? I think he needs to do a better job in NOT mixing up his line combos and stop with spreading out 23-15-9 on different lines. When that trio was on the ice together, they were lightning it up. Put your best line forward and play them more than say Zemgus/Moulson and stop playing Marcus Foligno with Jack. I get maybe you have to spread the wealth a bit because the depth sucked, but it didn’t seem to work for those players when they were split up. Also, if we believe the younger players aren’t fond of him, I would say he or Murray needs to have a clear the air meeting with them and figure out common ground. I don’t want to yell for the young players to get off my lawn when it comes to learning from their coach or sound like a pussy millennial who doesn’t react well to criticism. Instead, meet and figure this out like adults and adjust to each other. Its hockey, not diplomatic relations between Israel and Palestine or The Lannisters and Starks. Get along and STFU.
Overall, I would stay the course with Dan until probably the first 10-15 games. If you are putting a gun to my head, I feel the construction of the roster is a bigger detriment than Dan’s coaching style. After listening to Murray’s presser and his literal crapping of the blue line, you have to think he knows the roster is flawed and needs fixing. They have the cap room to do that and if they put their best step forward in fixing the roster, then you eliminate the roster excuse. And if you eliminate the roster excuse and they are mediocre for, say, the first month of the season, then fire Dan.
9) Is there a bright side? Yes. I know my first 8 points were mostly negative, but I do feel the Sabres are close to the playoffs. I think the biggest thing going for them is that the core of this team is still pretty young. Jack Eichel is only scratching the surface of being an elite player in this league and we have to realize he’s only 20. His .93 PPG was the 9th best by a 20 year old since 2001 and there’s some awesome company on that list. Reinhart was inconsistent this year, but again, he’s only 21 and I think his production has been decent when you view it through that prism. There was a 3 month span where Evander Kane was in the top 3 in even strength goals. As long as he’s not getting in trouble, he’s a hell of a power forward. Ryan O’Reilly is a hell of a 2-way player where his stats don’t tell the whole story. Poor guy has played more minutes per game than any other forward in the NHL over the last 2 seasons. Get the guy some fucking help.
I thought the goaltending really overachieved this year. Lehner’s .920 save percentage was the 4th best in the league for goalies who started at least 50 games which is an impressive feat when you consider how shitty the defense was. Lehner had 29 games this year where he allowed 2 goals or fewer (Last year: 13) which ranked 17th best (Last year: 51st) and he lost 10 of those games because, well, the offense didn’t help much. You could make the case Lehner was the most improved player based on what he did during his disappointing season last year. Dude just needs to work on his shootouts.
Overall, this was still a 53-point team just 2 seasons ago. The average age for the Sabres roster is 25.43 which is the 2nd youngest in the NHL. So, I’m going to have a little more patience since they were climbing out of the 5th dimension of hockey hell and are still young. Once you get through the white noise about whose tank [Dick] narrative is bigger, you’ll see the Sabres still have some building blocks to build off of. And while the building blocks are there, the time is ticking to build a house. If the Sabres don’t make the playoffs next year, then count me in wanting a top to bottom house cleaning.
10) What do we take from the Murray presser? Well, that hit me like a rock. I was ready to just give you 9 HAWT takes and then Murray came out and didn’t exactly give a ringing endorsement for Dan. He even alluded to the disconnect in the locker room and how some of the coaches need to grab a cup of coffee and talk with his players. OUCH. This looks bad and not just because Jeremy White’s inmates hating their coach narrative holds water and he’ll be pumping the #coachwatch search. I know Murray gets credit for being a straight shooter, but he came out with a damn bazooka. He buried everyone. I found it odd how Murray is waiting until next week to have his season review meeting with Pegula. I get that the NFL draft matters, but unless Whaley really got neutered with his GM duties, it isn’t like Pegula is picking the players..right? RIGHT!? OH GOD, HE’S PICKING THE BILLS FIRST PICK!?(I Kid…kind of)
It would have behooved them to meet a few weeks earlier when everyone knew the team was not making the playoffs to figure out if they needed to can someone. If the Sabres decide to fire Dan, it would put them behind the 8 ball with dealing with other teams who are already looking to hire coaches. Of course, maybe the Sabres have someone already in place and they just need Pegula to sign off on it or they already know Bylsma is coming back so they can afford to meet next week. If it was the latter, then why the hell didn’t he just say he’s going to coach next season? Hmmm…I still think Dan comes back, but I went from being 100% certain to probably 65%.