Following a complete collapse which saw the Sabres go from being the best team in the NHL to finishing in the bottom of the standings, the team announced they have relieved head coach Phil Housley of his duties.
After joining the Blue & Gold following a run to the Stanley Cup Final as an assistant with the Nashville Predators, Housley finished with a 58-84-22 record in his first head coaching job in the NHL, which included a 25-45-12 record and last place in the league standings last season.
The firing also comes roughly two weeks after public backing from team owners Terry and Kim Pegula while they two were at the NFL owners meetings in Arizona.
“The season obviously hasn’t finished yet. But, I think Botts has said it pretty well that he supports Phil,” Terry said on March 26. “Phil communicates with the players well. Are we happy with the way the season has gone? Absolutely not. So, something has to change. We don’t know what but we’re going to put our heads to together and talk about it.”
When asked if he could justify bringing back Housley for a third season, Pegula answered, “He’s a young coach. He was a great player and I think he can grow as a coach.”
Added Kim Pegula, “Well, Jason I think already said it that he’s not planning on letting Phil go — that he’s going to be returning. But, that’s not to say we can’t always improve. I don’t think, anytime these things happen, it’s usually not just one thing or just on one person. We’ll figure all that out. Know that, Terry and I, our staff, everybody in the organization we want to get better, no doubt about it.”
Now, the owners will be in search of hiring their fifth head coach since buying the team in 2011.
Lindy Ruff was the head coach when the Pegulas initially acquired the franchise, but two years later he was let go and replaced by Ron Rolston who survived just nine months and 51 games.
Ted Nolan then began his second stint with the club and lasted only two years behind the bench. He was let go after the team bottomed out and began, what management described as a “rebuild” — in search of cornerstone franchise changing players.
Dan Bylsma took over in 2015 but was gone by 2017 after regressing in his second year behind the bench and concerns about his ability to relate with players.
This season began with promise with Housley as the bench boss.
Buffalo raced out to a 17-6-2 start, and on the heels of a 10-game winning streak rose to the top of the NHL standings.
“We knew at the time when we were No. 1 in the Eastern Conference, we said, ‘we’re not this good.’ We’ll come back to Earth some. Now, did we think we’d come back like this? No,” Terry Pegula said.
“At the time when we were 17-6-2, we didn’t think we were the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference. I think our guys showed one thing, and now they just need to now continue and do that over a long period of time.”
As the season went on, sloppy play with the puck, defensive breakdowns and failure to follow the game plan — issues that were raised in Housley’s first year — would once again impact the Sabres on the ice and in the standings.
By seasons end Buffalo finished with:
– 16 wins since November 29
– Failed to win back-to-back games from December to April, when they accomplished the feat in the final two games of the season
– Failed to win back-to-back games in regulation from October to April, when they accomplished the feat in the final two games of the season
– Endured a 14 game road winless streak, which they snapped in Detroit in the season finale
The year also saw a player, Patrik Berglund, leave the team citing mental health reasons. The center, who was acquired in the Ryan O’Reilly trade along with Vladimir Sobotka and Tate Thompson over the summer, failed to report for the team’s road trip to Washington and Boston in December. He was later placed on waivers and had his contract terminated by the club.
In an interview with his hometown paper in Sweden, Berglund explained the organization did nothing wrong and he was “in the process of healing.”
The Sabres have cornerstone pieces in place with star center and Captain Jack Eichel leading the forwards and No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin leading the way on the blueline.
However, the team still lacks a strong top six and depth scoring. That need is only going to grow if Jeff Skinner, who has expressed his desire to continue to play in the Queen City, is not signed to a new contract and walks away in free agency.
General Manager Jason Botterill traded for the winger prior to the season and, skating alongside Eichel, enjoyed a career year with 40 goals.
Finding a coach who can continue to develop the young talent on this team, turn the franchise around and make the Sabres a consistent postseason contender is the task the Botterill and the Pegula’s now face as they begin another offseason with more questions than answers.