What one key fix do the Buffalo Sabres need to salvage the season?
Greg Wyshynski: In leaving the Nashville Predators bench to take over as Sabres coach, Phil Housley went from the fifth-best possession team at 5-on-5 last season to the second-worst. The Sabres (5-12-4) aren't much better this season, with a minus-104 in shot attempts and ranking 27th in possession through 21 games.
So the one key fix for the Sabres isn't a roster tweak or a lineup change but rather a plea to practice what their coach is desperately preaching.
"We've got to defend better. We have to be quicker to close, be more aggressive, because we're allowing teams to cycle and wear us down defensively," Housley told reporters before Monday night's 3-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. "I think that's why we don't have the puck. We want to be an attacking team, but, in order to do that, we have to be better in our own end. The teams that don't give you much, it just seems like they have the puck a lot more, are in the offensive zone, and as a result get more goal production."
Look, the Sabres have a load of lineup issues -- the only thing keeping their blue line from being the biggest personnel debacle in Buffalo is the Bills' quarterback management -- but the fact is that this is Year 1 for Housley and GM Jason Botterill. They need time to mold and shape this roster in their image, and those changes aren't coming in November.
So, in the meantime, the Sabres will improve with smarter defensive play and fewer minutes spent in their own zone. Housley is doing what he can: Defensive liability was the catalyst for his demotion of star Jack Eichel to the third line. That's a heck of a wake-up call.
Emily Kaplan: I don't think all hope is lost in Buffalo -- for the long term. After a carousel of coaching and management changes, owners Terry and Kim Pegula say they are committed to stability. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt. Let's also exercise some patience for rookie head coach Housley and GM Botterill. Remember, Botterill is the guy best known for maneuvering the Pittsburgh Penguins' delicate salary cap over the past decade. If anyone can figure out how to work around Eichel's monster contract and allocate for the right pieces to be competitive, Botterill is a guy I'd trust.
That said, we all expected the Sabres to at least take a step forward by now. Their 5-12-4 record is as ugly as it looks. The problem in Buffalo is accountability. If you watch the games, the backchecking is dismal. Players just stand around in their own zone and wait for the puck to come to them. That effort is not acceptable.
So here's my fix: Keep Eichel's third-line demotion until he finally feels enough heat and ups his game. Let him be angry, and go on a tear. Once he does that, name him captain. Stop dangling the title in front of him like an inevitability. The Sabres have a streamlined voice in the front office. Emulate that in the locker room. This is one of the youngest teams in the league, and the Sabres are working through some growing pains. They're missing leaders such as former captain Brian Gionta. If they expect Eichel to be their leader of the future, challenge him to step up now. It might be bumpy at first, but he'll grow into it -- and the team will grow around him.
Chris Peters: We're not quite at the point of no return for the Sabres this season, but it feels pretty close. So I don't know that there is one thing they can do to right the ship. And while I'd like to give some nice tidy analysis with facts and figures that show some sort of path to putting this team on solid footing, I think that there's something much deeper that needs to be addressed and that it's going to take more than this season to get it fixed.
One thing the Sabres haven't been able to do in the Pegula era is build a winning culture. They've gone through enough coaches and GMs on the way to trying to figure it out. Botterill inherited a rebuild in progress with a blueprint that is not his. Meanwhile, Housley has stepped into a situation in which the players have already been beaten down and frustrated by the piling losses. Even if there isn't a rebuild of the rebuild in the cards, the work that needs to be done remains daunting.
From a personnel standpoint, even considering that the injuries are making things look worse, the blue line needs to be readdressed. As constructed, it's tough to see this group making the Sabres competitive when D corps are becoming sleeker and more skilled and are playing a style that is as much about getting the puck up ice as it is about reliability in their own zone. The Sabres don't seem to have any of that. It can't just be Rasmus Ristolainen, who is injured, playing 27 to 28 minutes a game. If they can't address that in season, the good news is that the upcoming draft is loaded with quick puck-moving defensemen tailor-made for the NHL's current style.