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The Problem is Beyond the Coaching

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While Phil Housley is not immune from blame on this season, the issues for the sabres go beyond his coaching methods

NHL: Boston Bruins at Buffalo Sabres Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday afternoon was just another exclamation point on a season that has been a massive disappointment for the Buffalo Sabres. They were blown out by the Dallas Stars 7-1 in a game that seemed over the second the puck dropped.

It was an embarrassing effort. The Sabres seemed disinterested and unwilling to match the level of play the Stars brought. This wasn’t the first time we’ve seen this type of performance out this hockey club and frankly probably won’t be the last time this season.

Since Saturday, head coach Phil Housley has been at the top of people’s mind. His postgame press conference comments were blunt about his team. He was pressed by reporters after the game on when coaches need to take the blame for what is happening, and this is where I want to focus my attention.

Same old, same old

I’ll start off by saying Housley is not free of any blame for how this season has transpired. His coaching staff found a way to mess with the NHL’s top power play from a year ago. Until recently we’ve seen nothing even close to what we saw last season from this team with the man advantage.

Housley has also made some interesting lineup decisions throughout the season. While frustrating, you also have to remember the roster he’s working with.

When it comes to the player's lack of effort or desire to play the game the right way. That doesn’t fall at the feet of Housley. Of course, part of the job of the head coach is to have his team ready to play. That’s not the issue with this team.

We’re on the second head coach who has said the players in the room won’t stick to a game plan. A team who won’t play within the structure of the system. A team who has shown their true colors in two years as a hockey club.

At the NHL level, the head coach should not need to motivate his team to play the right way every single night. They shouldn’t be teaching how to make a pass, how to tie up sticks in front of the net, how to eliminate players in front of your net and the basics of playing the game of hockey.

The System

When Housley came into town he talked about playing an aggressive type of hockey. Using a five-man attack to pressure the opponent in the offensive zone. As we head to game 49 tonight, we’ve yet to see that type of play.

Again, I’ll point to the roster as part of the blame for that. The Sabres have been banged up on the blue line almost the entire season. Saturday’s defense group had players like Justin Falk, Casey Nelson and Josh Gorges. None of those players are exactly known for their foot speed. It was extremely evident against the Stars on Saturday.

It’s hard to play a quick and attacking game when you have players who can’t get up and down the ice. The lack of team speed is a big issue for the Sabres. If they were a better passing team that could mask some of the lack of speed. We all know the puck moves faster than players. However, we have one of the worst passing NHL teams I’ve personally ever seen in Buffalo.

It’s also hard to execute this type of playing style when you have a roster full of players who constantly make the same mental mistakes on a consistent basis. Last week Housley referred to it as the “cheat in their game.”

Exhibit A was the first goal in the game against the New York Rangers on Thursday. Forward Benoit Pouliot is covering for Justin Falk who went down low on a pinch. Inexplicably Pouliot goes after a puck in the faceoff dot that he never had a chance of getting. The Rangers player tips the puck around Pouliot and Nash is off to the races after Jake McCabe can’t make a play at the blue line to keep it in. If Pouliot remains in the proper position he’s in the right spot to give McCabe support.

The point I’m trying to make is it’s become obvious that players on this roster are not focused enough or have the desire to get the simple errors out of their game. It doesn’t matter who the coach behind the bench is at this point. No longer can you blame it on the communication style of Dan Bylsma or coaching tactics of Housley.

I’m not sure if Housley is a good coach for the Sabres long term. He very well may not be. On the other hand he could be a very good coach for the future. Outside of a few areas I mentioned in the beginning, it’s very hard to grade Housley with the roster he’s been given.

Housley and general manager Jason Botterill have a lot of work to do to turn this thing around. It starts on February 26th, if not sooner.