Frustration had reached a fevered pitch last week, heating the shores of the wind-chilled Queen City with the hottest of takes; in this instance: Fire Phil Housley.
Perhaps there is a point to be made. The Buffalo Sabres have been one of the league’s most inconsistent teams in the early going; sometimes among the NHL’s biggest surprises and sometimes unsurprisingly...well...bad.
General Manager Jason Botterill spent the summer slinging trades and signing free agents, giving Housley a veritable treasure chest of talent to play with. Half of the time, Housley has his club running on all cylinders, but the other half? Not so much. Poor transition, inept special teams, and overall confusion and malaise.
Maybe that’s Botterill’s fault. Maybe it can be chalked up to a young team full of fresh faces that are still experiencing some growing pains. For the sake of argument (read: this piece,) let’s blame Housley completely. It stands to reason that fans would want to axe the bench boss if he has cost the team four important wins to start the year.
Even if we were to subscribe to the theory that Housley is to blame, there is an argument to be made that Housley should be given a little more time to prove he can get this team to where it needs to be.
They are who we thought they were.
If you had asked the average fan what they thought the team’s record would be after nine games, anyone who said the Sabres would be better than .500 was dreaming. The team hasn’t been better than .500 IN FIVE YEARS! Kids born during Buffalo’s last winning season are now in kindergarten. It would be unreasonable to think that they’d be that much better from the jump.
Buffalo is average right now, and that (by definition) is OK. They’re beating teams they should and losing to teams that should beat them. The combined record of the teams that have defeated the Sabres is 15-10-4. Those teams are at least .667 - over an entire season, that is 13 games better than the Sabres ‘projected’ 41-41 record.
They’re starting to gel.
A lack of patience from Sabres fans is understandable. It’s not easy to support one of the worst overall teams in the NHL for five years running. But from the dark tunnel that is Buffalo Sports Fandom, a faint light can be seen. It’s dim and small - a single star in an otherwise pitch black sky.
By October 23, 2017, Buffalo had also played nine games. They’d allowed 36 goals against. This year? 25. It seems that the defense is getting better, despite obvious individual flaws. In addition to shoring up the zone, the Sabres blueliners have contributed six goals. Last season, defensemen failed to put the puck in the net until December 5.
Housley may not have perfected his strategy yet, but he’s still just over a year into his head coaching career. He’s a green coach with green players and it seems that things are starting to come together for the team. The Sabres as a whole have looked more cohesive toward the end of the West Coast trip, and the anticipated ‘shoot first, shoot often’ mindset seems to be setting in; the team is averaging 28.3 shots a game after unleashing 45 against the Anaheim Ducks.
Remember that time that it looked like Buffalo had a legitimate shot at the top ‘free agent’ coach on the market, only to find out he’d been playing us for more money? How did that feel? And in the last coaching search, how many Cup-winning coaches came knocking on the KeyBank Center door?
For better or for worse, Housley might be the best coach available right now. It’s not like Chris Taylor is ready for a callup from Rochester - the Americans are playing well, but for the first time in a long time. Do Buffalo fans really want to see another rookie NHL coach? Inexperience can easily explain some of the questionable decisions that Housley is apt to make; repeating that mistake doesn’t put the Sabres in a better position.
Who’s left? Alain Vigneault? No one wants that. Ask former Buffalo goaltender Martin Biron his feelings on the much-maligned former New York Rangers Coach.
Who wants to come here to a fanbase that’s booing the team two periods into the season? Sure, coaches love to be the main character in a Cinderella story, but that’s a lot of pressure on what would be the fifth Buffalo coach in five seasons. The move would handicap a very young team that is already struggling with consistency. Inconsistency behind the bench and in the system is not the answer.
There is little question that it’s going to be a rollercoaster season for the Buffalo Sabres, and the fans are stuck on a ride that most people will not enjoy. But the peaks will certainly be higher than they have been in the recent past, and even if it means that the lows might feel lower, at least Housley has the Sabres on the track.