It’s no secret that the Buffalo Sabres have struggled this season. Their hugely disappointing campaign has served as a continuation of what is likely the most embarrassing timeline in franchise history.
After an inauspicious start, the team has, at times, teased fans with flashes of perceived improvement, before ultimately falling back into their losing ways. In a year where the list of inadequacies has continued to grow, one problem reigns supreme over all of the others.
Despite Phil Housley's regular head-scratching takes on what constitutes as acceptable, rarely has his team put together a full 60-minute game. This issue has been particularly magnified on home ice, where the Sabres are on pace to set a franchise-low with 11 victories at KeyBank Center this year.
No matter how many times veteran Ryan O’Reilly has lamented his team’s performance, nothing has changed. For what seems like the hundredth time this season, he echoed the same sentiment following the Sabres’ 3-0 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Friday.
”We definitely beat ourselves tonight,” O’Reilly said. “They didn’t do anything special. We missed the chances, didn’t handle the puck as good as we wanted to tonight. I think all the guys felt the same, it’s almost embarrassing. We could’ve at least made a game of it.”
He uttered those words after the 74th game of the season. Though O’Reilly himself is rarely the target of criticism when it comes to individual effort, as a veteran, he needs to do more than just lead by example and provide self-loathing soundbites. For a player who allegedly considers himself captain material, that just won’t cut it.
The absence of a defined leader in the locker room is just another symptom of the toxic, losing culture that has continued to fester and engulf the organization. Though many fans don’t want to hear it, it may be time for Jason Botterill to try and purge “veteran core” left in place by former GM, Tim Murray.
Easier said than done.
It should be obvious at this point that Botterill will not find success by administering a few minor tweaks. He tried that already when he added players like Jordan Nolan and Scott Wilson earlier in the season. Both men came in with multiple Stanley Cup victories under their respective belts, however, their presence has had little to no effect. That’s not to say the rookie GM didn’t have the right idea, however, the addition of two fourth liners simply wasn’t enough to catalyze a much-needed culture shift.
As it stands, the franchise is flush with “lead by example” types who rarely ever cause a stir or raise their voices. From the coach, down to the players, there is nobody in the organization who serves as a singular voice for the others to follow. Such has been the case over the past decade, and if Botterill hopes to keep his job long-term, he needs to act quickly to mix things up.
The organization needs to send a message that the status-quo is no longer acceptable. With up-and-coming players like Casey Mittelstadt and Brendan Guhle set to join the roster in the near future, Botterill must establish his new core. He cannot allow them to enter the league as members of a locker room that is devoid of leadership. It’s part of the reason he elected to leave Guhle in the AHL for a majority of the season. Much like his fellow Amerks, in the short period of time, he has spent in Buffalo, the young blueliner has given fans a glimpse of the culture shift taking place in Rochester with Chris Taylor at the helm.
Casey Nelson, Justin Bailey and Nick Baptiste among others have all played with a fire that the Sabres have sorely lacked this season, and it’s part of the reason they have remained with the team instead of being sent back to Rochester as they prepare for a Calder Cup playoff run. Their drive and determination is the result of the leadership foundation that Taylor has helped put in place.
For all of his strengths as an expert tactician, Housley is not a hard-nosed, no-nonsense leader like John Tortorella or Joel Quenneville. If he is going to be successful as a head coach, then Botterill needs to equip him with vocal veterans who will call out their teammates for inadequate effort. It’s an area where Jack Eichel will need to step up as well if he expects his teammates to follow him once the organization inevitably hands him the captaincy next season.
So what should Botterill do? Should he try to deal an underperforming veteran on a big contract like Kyle Okposo? He could try, but there aren’t many teams out there who would be willing to take a contract for a player approaching 30 years old, who is just one season removed from a near career-ending health ordeal.
Maybe there is a market out there for someone like O’Reilly. While he does provide value as one of the league’s best face-off specialists, $7.5 million is a hefty price for someone who hovers between 50-60 points. Given the fact that he has done very little within the dressing room to try and be a catalyst for change, perhaps a playoff caliber team with an established leadership core would present an offer for his services.
Both Okposo and O’Reilly have been empty suits as alternate captains. Perhaps Marco Scandella, one of the team’s few vocal presences, would be a better fit for a leadership role. The emotional veteran defenseman had a lot to say following the Sabres 5-1 shellacking at the hands of the New York Rangers Saturday night.
“We have to get better with our decision making without the puck. Tonight was embarrassing,” he said. “We have to respect each other. Tonight’s not good enough at all. We have to get better. We have to wake up tomorrow and get better. Shot totals don’t matter, it’s our play without the puck.”
Earlier in the year, Scandella called out his teammates for a “lack of pride”. Coming from a winning organization in Minnesota, his frustrations are certainly justified. The Sabres need more established veterans who aren’t afraid to hold others accountable.
Botterill needs to act fast this offseason. Though a culture shift has matriculated in Rochester, it won’t matter unless he rids himself of Murray’s core, most of whom have become complacent and lethargic in Buffalo. Not only will they continue to hurt team performance, but they will continue to set bad examples for the promising young players in the system.
Either way, he needs to “slam the door” on players who aren’t putting the work in. It won’t be easy, but he has the blueprint for a successful organization from his time in Pittsburgh. If the Sabres fail to show a marked improvement next season, Terry Pegula might lose his patience. Sooner or later, the fans are going to start talking with their wallets. Nothing makes a seat hotter than lost revenue.