It’s no secret that Phil Housley’s inaugural season as head coach of the Buffalo Sabres did not go as planned. For the third time in five years, the team finished dead-last in the NHL standings and entered the offseason with more questions than answers.
In a series of events that matriculated as a result of tactful transactions and lottery luck, his squad has gone through an upheaval of sorts, appearing much more formidable than they did at this time a year ago. After a 2016-17 campaign that the franchise would like to quickly forget, he must now put his squad in a position to execute his system.
Though the Sabres certainly underachieved last season, it’s tough to put much of the blame squarely on Housley’s shoulders. As a first-year bench boss, he entered an organization in the midst of a reported cultural rift after leaving a talented team on the rise in Nashville. With a lack of both depth and top-end talent, his system fell flat as the roster lacked the necessary personnel to effectively emulate his vision. As evidenced by the “core shake-up” that Jason Botterill promised and delivered on, the organization felt it necessary to give him a new arsenal of weapons to better suit his strategy.
For the most part, the Buffalo roster lacked the speed and transitional ability required to resemble anything close to what the Predators did (and continue to do) in 2016-17. With the emergence of players like Casey Mittelstadt and Brendan Guhle, paired with the additions of Conor Sheary, Jeff Skinner and of course, Rasmus Dahlin, those shortcomings should quickly become a thing of the past.
The question now becomes; just how much of an improvement in the standings do the Sabres need to make in order to keep Housley’s job safe for another year? Given their youth, and the fact that a good chunk of the current roster played elsewhere in 2017-18, the organization should expect an adjustment period of sorts. Pair that with a stacked Eastern Conference, and playoff aspirations appear lofty despite an undeniable increase in overall talent.
Let’s assume that it will once again take something close to 97 points to qualify for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. The Sabres would need to improve by a whopping 35 points in order to get there. While daunting, that total isn’t insurmountable. Just last season the Colorado Avalanche nearly doubled their total from a year prior with a 47 point improvement, clinching a playoff spot for the first time in four years. Obviously, that type of quantum-leap isn’t the norm, but it’s still worth noting.
Realistically, anything resembling .500 or better will probably result in Housley being granted a third season behind the bench in Western New York. While it may seem like a pedestrian goal at first glance, it would still represent a 20 point improvement from a year ago. Certainly not grounds for firing the head coach, especially if the team shows tangible signs of growth as the season progresses.
On opening night, the Sabres could field up to 10 new players from last season, depending on how things shake out in camp. With that type of overhaul, it will take time to get things firing on all cylinders, regardless of talent level. Merely finding line combinations that click on a consistent basis will be a task in and of itself. Last season, Housley never found the right formula in that regard in a year where he shuffled lines to the point of absurdity.
Another key component of the Sabres’ success will be the new and conceivably improved leadership core. Veteran additions like Carter Hutton and Patrik Berglund are lauded for their locker-room presence. The head coach can only do so much in terms of instilling the right mindset amongst players. Botterill’s carefully curated “new core” should make life easier on the second-year head coach.
Fans were critical of Housley at times last season for not appearing as frustrated and belligerent as they were while the team continued to plummet in the standings, but it’s tough to arrive on the scene and single-handedly break a losing culture. In order to do that effectively, it has to start with the players. If the team once again finds itself mired in the same cultural obscurity that has bedeviled them in recent years, then the attention and ire of the fan base could quickly shift back toward Housley.
Looking beyond the 2018-19 season, if the Sabres do experience the aforementioned 20 point (or more) bump next season, the goal for 2019-20 needs to be a playoff birth. Buffalo gets somewhat of a pass for next year given their youth and roster overhaul, but there is simply too much up-and-coming talent on the roster to miss the postseason in Housley’s third season. If that’s not the case, seats will get incredibly warm at One Seymour Knox Plaza. Until then, sit back, relax and enjoy a year of Sabres hockey where all signs indicate a vastly superior on-ice product than what we’ve been subjected to for the better portion of the past decade.