It has been a tough go for the Buffalo Sabres as they head toward the last quarter of the season. The team has a 3-6-1 record in the last ten games, and they’ve lost 20 of their last 30 games, stretching back to November 24.
Things came to a head after a 6-5 overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes at the KeyBank Center on Thursday. Frustrations spilled over into postgame interviews where players and coaches began pointing fingers. Goaltending, general management - no one was safe from blame as the team struggles to right a ship that was sailing steadily in the first quarter of the season.
Captain Jack Eichel shouldered some of the load, telling the media, “I didn’t play well. ... Can’t miss the net there. That one’s on me.” It’s something that the young leader has said many times over the last two seasons, and the self-reflection is admirable.
Things took a turn
His counterpart, forward Sam Reinhart, appeared to feel the game wasn’t lost in the offensive zone, but in the Sabres’ defensive zone. “We can’t expect to win hockey games 6-5, 7-6. We need more from our goalies and we need it from the start of hockey games. It’s frustrating.”
I wanted to hear this again before writing it. Sabres’ Sam Reinhart: “We can’t expect to win hockey games 6-5, 7-6. We need more from our goalies and we need it from the start of hockey games. It’s frustrating.”— John Vogl (@BuffaloVogl) February 8, 2019
Sam walked back his comments after practice the following day, telling the media, “That’s not what I meant at all. I think if you follow the interview a little bit - and obviously I was frustrated - but I think if you follow around in the interview near the end, I’m saying we all need to come back and defend more. I was trying to say we need more for our goalies.”
He’s absolutely right with his second statement. This heat map from Natural Stat Trick shows where the bulk of the Hurricanes shots - and goals - came from. It’s nearly unfathomable that a professional hockey team would leave a player open in the slot so many times, muchless after several goals were scored from that area.
Head coach Phil Housley was asked about the poor team defense - his club has given up 17 goals in three games. “That’s Jason’s job…” Housley started, referring to general manager Jason Botterill.
Housley addressed his comments, stating that he misunderstood the question. “Before we get started here, just for the record, I misunderstood a question yesterday,” Housley told the press. ”I took it as if there was any players coming up from Rochester, and that’s Jason’s job. That’s what I mean about that.”
Regardless of intent, both comments say a lot about the state of the team right now. Top-to-bottom, the Sabres are frustrated with the results of the bulk of their season. For young players like Reinhart (still only 23-years old) and Eichel (22) the team’s midwinter slump has been a persistent issue. They’ve never known winning at this time of year. It makes it difficult for the young leadership to put the team on their shoulders and pull them through the struggles, because, as professionals, they haven’t seen any elder statesmen do that for the team.
This is also Housley’s first head coaching position in the NHL. His last job, assistant for the Nashville Predators, was successful in that the club finished above 93 points in all but one season, even making the Stanley Cup Final in Housley’s last year. Housley is defensive coach, who was primarily responsible for the defense units in Nashville - he should have solutions for Buffalo’s woes. But he’s never had to do that as a head coach. He’s never had to shoulder the full responsibility of a failiing team. Even as an assistant, he didn’t experience failure; especially at this magnitude. He puts the blame on young and developing players instead of holding veterans accountable.
The Sabres are in a tough spot. On paper, the team has the talent. Too often, it seems as though the results are an indictment of the club’s inexperience. The defensive leader is an 18-year old rookie. The emerging starter in goal is in his first full NHL season. And when the GM does make a move and bring players from Rochester to support the team, the coach puts them promptly in the press box. The team can’t seem to garner any sort of momentum because everything is moving in different directions, and last night, that included the blame.
Things don’t get easier for Buffalo. They’ll face four games in seven nights, all under the microscope of home ice. There is little time to work on the glaring errors in practice, and building team unity is usually something that occurs on the road.
It will be interesting to see how the team reacts to Thursday’s performance, and the circus that followed. Maybe the scrutiny will bring them together - ‘us against the world’ can drive a team, even if only temporarily. The organization needs to be careful to heed the lessons of last year, though. Obviously, this is a club that is susceptible to negativity, and prone to stay down once they get down. If they can turn this frustration into motivation, they have an outside chance of getting back on course, going full steam ahead into the playoffs.