As the Buffalo Sabres season continues to head in the wrong direction, some things about the team are becoming evident. One of them is that head coach Phil Housley continues to show concerns about his future with the Sabres.
While Jason Botterill still has a lot of work to do on this roster and that should be noted in evaluating the coach. At the same time, he doesn’t get a lot of credit for the strong seasons of Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner, Sam Reinhart, and Rasmus Dahlin. All four were expected to be key impact players this season.
Housley has failed to show an ability to elevate the current talent on the roster to this point and in particular on the blue line.
He was given a young puck-moving defenseman in Lawrence Pilut, but couldn’t figure out how to properly get the most out of his talent. Along with Dahlin, he was one of the few defensemen that could consistently get the puck out of the defensive zone and begin the rush up the ice.
Pilut also showed success on the ice with Rasmus Ristolainen when they were paired together. Which is something that hasn’t been easy to find over the last few years. Yet, the coach decided to move away from what was working.
The 23-year-old Swede started to struggle near the end on his time with the Sabres, as you would expect from a rookie defender at times. Instead of putting him in situations to make it easier to succeed he did the opposite.
In Pilut’s last game with the Sabres, he put him on his off-hand side (something he hasn’t done all season) and paired him with Nathan Beaulieu, playing in his first game in about a month. Then he decided to put the pair in heavy defensive-zone starts, neither of which are their strong attributes. Of course, it didn’t go well and Pilut was later returned to the AHL.
Speaking of Beaulieu, that’s another player he failed to figure out how to utilize. The 26-year-old defenseman was having a nice bounce-back season after struggles in the 2017-18 campaign. While the defense struggled at times, Housley, was unable to find the room to add Beaulieu into his lineup.
It resulted in the former first-round pick requesting to be traded for the purpose of more playing time. He was traded at the deadline to the Winnipeg Jets for a sixth-round pick. In his three games with the Jets, he’s had success and played big minutes with Jacob Trouba.
His questionable usage isn’t just with the defense, he’s had some head-scratching decisions with the forwards as well.
Remember when Evan Rodrigues was a healthy scratch a few times early in the season?
He wasn’t producing offensively and while he was one of their better players in shot production, he was sat down. In the first 34 games of the season, Rodrigues was used in heavy defensive-zone situations. He started 76.8 percent of his shifts in the defensive end. Over those 34 games, he scored two goals and 11 points (.32 points per games).
Since January, the usage has changed with the 25-year-old. It has gone back to where it was for the majority of his career prior to this season. Over the last 25 games he’s has had 57.3 percent of his shifts start in the offensive zone.
The change has yielded offensive production from Rodrigues. He has six goals and 13 points in the last 25 games (.52 points per game).
Housley has heavily relied on certain players in defensive zone situations that are not used to playing that role in their career. He was doing it with Patrik Berglund before he left the team and has done this with Vladimir Sobotka all season.
Sobotka hasn’t been good this season, but his usage has not helped. Last season with the Blues, he had a career-low offensive-zone start percentage of 45.6. Housley, went even further to the extreme this season and Sobotka has started 31.6 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone.
The most egregious error has been his continuous desire to play Skinner, Eichel, and Reinhart on one line. It puts his club that has trouble scoring outside of the top line at a serious disadvantage going into the game.
Reinhart has shown the ability to carry his own line and even the general manager of the team spoke about it on WGR550 this week. The coach, however, can’t see it?
Botterill on Reinhart - He's so talented finishing plays, having the puck on his stick. You're seeing this year he's wanting the puck more. He's creating chances without Jack, driving his own line. #Sabres— WGR 550 (@WGR550) March 1, 2019
The Sabres lost six of their last seven games with that trio playing on one line for the majority of the game. I can continue to go on about the lineup decisions, including the scratching of players that are called up to help the team by Botterill.
Beyond the lineup, the in-game decisions give off some signs of concern as well. Look no further than the game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday. Housley had the option to challenge a questionable goaltender interference situation on the Leafs first goal of the game.
Instead, he chooses to hang onto his timeout because he didn’t want to waste it early in the game on a challenge he thought he may not win.
Housley said he didn't think he would win goalie interference challenge on the second goal as Rodrigues was pushing Marleau. And he worried about not having a timeout in the period. Whatever. I don't agree. But he's the one making the decisions. That's his answer, for the record.— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) March 3, 2019
The Sabres went home with that timeout in their pocket. Instead of using it late in the game to call a timeout and get his top players back on the ice again down two goals. Housley pulled his goaltender with a six-man unit that didn’t consist of Skinner, Eichel, Reinhart, or Dahlin.
This team will finish well above of their point total last season, but the season is still basically over with over a month remaining. While their position in the standings will improve, most of the areas on the team are no different than last season.
The defense was supposed to be a specialty of this coach and that area of their game continues to struggle. Believe it or not, they’re actually giving up higher expected goals against rate this season at 2.03 per game, compared to 1.93 last season. A supposedly improved defensive team is giving up better chances per game to their opponent than the worst team in the league last season.
Next year is a big season for the Sabres. They need to be a playoff team or at the very least miss by a game or two. While Botterill has said he doesn’t plan to make a coaching change, there are a lot of red flags here that I’ve laid out.
If the season continues to head off the rails and the Sabres lose the vast majority of their remaining games, we’ll see if Botterill has a change of heart with his coach.
The Sabres may be out of the playoff picture, but these last few games will be important for Housley to show some signs of confidence in his ability to run this team next season.