The point was always to play meaningful games in March. That is what Jason Botterill said, anyway, before he was sent packing for trying to stand up for his soon-to-also-be-fired staff.
Playing meaningless games in mid-March when the season started in mid-January is a new kind of low for a franchise that’s been force-fed heaping helpings of gruel since 2013. But there’s a rite of passage that happens in Buffalo every two years. It’s the biennial tossing of the head coach, and Ralph Krueger was the deserving subject in 2021. That he follows in Phil Housley’s footsteps as a guy liked by the players only serves as a backhanded compliment.
In the end, he didn’t win, the team got worse as time went on, and now the Sabres are in an ever-familiar position of trying to figure out how exactly to find the right person to push buttons and pull levers with the roster.
Rinse, wash, get dirty, forget how to wash, wear dirty clothes, stink up the neighborhood, repeat.
What is messed up about this happening so regularly with the Sabres is how it reignites the same questions again and again in the aftermath.
“Did the players quit on the coach?”
No, but players realized that what the coach is stressing isn’t working anymore and nothing will change that unless the coach alters course and changes things up himself or someone changes the coach. Ask Phil Housley about that. The players liked Housley and they liked Ralph, too. You don’t quit on people you like, but you do realize that they ain’t got it and it’s up to the coach to read the room and adjust. “Safe is death,” was something John Tortorella stressed back in the day with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and playing it too safe was Krueger’s downfall.
Yes, tightening up the overall defense of the team was necessary but doing it to the degree which hampers your offense works out to be a net negative when any chances you get are low-percentage or stolen away by goalies. Sometimes it’s bad luck, but the rest of the time it was poor execution of an offense not allowed a lot of freedom.
“Who is the right person to change things up?”
Tough one to answer, no? This is not the super young Sabres of two coaches ago where you need a guy to lead them into becoming a regular playoff team or at least a contender. Buffalo is deep into the careers of their two best players in Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. They’ve committed long-term to Jeff Skinner. They have two young defensemen in Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju who are having terrible seasons, one of which was their No. 1 pick and meant to be another franchise cornerstone. They also have the giant mastodon in the room to think about: The possibility of moving on from Eichel and Reinhart is looming and that means starting all over again and trying to save face while doing it.
The Sabres need a coach capable of getting the best out of those players right now to earn their respect and attention. They need a coach that can get those players into a system that gets the best out of their skills and allows them to remain capable of defending well enough to win. They need a coach that will allow their scoring forwards the ability to rush the puck more often. They also need ownership to trust that if that person is out there and wants to coach the team but comes with a big price tag that they’ll be worth it this time. It’s a lot to ask and a lot to hope for because they absolutely cannot miss. Good luck, Kevyn Adams.
“How does the next coach address the culture?”
Culture is a red herring meant for bar room arguments and talk radio. It’s a rah-rah point meant to open the door to discussion of players you want to say nasty things about but can’t do it with their play. It lets every nutty conspiracy theory sports fan have the floor to tell you about what their friend who sells windows heard from their buddy that sells cars who talked to a guy that works in the arena supposedly overheard that definitely totally happened — I cross my heart! Ask my pal, Jim he heard it first! Swear to god!
Lots of teams that have won titles suddenly had a garbage culture a year later and not-so-coincidentally were losing a ton of games. Every sport this happens! But in hockey (and baseball, too) the culture thing is a critical factor in picking a coach or manager.
Winning games means never having to talk about culture because every player loves their teammates because they just know how to win and steps up when they’re needed the most. They play the full 200-feet, they compete hard, they have compete, they play both sides of the puck, and most importantly they’ve got some grit in their game. Are those enough clichés or would you like more?
I feel for Don Granato, Matt Ellis, and Dan Girardi because they’re going to have to shoulder a lot of crap in the interim and that’s unfair. They’ll have to hear some boos (probably) from fans who were saving them for Krueger. But they’re just minding the fort until it’s time to pass the reins onto the next coach tasked with pulling the Sabres out of the mire.