Housley’s Tenure: A Look Back

An inability to adapt and innovate led to the undoing of what was once looked upon as a promising hire

Yesterday afternoon, fans of the Buffalo Sabres got their collective wish as the team announced that they had parted ways with head coach, Phil Housley. As one of, if not the most intriguing coaching candidates in 2017, the former Nashville Predators assistant carried heavy expectations with him to Western New York.

What’s interesting about this situation is the disappointment of it all. There was very little protest among blue-and-gold supporters when the hire was announced. Most felt that the Sabres had landed the ideal candidate to provide a change of pace from the notoriously milquetoast, Dan Bylsma. In retrospect, it came as a bit of a gut-punch when fans came to realize that the team would have likely better off with the alternative.

This realization probably led to what seemed like a swift and fierce campaign against Housley when his flaws as a tactician became more apparent. Not only was the team failing to make progress, but the spectators had been duped, sold a bill of goods. For a fan base already on the edge, deprived of playoff hockey since 2011, the organization left themselves no choice but to make a move. Boy, does that story line sound all too familiar.

Perhaps it was fitting that the announcement of his firing came on a mild sunny April day in the Queen City. It was one of those days that just had that playoff hockey smell in the air (you know the one). That bittersweet reminder of fond memories, slowly decaying as the years have marched on with nothing to help reignite them. The pursuit of a new coach provided a mild, hope sustaining feeling of excitement that, maybe next spring, that specific scent in the air will be detected once more, this time as fans march through Alumni Plaza for game one. Maybe.

We’ve all heard the popular, regurgitated critiques regarding Housley’s downfall. He failed to adapt, he failed to optimize, and he failed to motivate. That last bit is conjecture, but the first two points are certainly provable.

Even when Housley formulated line combinations (whether it be via dumb luck, or a fleeting moment of competence) that made sense from an analytics standpoint, they were often abandoned before the conclusion of the following game. His constant reversion to the “mega line” of Skinner-Eichel-Reinhart became groan-inducing for even casual fans.

He had several little crutches like that one. Early in the season he continuously tried to make the Rasmus Ristolainen and Marco Scandella pairing a “thing” despite a vast sample size of evidence proving that those two simply didn’t work together. His insistence on forcing Vladimir Sobotka into heavily defensive (not to mention game-critical) situations as a “faceoff specialist” despite having never been used in that capacity before, was another seemingly unbreakable habit of futility.

Initially, some of Housley’s decisions could have been forgiven. The Sabres are about as deep as a puddle in terms of scoring production, and while he failed to optimize the pieces at his disposal, he’d have only been so successful otherwise. What cannot be overlooked however is his reluctance to alter his system when it became painfully apparent that what he was doing just wasn’t working.

Perhaps the 10-game winning-streak gave him a sense of overconfidence. After all, his system was validated (to him at least) when the team was also benefiting from elite goaltending. Still, when the data is essentially screaming at you to make a change (especially when it became clear that the goalies were coming back down to earth), strategical inaction is a death sentence. For a coach who was billed as a defensive guru from his time in Nashville, it didn’t take long for it to look like his tactical acumen was a result of the Predators’ superior talent pool, and not the other way around.

Innovative coaches are able to adapt their system to the players at their disposal. That adjustment never came as Housley tried time and time again to fit square pegs into round holes. Even when he was essentially gifted a wonderful transition player like Lawrence Pilut (who had all of the tools that Housley allegedly desired in a defenseman to run his system), he managed to squander it with his relentless favoritism of under-performing veterans. When your general manager has to send young reinforcements back down to the minors because the coach would rather see them rot in the press box than learn on the ice, you’ve got a problem.

One important distinction that should be addressed here is whether Housley’s failures were a result of inexperience, or incompetence. Like so many things in life, this debate often operates under the premise of mutual exclusivity. The reality is that both of these things contributed to the situation. He didn’t know how to put his developing players in a position to succeed (inexperience) and he stubbornly forced tactics that every other team had caught on to (incompetence).

At the end of the day, nobody takes any joy in seeing a person lose their job. As fans, we often call for blood and develop an angry mindset toward an individual. We do it with both players and coaches. Phil Housley didn’t want to fail. He didn’t want to see his team plummet in the standings after having a very brief hold on first place. We can simultaneously recognize that a change was needed while reserving personal hatred for a man that undoubtedly tried his damnedest to bring the Sabres back to the promised land.

Now to the matter at hand. The fact that Housley was a rookie coach has led many down a line of thinking that the team needs a grizzled veteran behind the bench. How quickly we forget that we all hated the idea of a “retread” after Byslma was shown the door. The truth of the matter is that a good coach is a good coach, regardless of whether or not they’re a first-timer. It’s on the front office to identify the right traits and confirm that a potential candidate possesses them.

Either way, there is an argument to be made for both retreads and newbies, which is why the organization will likely consider both during their search. Jon Cooper, Rod Brind’Amour, and Todd Reirden seem to be doing fine in their first gigs as bench bosses, while retreads like Bruce Cassidy, Mike Babcock, Barry Trotz and John Tortorella have also found success.

The point is that there isn’t a right or wrong avenue to pursue here, despite what recency bias would have you believe. This is Botterill’s last chance to choose the right head coach for this organization. He won’t get another mulligan. It will be interesting to see how this affects his decision (if at all).

Buckle up for another eventful offseason.