It’s time to have a chat about Dan Bylsma.
The Sabres don’t have enough talent and Tim Murray knows that. They have too many injuries, and everybody knows that too. But it’s still hard to fathom they entered Thursday 26th in the NHL and look flat-out terrible at times, especially at home.
At some point, you have to start discussing how much of this responsibility lies with the coach. No matter who he has at his disposal to dress.
Bylsma hit town with the biggest cachet of any bench boss the Sabres have hired since Scott Bowman arrived 36 years ago. He’s won a Stanley Cup. He’s been mostly terrific with the media. He’s fully bought in to the challenge of this rebuild. Young players are developing.
Still, you feel underwhelmed even after Thursday’s 6-3 triumph over a mostly awful Calgary team with a veteran sieve in goal in Jonas Hiller.
No one is asking Bylsma to drive around town in a souped-up pickup in team colors or wear his jersey to the games of the other team owned by Pegula Sports Enterprises like someone else does.
A lot of this gnawing feeling grows from Bylsma’s stubbornness, a trait you heard plenty about from folks in Pittsburgh. A bad home record is often a product of not getting the right matchups on the ice when you should be able to.
The power play continues to struggle. It went 1 for 8 Thursday, twice failing to score with two-man advantages. The count is 1 for 16 in the last five games, 4 for 36 in the last 11. That’s a trainwreck and you can’t just blame the absence of Ryan O’Reilly. It was 3 for 28 in the final eight games before his injury.
Deployment is an issue. Bylsma is mostly keeping the same alignments, which leaves Jack Eichel and Evander Kane on the wrong sides. The easy fix is for Eichel to shift to the half-wall on the left side, his off wing, so he can be set up for one-timers in the same vein as Alex Ovechkin or Steven Stamkos.
Bylsma said he made some adjustments in the third period and that Eichel had one solid one-timer chance on a 5-on-3 he couldn’t tee up. Whatever. Put your marquee guy there nonstop and let him tee off.
Eichel, who continues to show wisdom far above the average 19-year-old, didn’t flinch when I asked him about making such a shift.
“We practice the power play enough that I’m comfortable wherever the best spot for me is,” he said.
Bylsma stuck more to Eichel’s goal, a long screened shot that snaked its way home with 7:14 left and came 12 seconds before Buffalo would have been 0 for 8 on the power play.
“He ends up coming through big for us getting the middle top on the power play,” Bylsma said. “That’s some place he’s not usually at and scores a goal for us.”
It’s not the place Eichel needs to be. It’s shake-your-head stuff, same as what I still can’t get over from Tuesday night’s game against Edmonton.
On the opening faceoff of the first meeting ever between two of the most heavily touted draft picks in history, Bylsma started Johan Larsson against Connor McDavid.
Eichel started in his return to Boston. Mike Babcock started longtime Capital Brooks Laich for the Leafs Wednesday in his return to Washington. Coaches live the moment all the time. What happened to Eichel and McDavid?
“We talked before the game before they gave us their lineup who we wanted to have play against that line and the other lines and that’s the way it went,” Bylsma said. “When they handed the lineup, we were going to go with the Larsson line with Jack and Zach Bogosian. I didn’t really give in to the moment, no.”
In the last two years, we’ve watched immortals like Zac Dalpe, Zenon Konopka, Matt D’Agostini and Linus Omark suit up at forward for a franchise that once employed the French Connection and Pat LaFontaine. We had fans cheering goals by the Arizona Coyotes. All to get one player.
And for this town to roar for that moment, for that player’s introduction in the starting lineup on this night, when the building was filled with fans and media like a playoff game. And Larsson starts. Unconscionable.
You can usually tell when Eichel is dismissive of an issue as no big deal. When I asked him Thursday morning, he seemed to be more politically correct than normal.
“That’s not my decision,” Eichel said. “That’s up to Coach so I’ve got no problem going wherever.”
One of Bylsma’s biggest failings this year has been how his constant line shuffling has impacted Eichel. Other teams have gotten regular linemates for their rookie stars.
According to Leftwinglock.com, Chicago’s Artemi Panarin has played 74.5 percent of the time with Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov. That’s the Blackhawks, you say. Fair enough.
Out in Edmonton, McDavid entered Thursday having played 74.25 percent of the time with either Benoit Pouliot and Jordan Eberle or Pouliot and Nail Yakupov. In Detroit, Dylan Larkin has spent 44.3 percent of his shifts with Henrik Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader.
Then there’s Eichel. He hasn’t played more than 8.5 percent of the time with any one combination, that being Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart. His biggest individual is Zemgus Girgensons, around 16 percent.
Bylsma’s concept of line duos that he brought from Pittsburgh is goofy. A line is three players with other teams, not two.
For Murray to say Thursday night on WGR that one of Eichel’s wingers is likely not on the team yet clearly sets the thinking for the draft to get one with a top-5 pick, either American Matthew Tkachuk or Finnish World Junior sensations Jesse Puljujarvi or Patrik Laine.
This team is unlikely to hit 200 goals for the third straight year even with all of its additions. Everyone in this organization needs to be better. Players, GMs and the coach with the Stanley Cup on his resume.