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Mailbag: Bylsma deserves at least part of blame for Sabres’ inconsistency

Welcome back. I imagine skipping another week was unsettling, like the defunct notion of the U.S. Postal Service cutting out Saturday delivery.

Schedules are unpredictable at this time of year. We’re off again next week so I can cover UB in the MAC Tournament, assuming it gets that far. Anyway, the mail is piling up; I’ll get to as many as I can: asks: The Sabres have made strides forward, but they’re still terrible. Why is Bylsma being given a free pass? As every game ends, I’m convinced he did nothing more than ride the coattails of Crosby and Malkin.

Sully: It’s true that Bylsma has been coddled by much of the media since taking over as the Sabres’ coach. But it was refreshing to see Mike Harrington remove the gloves in Friday’s column, taking Bylsma to task for his obstinate nature and dubious strategies.

A lot of people expected the Sabres to challenge for the playoffs this season. But they’ve flirted with 30th all season and have one of their worst home records in history. Bylsma is the head coach. He deserves a share of blame for his team’s dismal performance.

As Harrington pointed out, Byslma’s line combinations have been perplexing. His power play has been abysmal of late. His decision not to send out Jack Eichel for the opening faceoff against Connor McDavid was a tone-deaf refusal to give loyal, suffering fans a special moment.

Granted, Bylsma has an inferior roster. But he has a lot more to work with than poor Ted Nolan, whose hockey acumen was questioned at every opportunity by his critics. Why don’t we hear more about Bylsma’s “X’s and O’s”? Is it because he won a Cup and coached the U.S. Olympic team?

The fanboys will hand him excuses. They’ll point to Ryan O’Reilly’s injury. But O’Reilly had gone 20 games without a goal before getting hurt. Eichel has two goals in his last 15 games. Perhaps the smarter opposing coaches have figured out how to defend Bylsma’s system.

It’s early, of course. But maybe there’s a good reason why Bylsma wasn’t considered a hot candidate around the NHL after losing his job in Pittsburgh. The Pegulas are paying him good money. He should be held to an equivalent standard – the same as the other new guy in town, Rex Ryan.

Craig Maz asks: Given the current mediocrity of the Sabres and the Bills’ drought, let’s really have some fun. Which team wins a playoff game/series first?

Sully: Great question, and a grim one. The Sabres haven’t won a Cup series since 2007. The Bills haven’t won a playoff game since 1995. As Craig mentioned in an addendum, that’s enough to make the average fan hurl.

It’s tough to say. I think the Bills are likely to get worse in the coming years. Their window was open and they slammed their heads into the sill.

The Sabres are farther away than their more deluded fans wanted to believe. So we might not see any playoffs for the time being.

But if I have to make a call, I’ll go with the Bills. In the NFL, the difference between 10-6 and 6-10 is slim. If Tyrod Taylor continues to evolve and they stay healthy and Ryan remembers how to coach defense, they have a shot – although they’re not likely to beat out the Patriots and would have to win a road playoff game.

I’d say the Sabres are at least two and probably years away from making the playoffs, and won’t be ready to steal a series when they do.

Pete Occhiuto asks: Do you think that both Buffalo franchises are in good hands as far as coaching and management? My opinion is that we fans are in for more of the same disappointing times, especially the Bills. Zero confidence in Rex. Love Mr. Pegula.

Sully: I’m not particularly optimistic about either franchise, and it comes down to ownership. All the Pegulas have really demonstrated is an ability to throw piles of money at players and recycled coaching stars like Rex Ryan and Dan Bylsma.

How can you have such a low opinion of Ryan and love the owner? He’s the one who brought him here. I suspect a lot of fans feel that way. They’re gaga over the Pegulas (look, they’re building things!) and willing to overlook the fact that they haven’t won a damn thing and ran the Sabres into the basement.

And sorry, but this is a huge pet peeve of mine: Why “Mr. Pegula?” It’s always annoyed me how people use the “Mr.” designation for rich people (especially when media people do it).

How much does a person have to be worth to warrant the deferential “Mr.” treatment?

James Healy asks: How great would it be for WNY sports if St. Bonaventure somehow played Syracuse in NCAA?

Sully: It would be nice. But neither is even guaranteed a spot in the Big Dance. Syracuse is 19-11 and has lost three of four. St. Bonaventure is 13-4 in the A-10 and up to 29 in the RPIs, but needs to win at Saint Louis on Saturday and win at least one game in the A-10 Tournament.

Joe Lunardi, the respected ESPN expert, has the Orange as a No. 9 seed and the Bonnies as a 12. Lunardi puts more stock in non-conference schedules than power ratings, and he knows how the committee decides the field nowadays.

Anyway, even if they both get in, it’s unlikely they would meet. Their seeds wouldn’t match up for a first-round game unless Syracuse made a big run in the ACC Tournament and wound up playing Bona in, say, a 6-11 game.

The matchup almost happened in 2000, the year the Bonnies lost that double-overtime game to Kentucky in the first round.

They were a 12 seed that year and would have faced Syracuse, the fourth seed in the Cleveland subregional, in the second round if they had won.

@Bump_Miller asks: Assume Taylor performs well enough next year that they want to move forward in 2017. What will it cost the Bills?

Sully: Judging by recent events, a bundle. Sam Bradford, who has a losing career record and never made the playoffs, signed for two years and $36 million with the Eagles. Kirk Cousins signed a one-year deal with with Washington for roughly $20 million in guarantees.

So you don’t need to be an elite quarterback to get big money in the NFL, where the salary structure is exploding and the available quarterbacks are few. That’s why Tyrod is willing to gamble on himself and play out the last year of his contract with the Bills.

The Bills weren’t willing or financially able to give Taylor the contract he wanted – more likely, something in the $20 million a year range.

He and his agent think he’s worth it, and I imagine they had no interest in a bridge contract at a much lesser figure – say, $12 million to $13 million a season.

If Taylor lights it up next year, the Bills will try to sign him to a long-term extension so he doesn’t go out on the market next season. From what we’ve seen lately, the number could be north of $20 million a year.

Both sides are taking a gamble here, which should make for a very interesting 2016 season.


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