The point of this column before the puck was dropped Saturday night was that it would be absurd for the Sabres to fire Dan Bylsma after the season. He didn’t put this leaky defense together. That was done by General Manager Tim Murray. And when do the players take responsibility for what’s gone on here since they hit the beaches during their bye week?
Then the game happened. The way the first period went, you started to wonder if Bylsma should be on the flight to California for practice Monday in San Jose.
In a 3-0 hole against Columbus through one, Bylsma peeled some dressing room paint behind his players’ ears, put Nic Deslauriers, of all people, on the top line to open the second and instantly got an assist from him. He also yanked Anders Nilsson for Robin Lehner and got a ton of saves. Amazing how that helps.
Five goals later, the Sabres had a rub-your-eyes 5-3 thriller over the Blue Jackets for their first three-goal comeback in regulation since 2009. Bylsma gets some credit for the wakeup calls but it’s good to see some of these players looked in the mirror and said enough was enough with this season-crippling 1-6-2 slide.
“We came out in the second with nothing to lose,” said defenseman Jake McCabe. “We went on the attack for the rest of the 40 minutes. It’s been a rough stretch here and it’s getting to the point now you have to have a short memory. We know what’s expected of us, what we’ve been told to do. We have to go out there and perform.”
Amen to that.
To these eyes, there has been far too much emphasis on the coach, not nearly enough scrutiny on the GM’s roster construction or on the underpeformance of a lot of players not named Evander Kane or Jack Eichel. Still, Bylsma is a long way from perfect either. His breakout system featuring long stretch passes from the defense doesn’t work with blue liners who just aren’t good enough. He’s overused Ryan O’Reilly and Rasmus Ristolainen to the point both seem worn out and often ineffective. Especially in the first half of the season, he was a serial line tinkerer and it seems few of his forwards had any chemistry.
The narrative developing of late, however, is darker. It seems Bylsma and Eichel, among others, don’t see eye to eye. Bylsma made it a point to single out Eichel for an admittedly terrible turnover that led to Philadelphia’s first goal Tuesday night, but didn’t mention Marcus Foligno’s much more egregious giveaway that led to the Flyers’ second goal or the toasting Lehner got on a couple of long shots.
Later in the week, Bylsma admitted he’s tougher on Eichel and his young players. Seems reasonable. Demand more from the guys with the most talent. Eichel has given “I’m not the coach” answers a couple of times this season but clearly knows his place too. He’s been darn close to brilliant for much of the last couple months and hasn’t sniped outwardly at the coach, even if you see him gritting his teeth.
You hear scuttlebutt that others in the room aren’t that enthralled with Bylsma and they’re big names. But if you fire Bylsma based on that, you let the inmates run the asylum. The last thing Murray should want is to create a situation where Eichel or any other young star is tagged a coach-killer before even playing a single playoff game.
That’s kind of what happened to Bylsma in Pittsburgh. It’s widely known Sidney Crosby, among others, tired of Byslma’s complex, defensive-oriented system and implored Mario Lemieux & Co. to say no mas. Of course, Crosby had won a Stanley Cup by then and was on a team with several other veterans who were tired of losing playoff series to lower-seeded foes.
As unsightly as that is, superstars can do that. Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan did. LeBron James did it just last year with David Blatt. In my world, however, 20-year-olds don’t get to play GM. Murray and owner Terry Pegula had better think long and hard about that.
One thing that doesn’t help Bylsma is that plenty of coaching changes in the NHL have worked wonders this year in places like Boston, Brooklyn and Montreal. Firing the coach is becoming a very convenient crutch in hockey, especially among general managers who have done a poor job at roster construction, asset management or both.
How hypocritical would Murray look to fire Bylsma now after clearly saying the team’s skid following the bye week was on the players?
And how much of a defeat would it be for Pegula to hire a pair of big-name coaches in Bylsma and Rex Ryan – and dump both of them just two years into five-year contracts? It would just add to the feeling that Pegula and his GMs have no idea what they’re doing.
Look no further than the opponent the last two nights to see what could happen here. Murray needs to spin off either Sam Reinhart or Kane for a defenseman in the kind of trade Columbus pulled off with Nashville that saw Seth Jones arrive and Ryan Johansen depart. The Jackets were much healthier this season, Sergei Bobrovsky became a Vezina Trophy candidate and the climb up the standings was quick.
Bylsma needs that kind of chance to open next season with a retooled roster. But he admitted after this one he wondered where this was all going with 1-7-2 looming – and a West Coast trip in the offing.
“Frankly, it brought me back to us losing the lead against Nashville,” Bylsma said of the Feb. 28 overtime loss to the Predators that saw Buffalo blow a pair of two-goal leads. “We’re still trying to recover from Arizona and get wins and we lose the 4-2 lead there. Then a succession of days go by and you’ve crapped away games. I was thinking, ‘this happened to us in our building two weeks ago and it’s time we do it the other way.’ ”
Somehow, it did and the heat on Bylsma can cool for a couple of days. After all, the Sabres can’t get on a Bills-style merry-go-round of coaches.
Bylsma should be on a tight leash next season for sure, say maybe up to Thanksgiving. But it seems awfully short-sighted to kick a guy to the curb who’s won a lot of hockey games and even a Stanley Cup, all on the whims of players who haven’t won anything yet.