SUNRISE, Fla. – It's the final weekend of an ultra-disappointing season for the Buffalo Sabres. Is it the final weekend for coach Dan Bylsma behind the bench?
Judgment time is coming. There's a good chance General Manager Tim Murray has a handle on Bylsma's future but things will really start to crystallize on Monday, when the Sabres are expected to have exit interviews with their players and the players meet the media while cleaning out their lockers in KeyBank Center.
The Sabres were blanked Saturday night by the Florida Panthers, 3-0, to drop their record to 33-36-12. They finish the season Sunday at Tampa Bay and the best total they can close with is 80 points. They finished with 81 last season.
Buffalo went 35-36-11 last season, and the 81 points marked a 27-point improvement from the previous year. Bylsma said last summer he hoped this would be a 95-point team and a playoff contender but it never happened due to injuries and inconsistent play, especially from the defense.
Bylsma is completing the second year of a five-year deal that pays him a reported $3 million annually. Speaking following the morning skate Saturday in BB&T Center, he said he's looking forward to discussions in the coming days with Murray as well as owner Terry Pegula and Pegula's wife, Kim.
"I do anticipate that," Bylsma said. "Coming to Buffalo, we knew this was a rebuild, that we want to build a winning culture, we want to build a winning team. And that was a process that was going to happen over a long period of time. It wasn't going to happen with one snap of the fingers.
"We've been in that process last year and this year and you certainly feel like you have to be evaluated for where we're at and what direction we're going in. That's a process we knew we were in and one we fully expect to sit down with Tim and the Pegulas and have that discussion after the season."
The Sabres have been out of the playoff chase for a few weeks and post-mortems have already started in recent days, with several players calling the season a failure. Trying to get a team prepared to play games isn't easy with that kind of chatter as a backdrop.
"I think it's a big challenge," Bylsma admitted. "We're contemplating the success of our season or the lack thereof and the disappointment of not being in a playoff run right now, or playoff opportunity. In some aspects, you are thinking backwards at this point in time and not thinking forward. That's kind of the result of where we're at right now in the standings, where we're at – or not at – in the playoff race. So that's a challenge for each one of us."
While Bylsma's status is a hot topic on the airwaves and social media in Buffalo, it's much more of a curiosity around the NHL. The prevailing wisdom is that the Sabres tore down their team so much during the tanking process in 2014-15 that it would be difficult to orchestrate a quick turnaround.
No doubt the immediate success of the Toronto Maple Leafs is a stain on Bylsma's resume, particularly since Leafs coach Mike Babcock was Murray's No. 1 choice to replace Ted Nolan and was close to taking the job before doing an about-face and going to Toronto in May, 2015.
The Sabres immediately hired Bylsma as a fallback choice, but he was hardly without credentials. Bylsma, of course, won a Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh in 2009 four months after he was promoted from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL and went on to become the fastest coach to 250 wins in his six years with the Penguins.
Bylsma was named the Jack Adams Award winner in 2011 after leading the Penguins to a 106-point season in a year that Sidney Crosby missed 41 games and Evgeni Malkin sat out for 39.
Still, Bylsma has run afoul of his players at times for running a structured system when much of the group would prefer a more free-wheeling attack. And the defense has struggled to make the long stretch passes Bylsma would like to see made to get out of the team's own zone.
With three years left on his contract, dismissing Bylsma would be major egg on the face for Pegula. Can he really fire both of the marquee coaches he hired for his teams (Byslma and Rex Ryan) after just two years apiece? And the dismissal of Byslma would also turn the heat squarely on Murray come next season. If the coach stays and the team starts slowly again, the GM could get the chance to make one more move behind the bench.
In recent days, players such as Ryan O'Reilly have insisted the issue is not with the team's coaching but the players' performance. Goaltender Robin Lehner, who has backed Bylsma several times this year, added that players need to have more accountability. And Murray has also publicly pointed out his failure to build an adequate defense as a major factor in the season.
Bylsma simply is coaching his team and not obsessing about his status. Asked directly Saturday if he's inquired at all, Bylsma seemed to indicate that part of the conversation has yet to come.
"Tim and I have continuing discussions over the course of the season about our team, where we're going and what direction we're going in," Bylsma said. "That will happen again after these two games."