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Mixed Media Roundtable: Sorting out the Sabres' struggles

The Buffalo Sabres are treading water, trying not to sink into the basement of the NHL standings. In the words of Vito Corleone: How did things ever get this far?

Before the season, we polled a panel of NHL media figures around the league for their opinions on the team. Now, after the All-Star break, we revisited some of our panelists to get their take on the struggling club.

Mike Harrington of The News this week published an extensive analysis of the team at the break. For our midseason roundtable, then, we put just three questions to: Ken Campbell, a senior writer at The Hockey News; David Shoalts, columnist for the Toronto Globe and Mail; and John Wawrow, sportswriter for the Associated Press.

The questions and answers follow.

Question: Does the Sabres roster equate to the 30th-best collection of talent in the NHL, or is it more that they have underachieved thus far?

Campbell: There’s an old saying in hockey that suggests you are what your record says you are. The Sabres are the second-worst team in the NHL. They can’t score goals, their power play is dismal and their goaltending, while improving along with the rest of the team, has been sub-par. Does that mean they have the 30th best collection of talent? No. It means they’ve had almost everything go wrong for them simultaneously and there is a ton of work to do to get this straightened out. No quick fixes here.

Shoalts: The quality of team rosters is such a subjective thing it is hard to issue them a rank. But it can be said the Sabres do have one of the least impressive groups of players in the league. They range from misjudgments (Robin Lehner) to bad draft picks (Sam Reinhart). But Jack Eichel plus a few others plus the fact the Rochester Americans are one of the best teams in the AHL provide some hope.

Wawrow: On paper, the Sabres should be better than this. And they proved that, albeit, inconsistently during coach Dan Bylsma’s first season (2015-16) and to a lesser extent last year, when they still won 33 games and featured the NHL’s best power-play unit. They have enough forward talent that should fill two lines, and what appears to be a capable top-four group of defensemen. Their goaltending is average but hasn’t been exactly the main drawback for a team that ranks last in the NHL in goal-scoring.

What’s troublesome is Buffalo entering the All-Star break playing at a pre-Jack Eichel pace with Jack Eichel actually on the team. This leads to the conclusion that they are underachieving or, to be more specific: an incohesive collection of players who are far less than the sum of their parts and in dire need of being broken up. The group has no evidence of a real core, and instead appears to be made up of individuals.

Q: How much blame should be assigned to Phil Housley? Is he the wrong coach for this team?

Campbell: He might be the wrong coach for this particular roster, but that’s not his fault and it can be repaired. Housley went from coaching perhaps the best, most mobile defense corps in the league with Nashville to one that doesn’t really fit the style he wants to play. Saying that, it is up to the coach to work with what he has and make it successful and that’s on Housley. I’ve seen some games this season where I was shocked at the lack of structure with which they played.

Shoalts: If you have a perpetually rebuilding team it is never a good idea to bring in a rookie head coach unless he has an exceptional record as a teacher and motivator. Teams like the Sabres, with lots of young players who appear to have a strong sense of entitlement, need an experienced coach. So no, it's not Housley's fault.

Wawrow: It’s too early to suggest he’s the wrong coach. That said, Housley can be second-guessed for taking a far too soft-spoken and, perhaps, ultra-patient approach in the early months of the season. Housley went too far in defending a team after too many stinkers. And that seemed to further enable a locker room criticized for already being entitled.

Perhaps Housley underestimated how maladjusted this group of players is/was, and how vast the challenge was he faced in placing a new stamp on this roster. The issues were less X’s and O’s and more cultural in a locker room that lacks cohesion.

And that raises a significant question regarding Housley’s approach, given that he and GM Jason Botterill should’ve been aware of the dysfunction that required addressing. After all, upon cleaning house last spring, owner Terry Pegula criticized the previous regime in saying the Sabres needed more organization, discipline, structure and communication.

Botterill has brought more structure to the franchise, particularly by placing an emphasis on improving the Sabres minor-league system. And yet, leadership and discipline at the NHL level remain as issues.

What hurts Housley even more is the obvious comparisons that can be drawn to what the Pegulas’ other new coaching hire, Sean McDermott, did with the Bills in his first season. Though these are two different sports, and hockey players take a longer time to develop, it’s not entirely unfair to suggest that McDermott made a far greater dent in changing the Bills’ losing culture than Housley did in affecting the malaise that continues to hang over the Sabres.

With another roster overhaul looming, it’ll be better to judge Housley on how he handles himself with an influx of newcomers, including youngsters, such as defenseman Brendan Guhle, who should be playing at the NHL level on a full-time basis next season.

Q: There’s a theory that the Sabres’ famous “tank” season, which enabled them to draft Jack Eichel, created a culture where losing became too familiar, even acceptable. Do you buy that theory?

Campbell: Not for a millisecond. The Maple Leafs openly tanked two years ago to get Auston Matthews and there have been no ill effects. The Penguins tanked to get Mario Lemieux and they became a league powerhouse.

Shoalts: It sure is hard to argue against it. There is evidence the Sabres tanked to get Reinhart in 2014, the year before Eichel, too. That's nearly five years of losing being acceptable. Hardly a positive environment for young players.

Wawrow: I don’t entirely subscribe to that theory, though setting out a course to lose without improving other areas of the franchise deserves criticism. And that’s where the Sabres failed in spending two seasons in a virtual state of suspended animation on their free fall to the bottom. The blame lands mostly on former General Manager Tim Murray’s shoulders. Adept as Murray was in tearing down the team, he failed in adding the pieces to build it back up again. That the minor-league system was allowed to languish during that phase certainly didn’t help.

Murray squandered draft picks either through trades or the players selected, which is particularly disturbing considering he came in with a reputation of having a good eye for young talent. Instead, Sam Reinhart has hardly shown signs of being a top-line center, while questions persist as to whether Alexander Nylander can develop into becoming a consistent NHLer. Ryan O’Reilly’s performance hasn’t matched his salary, and the addition of Kyle Okposo hasn’t paid off yet either.

Murray’s blockbuster trade in acquiring Evander Kane backfired, too. Talented as Kane is on the ice, he’s hardly been a proper role model for a team rebuilding with impressionable youth.

How the Sabres could go from having a patchwork lineup of castoffs and journeymen to end the 2014-15 season and now have an overpriced, underachieving lineup that might be hard-pressed to win 25 games is beyond anyone’s expectation. That’s on Murray, who also allowed the “tank” culture to fester by sticking with Ted Nolan as coach, when it was clear the two didn’t get along.

The “tank” year proved to be a lost season, with the only plus to show for it: Eichel. More, much, much more, was expected.

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