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Jerry Sullivan: Sabres' Phil Housley an early candidate for the hot seat

Winger Nick Baptiste was all aglow after the Sabres beat the Lightning, 5-3, at KeyBank Center on Tuesday night. Baptiste, who is still young enough to make the old cliches sound fresh, said they looked like a team that was "desperate to win."

Ah yes, the old desperation thing. How touching to hear that, two-thirds of the way through a disaster of a season, our plucky NHL team would be moved to play with a sense of – here's another old hockey buzzword – "urgency" on home ice against one of the best teams in the league.

They had beaten the Bruins, another elite team, on the road a few nights earlier. So try to contain yourselves, but they might be ready to hit their stride, without Jack Eichel, and stage a heroic run at 70 points.

Evidently, the fans aren't buying. There were roughly 11,000 people in the stands the other night, though you could fetch a ticket on StubHub these days for $6, or less than one of those overpriced beers. Local TV ratings are down by 16 percent.

Hey, it's a little late for desperation, fellas. The first season after the exiles of Tim Murray and Dan Bylsma has been an abject disaster. Despite Tuesday's heroics, they're still on pace for the worst home record in franchise history – yes, worse than the early days or even those giddy tank seasons.

You can put a lot of this on a misguided owner, Terry Pegula, a fan boy who couldn't decide whether his general manager or coach was more responsible for last year's regression, so got rid of them both – investing undeserved power in a bunch of entitled players who had never won a damn thing.

Another call-up for Baptiste means another opportunity to grow into his game

But let's not forget the red-haired elephant in the room. Phil Housley has gotten off pretty easy in his first go as an NHL head coach, but his rookie season has been a miserable failure. A Sabres team that was expected to challenge for a playoff spot is at the bottom of the Eastern Conference instead.

They're one of the most hapless five-on-five teams to lace on skates. The defense, which was supposed to flourish in Housley's wide-open system, has been an unsightly sieve, soft and easy to play against in their own end, reflective of their new head coach in his worst moments as a high-scoring Buffalo D.

I understand the notion that you can't keep firing coaches and GMs, that players have to be held accountable. But hockey is an effort sport, and if their effort is lacking on too many nights, especially at home, you have to wonder about the guy who's supposed to be motivating them.

If the Sabres were rolling along on a 90-point pace, the cheerleaders would be praising Pegula for following his heart and bringing home one of his old heroes to be the coach. We'd be hearing how Housley was born to the job and "uniquely qualified" to lead the Sabres, as GM Jason Botterill said when he hired him.

Housley has been a colossal letdown, one that could have been averted. Pegula could have hired Botterill first and let him make the call on Bylsma, whom he knew from Pittsburgh. Instead, ownership swallowed the idea that Bylsma wasn't friendly enough with his players. Tim Murray said Bylsma needed to drink coffee with them more often. Then he got fired. So whose advice was the owner really taking?

They wanted someone who was nicer to the players, and they got it. Housley rips his players as often as Mike Pence rips Trump. Pollyanna Phil wouldn't want to hurt the guys' feelings. When did this sorry bunch earn the right to be coddled? What have they achieved, aside from alienating their own fan base?

You never know about a head coach until he gets his chance. Housley seems to be over his head. He rode a bunch of gifted Nashville defensemen to a Stanley Cup final last year and a head job. He tried to sell the fanciful idea that his defenseman could play the same way in Buffalo. They've been sadly lacking.

Rasmus Ristolainen has been a wreck. He has never been very accountable in his own end, a bit of a floater. But he's allowed to masquerade as an elite player on a team with a weak defensive corps. If he's a No. 1 defenseman, I'm Winston Churchill.

Ristolainen had one of the worst games I've seen from a supposed top defender against Colorado on Sunday. On one play, he turned away from a shot from the boards that wound up in the Sabres' net. It was reminiscent of Housley famously avoiding a slap shot by Stephane Richer in the 1990 playoffs.

The Richer play was symbolic of everything fans despised in those Sabres teams back in the day. Skill without determination and grit. Maybe Pegula wasn't a fan yet. Has it occurred to him that today's fans have turned away from Housley's current team for the same reasons?

Pegula isn't very good at running sports teams. But he understands business, and he knows if you have a bad investment, at some point you get out of it.

I'm not saying Housley should be fired, though in some NHL cities, he'd be in trouble. But at some point, the Pegulas have to wonder what's best for the business. If the funk continues early next season and the Sabres are still dreadful at home, hurting attendance and TV ratings, what then?

At the very least, Housley goes into next season on the hot seat. It will be five years after the start of the tank, the fourth year of Jack Eichel as the $80 million savior, seven seasons and counting without the playoffs.

If the Sabres aren't in the right direction by Thanksgiving next year, things will become truly desperate. They'll have to consider a coaching change. Of course, Pegula's greatest problem as an owner is often his stubborn refusal to admit he has one.

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