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Mike Harrington: In wake of break, Bylsma and Murray have to fix Sabres' mess

The best thing that's happened to Dan Bylsma and Tim Murray the last couple weeks is that everybody in these parts has been using up most of their attention on Rex Ryan and Doug Whaley.

That's about to change. Here's to Bylsma and Murray downing their last egg nog and figuring some things out. Fast.

The Sabres are a complete disaster at this point and they can no longer use injuries as an excuse. They hit Christmas last in the Eastern Conference amid growing questions that surround their coach's game management and the moves made to build the team by their general manager.

When they take the ice again for the morning skate Tuesday in Detroit, they should be physically refreshed after being away from the rink since Friday's ugly loss to the New York Islanders in Barclays Center. But will the mindset of the players and their coach be any different?

It better be.

Not counting their one team-credited shootout winner, the Sabres have just 70 goals for the season in 33 games and that's 29th in the NHL. They have given up the first goal in seven straight games. They're 28th in the league in first-period goals, with just 18.

At 12-13-8, the Sabres are bad and they're boring. That's a deadly combination.

Bylsma's plodding system is flat-out unwatchable at times. Players' instincts are stunted in place of where-should-I-be second thoughts. Zemgus Girgensons clearly can't make heads or tails out of it. Tyler Ennis, when he was healthy, had the same problem. Many others seem baffled.

The Sabres need to skate and not think so much on the ice but their coach has to allow them to play that way.  You wonder if that's possible.

Bylsma heading down Ryan Road?

Lately, it seems as if Bylsma has lost his mind. It's to the point where it's now an open discussion among Sabres fans if Bylsma, in just the second year of a five-year contract, should be heading down Ryan Road to the unemployment line too if his team continues to implode:

Let's look at some examples:

---Bylsma benched Jack Eichel for the first power play of Thursday's home loss to Carolina and the team's broadcast partners revealed Friday it was for disciplinary reasons. Perhaps not wanting to throw his 20-year-old star under the bus, Bylsma took the bullets for the decision with the media after Thursday's game and made no mention of any discipline issue.

It was a bad miscalculation. By protecting the player, Bylsma made it sound like he actually wanted Matt Moulson on his power play over the kid the Sabres threw an entire season to get. Even though Moulson has seven power-play goals this season, everyone listening thought Bylsma was going goofy.

---The Sabres' best defensive pairing this season has been Jake McCabe, and not the overmatched Josh Gorges, making a fine partner for No. 1 blueliner Rasmus Ristolainen. So what has Bylsma done the last couple games? Paired Ristolainen with trade acquisition Dmitry Kulikov, who has been a complete disaster.

That was going to be the pair on paper over the summer, when Kulikov was acquired from Florida from Mark Pysyk. But Kulikov's preseason back injury set things aside and he looks utterly lost on the ice, with no points and a team-worst rating of minus-10 in 19 games. Ristolainen and McCabe need to be back together.

---Bylsma and Murray made a colossal mistake with their defense in general by not keeping Brendan Guhle in October. Instead, they chose the woefully overmatched Casey Nelson to stay on the roster. Then the injuries piled up and Guhle was summoned from junior on an emergency recall. He was solid in games against Boston, Washington and Edmonton before going back.

Guhle would be no worse than the No. 3 defenseman for the Sabres today. Since his departure, the Buffalo defense corps has not nearly been as good with Josh Gorges, Zach Bogosian (one assist, minus-6 in 13 games) and Kulikov back on the ice. But Guhle is stuck in junior for the season.

---Bylsma needs to completely revamp his philosophy on overtime and have his team go full throttle to score. If they give up the inevitable odd-man rush and a game-winning goal, so be it. At least they will have tried for the win. As it stands now, they have almost no chance in a shootout.

The Sabres are 1-5 in shootouts this year, which makes them 3-12 under Bylsma. That's no small sample size. My worries for the next time Buffalo goes to overtime is that an opponent will try to take the air out of the game and not press, with the idea of getting to the shootout because it's almost a guaranteed win.

None of Bylsma's shooters have any confidence and they all seem stressed by the fact Robin Lehner hasn't made a save yet in six chances and Anders Nilsson is just 4 for 8. Bylsma needs to try different shooters and the coach did say he's willing to consider Ristolainen, among others, in the skills competition. He should do it.

The GM's issues

Murray's hands are all over this mess too. The Kulikov trade looks like a very bad one and Murray's Sammy Watkins moment continues to be giving up a first-round pick for Lehner. The big Swede is proving to be a decent NHL starter but that's about all, not nearly worth giving up that kind of asset.

Murray gave up far too much for Evander Kane and Bogosian, although Kane has been one of the team's most productive forwards of late. And as good as the Ryan O'Reilly trade has looked at times over the last 15 months, shouldn't the owner of the biggest contract in franchise history have more than seven goals and 18 points in 27 games?

With the NHL roster freeze ending at midnight, there's plenty of things Murray should be doing. A trade for another NHL-level defenseman should be at the top of the list. A pox on both Bylsma and Murray to think this defense corps could be part of a 95-point team.

Here's more to-dos:

---William Carrier, with one goal and two points in 23 games, has been given more than ample opportunity to produce and has not been able to. He needs to go back to Rochester and Nick Baptiste, tied for the AHL lead in goals with 14, needs to come back up and get some top-line minutes.

---Derek Grant needs to join Carrier in the AHL as well. He was the Sabres' leading scorer in preseason but doesn't have a goal in 29 games of the regular season -- making him goal-less in all 69 games of his NHL career. It seems inconceivable he can stay, especially since he's not much more than a penalty killer and the team's PK unit has been horrific.

---Justin Bailey has 10 goals for the Amerks and needs to be given a real chance to play in the NHL, something he has not gotten this year. It seems like Murray, and especially Bylsma, have soured on the Williamsville product. But how much worse can he be than Grant, Carrier or Nicolas Deslauriers?

---Let's see if the World Junior Championships can infuse some jump and confidence into No. 1 draft pick Alex Nylander's game. Nylander has only five goals and is minus-11 in 29 games for Rochester. The word is he is not close to NHL-ready right now. If he turns it around at the Juniors, let him ride that momentum right to Buffalo for at least a few games.

No respite for ownership

Terry and Kim Pegula are so over their heads with the Bills' situation that they were probably hoping the Sabres would give them a soft landing come January. No such luck. For people who want to say the Pegulas have only been NFL owners for two years and are learning on the job, what's the excuse with the hockey team? They purchased it in 2011 and it will be six years and counting this spring with no playoff berths.

The Sabres openly tanked for two years and missed the playoffs again last season with 81 points, although it seemed like they were on the right path. Now, they seem like they're going nowhere but traveling on Regrets Boulevard. Connor McDavid, Aaron Ekblad, Leon Draisaitl, Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine all play for somebody else.

Sure feels like Buffalo missed something, doesn't it?

Instead of Ekblad or Draisaitl, the Sabres got Sam Reinhart. Instead of McDavid, they got Eichel.

They didn't get Mike Babcock, they got Bylsma. They didn't get Steven Stamkos, but got Kyle Okposo. They didn't get Jimmy Vesey.

Still, the Sabres had to think they were doing OK in most of the above slots. Except for the all-or-nothing Vesey affair, they got a solid No. 2 choice. It should be worth more than it has been.

It's very interesting to note that the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team built with no "generational talent", entered the break on a 12-game winning streak and atop the NHL's overall standing. The Sabres have won 12 games all season and could essentially be toast in the playoff race by the end of the week.

Losing was supposed to be over. Maybe it's just ingrained so deep in the Sabres' culture right now that it's going to be a lot harder to escape than anyone thought.


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