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Mike Harrington: If Bylsma goes, Sabres' time for excuses will be over

ANAHEIM – With 10 games left in the season, the Buffalo Sabres have to collect 11 points just to match their 81-point total from last season. That's not what you would call progress by any measure and, fair or not, it's got the focus turning harshly on coach Dan Bylsma.

The thought of a coaching change seemed ridiculous even a month ago. Bylsma is two years into a five-year contract where he was given the reins of a burgeoning outfit adding lots of pieces off a 54-point team. He quickly got to 81 points and there's no question everyone both inside and outside the organization expected more this year.

It hasn't happened for a variety of reasons that have been discussed ad nauseum this season. What you couldn't have expected was the way players constantly make veiled comments about just "playing hockey" and "not thinking so much" and "not worrying where I am or where I'm supposed to be."

You've heard it from Jack Eichel and Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart. From Jake McCabe and Ryan O'Reilly. And Tyler Ennis too. No insinuation here that any of the aforementioned are malcontents, nothing close to it.

But their perceptions seem to be taking on more reality as the season winds down. Social media and talk radio, hardly any sort of credible focus groups, are pounding Bylsma regularly. As over the top as they may be, it's hard to argue certain points.

The Sabres' abymsal analytics have them in the land of Colorado and Arizona when it comes to puck possession. They have just 12 road wins in 37 games -- after collecting 19 last season. And they continue to be hovering near a minus-30 goal differential while having one of the league's worst penalty-killing units, a tough nugget to swallow when you consider Buffalo has turned into the NHL's top power play.

If Tim Murray and Terry Pegula want to fire Bylsma on merit, there's a case to be made for that. But they have to tread very lightly.

The Sabres' 3-8-2 record in the last 13 games gives pause to the thought there's some, ahem, tanking going on by some of these players to ensure the coach's departure. No matter the finish, the GM may be inclined to take his huge share of the blame for this lousy defense corps and give Bylsma another shot with a better roster.

The Sabres were badly outplayed through stretches of their three-game California road trip but were in every game through 40 minutes. They were down, 2-1, Tuesday in San Jose only because of the unlucky own-goal Eichel put past Robin Lehner. The game Thursday in Los Angeles was scoreless heading into the third before Buffalo suffered its fourth straight 2-0 loss in Staples Center

Talking to O'Reilly after practice Wednesday in El Segundo, he made it clear he expected progress this year and that this team still has something to play for over the last dozen or so games. The Sabres got nothing out of Thursday's loss in Los Angeles but stayed with Friday's 10-round shootout to squeeze out a win over the Anaheim Ducks.

"You don't just wake up one year and decide you're going to win a Stanley Cup or decide you're going to be a competing team for it," O'Reilly said. "It's tough to jump in the standings. Each year you have to make a push. To us, it's not over yet. We've got a lot to prove that we can play and beat these teams. We have to show we should be better, that we should be in the playoffs and that this should be our run this year. That's something we have to prove constantly."

For those who say the players have quit on Bylsma, my response would be watch the games. The Sabres got better as each game went on during the trip, albeit not a difficult feat when you consider they were outshot badly (20-9 and 15-2) in the first period of the first two games.

You want quit, go watch what's happening to poor Lindy Ruff in Dallas. I was in the stands Sunday in San Jose as the Stars packed it in during a 5-1 loss to the Sharks. It was more of the same two nights later in a 7-1 butt-kicking in Edmonton. Part of the reason the Sabres don't get flogged like that is because Robin Lehner and Anders Nilsson generally don't allow it to happen but it's still a rare night where they're out of a game.

Murray's next move is being watched closely around the league. You fire Bylsma now and you cater to the players' wishes to get a new coach. The next man in will have to be wary of daring to say anything critical about or benching Eichel, who was dubbed "the golden child" by former captain Craig Rivet last week on "The Instigators." Yikes.

There is actually talk from fans, fueled by some of the louder noises around town, that hiring Boston University coach David Quinn would be a good idea to placate Eichel. That's laughable. Murray would no longer need to be employed because Eichel would simply be the GM if his college coach got Bylsma's job.

And how would that play in the rest of the room? Not very well.

One thing that's an issue for the Sabres -- and a good problem to have -- is that Buffalo isn't going to get too many off nights from opponents. The quality of the Sabres' top six, led by Eichel, Kane and O'Reilly, gets every opposing coach's attention and the Sabres need to raise their game accordingly.

"It’s a trap game if you don’t respect the opposition but we definitely respected their skill," Anaheim defenseman Kevin Bieksa said after Friday's game. "They’ve got some top-end guys over there and some really good forwards. We played them hard."

Seven of the final 10 games are against teams either in a playoff spot or still legitimately in the hunt. The Sabres are closer to last in the Atlantic Division than they are to the playoffs. If they sink more, the players' thoughts may mean nothing anyway because Murray may simply have to say he hired the wrong coach and move on.

Bylsma may deserve to go. Absolutely. But if it happens, the built-in excuse will be gone. The folks occupying the locker room better keep that in mind.

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