Although communication problems contributed to the firing of Tim Murray and Dan Bylsma, the Sabres’ goaltenders were a talkative bunch. Robin Lehner and Anders Nilsson would chat with goalie coach Andrew Allen after games, and usually they’d feel pretty good.
Aside from the fact a loss got added to their record.
“We’ll let in three, four goals, and you feel like you had a great game,” Lehner said. “It’s not fun to have that.
“There’s been a lot of those this year.”
The Sabres’ next coach needs to alleviate the pressure on Buffalo’s goaltenders by being better at both ends of the ice. The Sabres gave up way too many shots and didn't score enough.
Buffalo was last in the NHL in shots allowed, giving up 34.3 per game. Opponents attempted the fourth-most shots, firing 4,943 toward the net in the 82 games (an average of 60.3).
So despite a sparkling team save percentage of .921 – the fifth-best number in team history – the Sabres went just 33-37-12.
“We relied on our goalies way too much this year,” defenseman Zach Bogosian said. “They played well. They gave us chances to win basically on a nightly basis. We just didn’t get it done as a group, as a team – defense corps, forwards, everyone.
“We would all agree we could be a lot better.”
Puck management was big problem. The Sabres too often failed to execute simple passes, usually near their own blue line. They couldn’t get the puck to the offensive zone, leaving the goaltenders under siege.
“It’s really a domino effect more than anything,” defenseman Cody Franson said. “You turn the puck over, you play more time in your D-zone, you end up chasing more shots.
"If we were keeping shots to the outside, our goalies were playing well. We didn’t dwell on that as much. It’s the quality scoring chances we were giving up.”
Buffalo was outshot in 53 of its 82 games. It lost 21 games by one goal. If the Sabres could have relieved the pressure, they might have gotten the goal they needed – or not allowed the one that hurt.
“Toward the end we changed our system in the D-zone a bit better, being a little bit more aggressive, which I think you have to do,” center Ryan O’Reilly said. “You give good players time with the puck, get them more involved, they’re going to be more creative. It’s tough.
"When you can be aggressive and kill their best players, you might get exposed the odd time, but being more aggressive in the D-zone makes it easier.”
A lack of aggression was obvious, most notably when the Sabres had the lead. Nearly every team takes its foot off the gas, but few went into a shell like Buffalo. When up by two goals or more, the Sabres’ Corsi plummeted to 36.48 percent, the third-worst number in the NHL, according to Corsica.Hockey.
“At times we didn’t have a foundation to fall back on,” captain Brian Gionta said. “We didn’t have a style of play that we were playing consistently enough that when things weren’t going our way this is what we fall back on and how we stop that momentum.”
The disconnect between players and coaches contributed to the foundation failure. The players failed to embrace the style taught by Bylsma and his staff, and it cost the coach and general manager their jobs. The GM who replaces Murray will have to determine which players will listen to the next coach.
“There’s got to be accountability,” Lehner said. “We have pretty simple job descriptions out there. I think we shouldn’t make them too complicated. My job is to stop the puck. Defense is to not let them shoot the puck. Forwards is to come back, help us defend and score goals.
“There’s a lot of pieces in between there, but we don’t need every D trying to score goals. We don’t need every forward trying to score goals, not every line trying to score goals for that matter. We all have our assignments and jobs, and we have to buy into it. That’s the end of the story.
“I think it was everyone this year not really seeing their roles. We’ve all got to buy into those roles.”
Puck management, lack of foundation and failure to accept roles combined to make Buffalo one of the worst even-strength teams in the league. The Sabres scored 126 goals at five-on-five, ahead of only Colorado and New Jersey (114 each). League-leading Minnesota had 187. Dallas was in the middle of the pack at 149 – more than a quarter of a goal per game ahead of Buffalo.
Again, those one-goal losses could have been lessened with better five-on-five play.
“It’s the consistency in how we played,” right wing Sam Reinhart said. “Some shifts, some periods, some games, we would be aggressive. Some we wouldn’t. I think we kind of got lost in our identity, and it’s a shame because we did find it at times.”
A dynamic power play stopped the Sabres from being worse than 26th place. They had the top-ranked power play at 24.5 percent, scoring on 57 of their 233 chances.
“We all knew our role,” Reinhart said. “We knew where each other were going to be. We knew what personnel, and we were moving it really quick, really simple. That’s why we had success. I think five-on-five we can learn a lot in how that worked for us.”
In other words, the Sabres like it when they can play offense, control the puck and display their talent. The next bosses need to loosen the reins or convince the players that their ideas are better.
“Guys want to do too much at times,” Gionta said, “try to do too much at times instead of just playing a certain way, not forcing things, rolling the lines and letting everybody do their job.”