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Sully's Mailbag: Phil Housley off to an uninspiring start with Sabres

Before we get to more pressing issues, I have a bone to pick with the National Toy Hall of Fame. This year's three-member class was announced on Thursday and it includes: Paper airplanes, the overrated board game Clue and the Wiffle Ball.

I was glad to see Wiffle Ball finally get its due. I played for hours in the driveway behind my house with my buddies as a boy, and served up many a homer to my son in our back yard in North Buffalo in the early 2000s.

From what I can gather, Wiffle Ball is the first sports item ever inducted. What about sports board games? Life, Scrabble, Monopoly and Candyland are in the Hall. But Clue does not belong in before Strat-O-Matic Baseball, the best sports board game ever invented.

I might have to take a trip down the Thruway to Rochester, where the toy hall is located, to make my pitch in person. And now, the Mailbag:

@EdShelly1 asks: Before the season, I felt it was realistic to give the Sabres 'til Thanksgiving to learn Housley's system. Still disappointed.

Sully: They say Sabres season doesn't begin until the Bills are done; it's early. But you're not the only one who's disappointed in the first month under Housley. He was supposed to turn them into some offensive dynamo, but as of Friday they were averaging 2.5 goals a game.

Housley's system is designed to liberate defensemen to be more aggressive offensively. The Sabres don't have a single goal from a defenseman this season, which sounds suspiciously like last year's group. They've often been a train wreck in their own end.

Opening up the offense is rarely as simple as it sounds, in any sport. They're good enough to climb onto the fringes of the playoff hunt, but the roster still lacks the depth of talent. You can't blame this on Dan Bylsma. It's an organizational failure that goes back to the tank.

Housley was a reflection of everything Sabres fans despised as a player. Is it any surprise that his team would be soft defensively and not hard to play against? Give him time. He's going to need it.

* * *

Bill Nowak says: What a shame it would be to see Evander Kane leave while the Sabres stumble thru mismanaging their cap and sticking with soft, underachieving players. Agree?

Sully: Sort of. Kane sticks out on a roster of underachievers. He's having his best season at age 26 and has been their best player. Since last Dec. 1, he is second in the NHL in even-strength goals behind Auston Matthews. He leads the league in short-handed goals with three.

Kane is a rare blend of speed, skill and power that would be hard to replace. That's the argument against moving him -- there's no one like him in the system and they would be looking to find a player just like him as soon as he left.

Still, it's complicated. Kane will be a free agent after the season and seeking at least $6 million a year in a long-term deal. The Sabres have 14 players whose contracts expire after this season. They've overpaid for the likes of Kyle Okposo and Ryan O'Reilly.

GM Jason Botterill has to make some difficult choices. He can't afford to let Kane walk after the season for nothing. But he can't overpay him, either. He has to worry about financial balance. Plus, who knows whether Kane will revert to his bad-boy ways after getting a monster extension?

So a trade might be unavoidable. Maybe they can get a quality D man, which they sorely need. It would be tough for fans to swallow. But if one player is perceived as indispensable on a team that hasn't made the playoffs in six years, what does that say about the franchise?

* * *

Ray D asks: I understand the Bills could receive a compensatory draft pick if they meet certain criteria with players on the roster. Where does that stand? And do recent trades impact that at all?

Sully: The system for compensatory picks is convoluted, and it has never been made public. Essentially, a team gets draft compensation if it has a net loss of unrestricted free agents who meet certain criteria. Trades are not a factor.

The Bills would need to cut four of last year's free agents before their 10th game to qualify for a third-round compensatory pick. The list incluces Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Stephen Hauschka, Andre Holmes, Patrick DiMarco, Vlad Ducasse and Ryan Davis.

There's no chance the Bills cut four guys from that list to get an extra third-round pick. General manager Brandon Beane said as much this week.

* * *

Paul George asks: Mike Tolbert as backup to Shady is driving me nuts. Are there no other backs on the roster who can run the ball?

Sully: Tolbert is nominally a tailback, though he had been a fullback the previous five seasons. He's certainly a downgrade from the Bills' backup tailbacks of the previous two seasons: Karlos Williams (2015) and Mike Gillislee (2016). Both led the NFL in yards per rush as backups to McCoy. Williams tied for the league lead at 5.6 in 2015; Gillislee led last year at 5.7

Tolbert has 48 carries for 181 yards, a 3.8 average. His long run is 18. In Tolbert's defense, LeSean McCoy is averaging 3.7 yards a rush, down from 5.4 a year ago. So Tolbert's numbers reflect the overall decline of the Bills' running game. Still, they could do better.

* * *

Tony Schiappa asks: Celtics are off to 10-2 start, despite the loss of Gordon Hayward and with only four players from last year's conference finalists. Who deserves more credit, Kyrie Irving or Coach Brad Stevens?

Sully: Irving has been predictably solid, averaging 22 points a game. But the Celtics' success has been largely the product of coaching. Stevens, the best young coach in the NBA, has done a remarkable job with his team, despite two-thirds of the roster being turned over.

Stevens is a fine defensive mind, which he showed when he led Butler to two straight NCAA title games. The Celts lead the NBA in scoring defense (94.6). They're third in field-goal percentage D. Stevens is adept at creating favorable matchups, a key factor in the NBA.

Even Irving, who was a weak and often indifferent defender with the Cavaliers, has bought in and been good on defense thus far.

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