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Mike Harrington: No matter what you call it, deck shuffling is all Sabres have at this point

So about all that line shuffling ....

Phil Housley did what any self-respecting NHL coach would do Monday with the worst offensive team in the NHL. It was time to play musical chairs with his forward combinations. Of course, the way the Buffalo Sabres are going lately, it had a deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic feel.

That's especially true when you're trying to score against the Columbus Blue Jackets, who feature a rugged defense and one of the game's best goaltenders in Sergei Bobrovsky.

For 49 minutes, it was yet another snoozer. The Jackets were up 3-0 and KeyBank Center, as empty as it's been on a non-snow night in years, was emptying out.

The Sabres finally broke through and somehow ended up an inch away from a tying goal. The end result was a 3-2 loss that dropped them to 0-4-2 in their last six games and 5-12-4 on the season.

They're not remotely tanking but doing almost as good a job. The Arizona Coyotes' surprising win Monday in Toronto gave them three straight victories in Canada and got them within a point of the Sabres, who have no business being in those regions of the NHL standings anymore.

"Hockey is not that hard of a game. Only if you make it," said Evander Kane, who has 12 goals and is the only player that can be counted on with this club. "For us, it's just a mindset. We need to be more of a straight-line team and get some uglier goals like we almost did at the end there."

The Wraparound: Blue Jackets 3, Sabres 2

In reality, the game was almost anticlimactic after all the chatter that started shortly after 10 a.m in the empty arena as the Sabres took their morning skate.

Jack Eichel was skating away from Kane, his partner virtually all season. He was between Zemgus Girgensons and Jason Pominville, two guys who don't have a goal the entire month of November.


After the skate, Housley rolled through the Rolodex of hockey coach cliches during his daily media briefing. He was getting a different look and promoting better balance through fresh combinations. And the assembled felt the urge to cry out "Bingo!" when he dropped a personal favorite: We don't number lines. Never mind that coaches and GMs routinely talk about their "top six" and "bottom six" forwards.

The top six has been consistent for weeks. Eichel has centered Kane and Sam Reinhart (who replaced Pominville). Ryan O'Reilly has centered Benoit Pouliot and Kyle Okposo. But Monday morning, O'Reilly was between Kane and Reinhart and Johan Larsson centered Pouliot and Okposo.

Eichel was with Pominville and Girgensons. Third line. Of course, social media know-it-alls, of which Eichel has legions of massive apologists, were quick to jump on that point and voice their disagreement. (Didn't see any of them in the building but we digress).

Asked why Eichel was being dropped to the third line, Housley quickly shot back, "There's no third line." So I immediately jumped in and asked him to name his first line. He quickly answered Kane and O'Reilly. Uh-huh.

"I don't think Eichel is being demoted," Housley insisted. "I think he's such a terrific player, I think you can put anybody on his wings."

It's not like we were asking Housley why he rolled Nathan Peterman out on the ice.

When the game rolled around, the Sabres made sure to skate the Eichel line first in warmups, then to tweet line combinations and pass out printed sheets in the press box with Eichel on the top line. Never mind the coach said O'Reilly was his No. 1 center a few hours earlier.

It was all so silly. But when you tossed out the keys of the castle to get the kid and may have prematurely opened the owners' vault to lock him up through 2026, he pretty much runs the show and no one is going to want to run afoul of him.

Eichel was demoted and what's the harm in admitting it? He hasn't been very good, with only five goals and a minus-9 rating in 21 games. And besides, the move helped.

Eichel was skating much better than in recent games, Housley rewarded him with nearly nine minutes of ice time in the third period -- and he was even put back with Kane and Pominville. The coach praised Eichel's determination and speed, and with good reason, as he played 20:54 and ended up leading all Buffalo forwards.

What clearly rattled Housley in the first place, of course, was the ghastly float job Eichel pulled on the opening goal here Saturday night by Carolina's Justin Williams. If Housley wanted to keep any respect in the locker room or in the fan base, he could not let a play like that go by unchallenged.

Eichel stood in front of his locker again Monday morning and took the media bullets, just as he did after Saturday's game. Asked point-blank if he agreed with the perception he had been demoted, Eichel said brusquely, "I don't. They just changed the lines and I'm playing with two new players."

Eichel said there was nothing unusual to him about what was going on.

"No message," he said.

Housley better keep tinkering. Okposo, who can't put the puck in the Niagara River right now if it was a beach ball, has to start doing something at some point. He's got two goals to show for that $6 million cap hit. Evan Rodrigues, finally playing in Rochester, should get a look sooner rather than later. Remember, he was going to make the team in training camp before his hand injury.

And the Sabres are still a mess defensively at times. TSN analyst Ray Ferraro, an 18-year NHL veteran, pounded them on Twitter in the third period when he said, "They are inept in their zone. Draw up whatever you want, but zero compete without puck. Watch the 3rd goal by Columbus. Can’t win if you don’t sweat."

Yikes. Housley simply has to keep tinkering. At this point, it's the only thing to do.

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