TAMPA – With his team rapidly free-falling out of the playoff race, Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill said today he is not considering a coaching change and his focus remains on developing players on his roster to perform more consistently.
In a 10-minute chat with reporters from The Buffalo News, the Athletic and WGR Radio during practice in Amalie Arena, Botterill flatly said "no" when asked if replacing coach Phil Housley is on his radar as fan unrest over the team's performance continues to grow.
"We've made progress as an organization compared to last year. We've been in a position where we've been in games," Botterill said. "I see the results on the ice. I see the communication we're going through here. There's not going to be a coaching change."
Asked to evaluate Housley, Botterill pointed to Games 4-6 of the team's recently completed homestand, where Buffalo went 2-1 and allowed just five goals after giving up 17 in the previous three games.
"I think the coaching staff has done a very good job," he said. 'They have communicated with our players, continued to work to try to find different methods to get their message across to them. I think you saw after the Carolina game (a 6-5 overtime loss on Feb. 7) more of a focus on trying to get back to defense and I thought we proceeded with three of our better games defensively. The communication is still going on there but like everything in the organization, we have to continue to improve."
Botterill on coaching change? "No. We've made progress as an organization compared to last year. We've been in a position where we've been in games. I see the results on the ice. I see the communication we're going through here. There's not going to be a coaching change." #Sabres pic.twitter.com/H8kds5bmHc
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) February 20, 2019
"It's great support No. 1, but I don't really worry about that," Housley said after practice. "I just try to do my job as best I can. Jason and I talk on a day-to-day basis. About our players' situation, travel, just to name a few things. We have a very good line of communication. We have a good vision together and that's going to remain strong."
The Sabres have lost three straight games, including Tuesday's collapse at Florida in which they allowed four third-period goals in a 4-2 defeat. They are 28-24-7 for the season, but tied for the fewest points in the Eastern Conference since Jan. 1, and are just 11-18-5 since their 10-game winning streak in November. The Sabres have not won back-to-back games since Dec. 11-13 and have not won consecutive games in regulation since October.
The Sabres face a huge challenge Thursday night against the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning, who are 46-11-4 and on a seven-game winning streak.
"We're disappointed with our results right now," Botterill said. "It's a situation where if you take a step back, we've made improvements in our organization. We like the development of some of our players but we are facing a new challenge here. It's a scenario where our players are playing games in the second half of the season that mean a lot. Intensity of NHL games in the second half ramp up and it's a challenge to win hockey games in the second half. That's right now what we're looking at trying to find solutions."
The Sabres are 3-6-1 in their last 10 games and the last three have been particularly troubling because they have been outscored, 14-5, in losses to the New York Rangers, New Jersey and Florida. All three of those teams are outside the playoff picture.
"You look at the last 10 games or so and we want better results, but it's a situation where we've put ourselves in spots to win games in the third period," Botterill said. "We just haven't gotten results."
With his team six points out of a playoff spot entering Wednesday's schedule, Botterill said he is continuing to work the phones in advance of Monday's NHL trade deadline, trying to find ways to improve the club.
"We are always looking to improve our team. We're always looking to make additions to help our players," he said. "We're not going to change our motto, our focus on trying to bring players in that are going to help this team, not only this year but for the future. That's what we're looking at right now."
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) February 20, 2019
Asked why he hasn't made any major moves while the team slid from first overall in the NHL's standing to 17th, Botterill said putting his players in difficult positions is part of their growth.
"We are always looking to make moves that are going to help our group. I'd also say we're going to trust our players," Botterill said. "We're going to trust our group. We've made a lot of changes to this group over the last year or so here. There's confidence in our group here and they've proven it in games with some of the top teams in the league at home or on the road. We've proven that we can be with the teams, but have we done it on a consistent basis? No. That's why the record is where it's at."
Botterill said the team's daily work and his attention to the trade deadline are still focused on making the playoffs this season.
"Of course, it's the goal for every team to start the year," he said. "But our situation right now, we have to focus within. I know our coaches and our players are focusing on our next game against Tampa Bay because it's going to be a very difficult game, but our goal generally is we have to start playing better. We have to be more consistent as an organization."
Also from Botterill:
On why concussed winger Kyle Okposo traveled with the team to New Jersey and skated Sunday morning before his injury was diagnosed: "We were trying to be cautious, obviously with his history. Whether he was in Buffalo or he was in New Jersey, he was in constant communication with the doctors. With these things, symptoms come on at different times and eventually our doctors felt it was important to get him back to Buffalo."
On whether Okposo's latest concussion could be career-threatening: "We're going to continue to talk to our doctors about it. We're always concerned about our players for any injury. But right now we’re just focusing on Kyle getting back with our team. It doesn’t seem to be a situation like that. Look, a timeline on a concussion or anything like that we’re not putting (one) on at all because there's different timelines for something like this."
On contract negotiations with Jeff Skinner for a long-term extension: "Both his group and ours have obviously continued our dialogue. We haven't done play by play in the media because that's the way we've wanted to go about things. Both sides continue to work to try to find a resolution."