TAMPA – Most of the NHL is fighting for the playoffs. Scrapping and clawing and doing everything possible to win a Stanley Cup.
So why does it seem like the Buffalo Sabres are happy to be in the Participation Trophy Division?
Embattled coach Phil Housley has to meet reporters every day. Twice on game days. He takes a lot of darts and plenty are of his own making. Many others are not.
So it was a breath of fresh air Wednesday in Amalie Arena when General Manager Jason Botterill decided it was time to endure some media volleys of his own.
The problem was that Botterill was preaching patience – exactly what this fan base is fresh out of.
What needed to be seen was anger and embarrassment. That's what the fans feel.
Instead, Botterill toed silly company lines. It was as if he practiced them on Terry and Kim Pegula in their suite Tuesday night in Sunrise during that dreadful third period against the Florida Panthers, and then repeated them to reporters four hours up the road about 14 hours later.
The Sabres are tied with Ottawa for the worst record in the Eastern Conference since Jan. 1 and have the fourth-worst mark in the entire NHL since Dec. 1. They've lost three straight to nonplayoff teams by a composite 14-5 score and now have to deal with the hornet's nest of playing the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning here Thursday night.
Here was my simple question to Botterill: "The No. 1 message from fans is they want to see a coaching change. What's your reaction to that?"
His answer: "They want to see a coaching change?"
Yes, really. They do. The vast majority of fans think Phil Housley is over his head. That the GM was so taken aback by an inquiry about his coach was astonishing.
Now a huge aside here: I do not believe the Sabres should can Housley as of today. I reserve judgment to change that view if things continue to slide off the rails in the coming weeks.
Especially since the upcoming schedule over the next 15 games is downright scary. It's Tampa Bay, Washington, Toronto, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Edmonton, Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Carolina, St. Louis, Toronto and Montreal. Yikes.
No NHL team has ever won 10 games in a row and lost 10 in a row in the same season. The way the Sabres are playing right now and with the schedule they're facing, it actually seems possible.
Housley's team has been a complete no-show the last three games, when the playoff race was fully alive. That's on Housley, his assistants and the players. Not the GM.
But with all that as a backdrop, Botterill actually said he was happy the team was in games in the third period. He actually said he sees "growth" out of a team that's won 11 of its last 34 games and hasn't won two straight since December.
Growth? I would call that serious regression.
Botterill said the organization was "very proud of the accomplishment" of being first overall at the end of November, which has clearly proven to just be dumb luck. He said the Sabres have "made progress as an organization" compared to last year. That's no achievement when you start at 62 points and add the No. 1 overall pick.
He said he thinks the coaching staff has "done a very good job."
He must not be referring to Housley's bizarre overreliance on Vladimir Sobotka or his strange goaltending choices. Or the lack of impact of the assistants as the power play looks lost, the defense – including Rasmus Dahlin – can't get out of its own way most nights and the goaltending remains utterly spotty.
Some fine work all around indeed.
Roster construction is on Botterill and he's on his way to making a mess of things two years in a row. The Sabres have maddeningly low standards these days. Pegula came to town eight years ago this week talking Stanley Cups. Plural. The Sabres can't even get in the playoffs.
Slow rebuilds aren't the norm in the NHL. Look at New Jersey and Colorado going from last in their conference to the playoffs last season. Look at Montreal and the New York Islanders this year. Or the way St. Louis has exploded after firing coach Mike Yeo and replacing him with Craig Berube.
The Blues won their 11th straight game Tuesday night on an overtime goal by old friend Ryan O'Reilly. Botterill's most complicated trade to date is looking like a franchise-altering disaster to this point.
What should Botterill be doing now? He better not walk to the podium after the deadline Monday without some new players in tow. But he said it would be OK if that didn't happen and he waited until the summer.
It's not OK. At all.
The Sabres should be looking today at a waiver claim of Devante Smith-Pelly, who scored three goals in the Stanley Cup final last June for Washington. Center Charlie Coyle, who would have been a good fit here, instead went to Boston Wednesday night for the paltry price of Ryan Donato and a fifth-round pick.
Botterill said he's in a lot of conversations. They better pan out.
And one last point: Botterill and Housley need to zip it with the narrative they have a young team. They do, in fact, have NHL newbies like Dahlin, Thompson, Casey Mittelstadt and Lawrence Pilut.
But the core of Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen has combined to play nearly 1,000 NHL games. Zemgus Girgensons played in his 400th NHL game Tuesday night. Marco Scandella is over 500 games. Jeff Skinner and Zach Bogosian are both over 600, Kyle Okposo is over 700. Jason Pominville is over 1,000.
Only Pominville has played a playoff game with the Sabres and that one came eight years ago.
Eichel is 22 years old, Reinhart is 23, Ristolainen is 24. By comparison, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews were 21 when Chicago played in its first Stanley Cup final in 2010. So were Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin with Pittsburgh in 2008. Sidney Crosby was 20 that year. There's plenty of examples like that the last 10 years.
The Sabres' alleged stars can't even get their team away from the bottom of the standings and in the playoffs. Of course, this was all going to be fixed by Botterill shedding O'Reilly, Robin Lehner and Evander Kane.
Looks like the Sabres will be home watching them on television this spring.