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Assessing possible candidates to replace Phil Housley as Sabres coach

Upon giving his recommendation to owners Kim and Terry Pegula, Buffalo Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill had what he called a "tough conversation" with Phil Housley.

That ultimately led to Housley, the Hall of Fame defenseman who was hired in June 2017, being fired after going 58-84-22 in two seasons as the Sabres' coach. Housley arrived as one of the game's top coaching candidates and endured a tumultuous two seasons in which the team fell far below expectations.

During a 20-minute news conference Sunday in KeyBank Center, Botterill declined to divulge details about his coaching search or what traits he is seeking in the Sabres' 19th coach in franchise history. However, the failure of his first hire will not impact how he approaches the coming weeks.

With that in mind, let's take a look at a potential pool of candidates, including one face familiar to Sabres fans.

Most likely

When the Pegulas were asked about Housley's status during last month's NFL owners meetings, Terry Pegula told reporters he could justify not making a change and called Housley a "young coach." Housley, 55, was an assistant coach with Nashville for four seasons prior to his arrival in Buffalo.

If the Sabres are willing to hire someone younger with less NHL coaching experience, the most likely candidate is Rochester coach Chris Taylor. The 47-year-old has led the Amerks to the playoffs in each of his two seasons and spent the previous five seasons as an assistant coach in the AHL, including four in Rochester. His coaching career began in player development with the Sabres in 2011-12.

Chris Taylor's steady hand has Amerks in position for Cup run

Todd McLellan, a 51-year-old who led the San Jose Sharks to the playoffs in six of his seven seasons, is reportedly at the top of Botterill's list. McLellan was fired by Edmonton in November after leading the Oilers to one playoff appearance in three-plus seasons.  His first NHL opportunity was a three-year stint as an assistant in Detroit, where he won a Stanley Cup in 2008.

Alain Vigneault is on the opposite end of the spectrum. The 57-year-old has spent 16 seasons as an NHL coach, most recently a five-year stint with the New York Rangers, which began with a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2013-14 and ended when they missed the playoffs last season.

His name will be mentioned as a possible candidate because of a recent connection to Botterill. The latter is serving on the management team for Team Canada's entrant in the World Championships next month, while Vigneault will be the coach.

Naturally, it is important to note Botterill's past relationships, particularly those in Pittsburgh's organization. That makes Jacques Martin a possibility for Buffalo. Martin, 56, has spent the past four seasons as an assistant with the Penguins, including back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, and had a 15-year career as an NHL coach. Additionally, Sabres assistant general manager Randy Sexton worked under Martin in Florida, and Martin has a long history of working with young players. He also could be a candidate to return to Ottawa.

Lastly, Todd Richards will be one of the hottest coaching candidates after serving as an assistant for the 62-win Tampa Bay Lightning. Richards, 52, was coach of the Penguins' AHL affiliate, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, when Botterill was the organization's director of hockey operations in 2007-08.

Richards had a two-year stint as coach of the Minnesota Wild and spent five seasons as coach in Columbus, though he has made the playoffs just once in that position.

Less likely

The Penguins' coaching tree did not produce much the last time around for the Sabres. However, the organization does have two more intriguing candidates.

Clark Donatelli, 51, has spent the past four years as coach with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, including three seasons working directly under Botterill, who was assistant general manager of the Penguins prior to his move to Buffalo.

Donatelli has led the Penguins to the postseason in each of his four seasons and has done an exceptional job with a similar player development strategy adopted by Botterill and Sexton. Prior to his AHL experience, Donatelli had a five-year stint as coach of Wheeling, which is Pittsburgh's ECHL affiliate.

Sheldon Keefe, 38, will surely land an NHL coaching job either this offseason or next. He has spent the past four seasons as coach of the Toronto Marlies, winning a Calder Cup last year. What separates Keefe is how he has embraced and used analytics throughout his career.

Geoff Ward, 57, is a longtime NHL assistant who will be interviewed for openings this offseason. He is on Bill Peters' staff in Calgary this season and spent the previous three seasons as an assistant in New Jersey.

Long shots

Fans will want a splash hire. Sure, there seems to be some level of excitement surrounding what Taylor has accomplished in Rochester, but there could be some promising candidates available in the coming weeks.

Rikard Gronborg could be an intriguing candidate. The 50-year-old is a longtime coach of Sweden's national team, making him an interesting fit for the Sabres, who could open the season with several Swedes on the roster, including Rasmus Dahlin.

The result of the Stanley Cup playoffs' first round could determine the availability of Toronto's Mike Babcock and Columbus' John Tortorella. There appears to be a rift between Babcock and Kyle Dubas, which could lead to an amicable split if the Maple Leafs fail to advance past the first round.

Babcock, though, has six years remaining on his contract but a firing would have him connected to Buffalo since he almost landed here two years ago. However, the Sabres were reportedly livid with how he handled the hiring process before accepting Toronto's offer.

Also, Tortorella could be pushed out if the Blue Jackets are an early exit. They have yet to win a playoff series and mortgaged their future by trading draft picks and prospects to acquire rentals at the trade deadline.

Bruce Boudreau, the 64-year-old who has reached the Stanley Cup playoffs in 10 of his 12 seasons as an NHL coach, likely will be among Botterill's first inquiries if he is dismissed by the Wild. Boudreau coached Washington and Anaheim for five seasons each prior to his move to Minnesota.

Jason Botterill says Sabres' second-half collapse led to Phil Housley's dismissal as coach

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