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Mike Harrington: In dismissing Phil Housley, Jason Botterill put himself on the clock

Mike Harrington: In dismissing Phil Housley, Jason Botterill put himself on the clock

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Jason Botterill ponders a question during Sunday's news conference to discuss the firing of Phil Housley (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News).

This is on Jason Botterill. All of it. Poor roster construction. Questionable moves. Odd development decisions. And ultimately, the decision to fire Phil Housley.

While Housley's two seasons as coach rate among the most disappointing in Buffalo Sabres history, the general manager did his head coach no favors. As a tandem, Housley and Botterill were a colossal failure.

In two years under Tim Murray and Dan Bylsma, the Sabres totaled 81 and 78 points, respectively. In two years under Housley and Botterill, the numbers are 62 and 76 points. Frankly, the GM is lucky he's not joining Housley on the unemployment line.

Terry and Kim Pegula have shown faith in Botterill. Over time, the Pegulas — especially Kim — came to loathe Murray's abrasive style. They foolishly took the players' word that Bylsma needed to go. Now they're taking Botterill's word that coaching was the big problem again. We'll see.

"Our fans expect more. We expect more," Botterill said Sunday. "In the end, I thought this decision had to be made for our organization to move forward. We are all responsible for the success and failures."

Credit to Botterill for putting the target squarely on himself when he said, 'We didn't put the proper roster out there. We didn't give Phil enough players, enough tools to have success out there."

Botterill was clearly holding back his emotions at the start of his remarks about Housley. This was a difficult choice to admit his first coaching hire as an NHL GM failed, but he felt it had to be done.

The Sabres are just still too far from the postseason. It took 98 points for Columbus to claim the last playoff spot in the East this season and here's some perspective on that: The Sabres haven't even gotten to 90 since their last postseason run in 2011.

When Housley correctly called his players "soft" after a dreadful February loss to the New York Rangers, they didn't respond to the jab. It was the beginning of the end. They turtled through a terrible game two nights later in New Jersey and were never heard from again after a horrible 2-12-2 March. Shame on them.

Housley could have used some reaction from his team, but he didn't get any and that's on the players. This was a soft team, which Botterill has to address. They flat-out quit last week on Long Island and Botterill was seen fuming outside the Nassau Coliseum locker room. In hindsight, he probably had his mind made up then.

Phil Housley fired as Sabres' coach after two seasons

The players weren't consulted and some will be unhappy at the change because there was some respect for Housley's Hall of Fame career in the dressing room. But they didn't produce in the second half of the season.

If you're looking for a sore spot with players, constant line-juggling was a big one. You can do all the tinkering you want at practice but when you get into a game, players want you to keep the lines running together for at least a game or two to see if chemistry develops. Too often, Housley would have new trios and they would be gone by the second period.

There was constant behind-the-scenes sniping about Bylsma that you never heard with Housley, except when it came to the line-juggling.

Botterill makes the roster and gives Housley the team to work with, which is why Tage Thompson was forced upon the coach when a better choice much earlier in the second half of the season would have been Victor Olofsson. But it was Housley who mostly chose who played and where they were deployed. He was a failure in those areas.

Was Housley catering to the GM with his bizarre over-reliance on Thompson and Vladimir Sobotka, two pieces that came back from the horrible Ryan O'Reilly trade? Why was Marco Scandella on the ice every night while Lawrence Pilut played limited minutes and was eventually shipped back to Rochester?

Botterill again defended the O'Reilly trade, pointing out it gave cap flexibility that allowed the Sabres to sign Jeff Skinner. That's not all that accurate, with the real flexibility only coming in December when Patrik Berglund quit the team and saved the Sabres a $3.8 million cap hit. And the argument becomes moot if the Sabres fail to re-sign Skinner, which is becoming a looming question every day.

The Sabres still seem overly fixated on the future at the expense of the present, a notion of which Botterill didn't agree.

"You can keep that dialogue going or you can look at it that we traded for Jeff Skinner, that we traded for Brandon Montour," he said. "It's always going to be a balance here and it's always going to be balance until we get the right mix."

Assessing possible candidates to replace Phil Housley as Sabres coach

For his part, Housley overused veterans like Scandella and Sobotka, who shouldn't have been on the ice and, like Bylsma before him, completely overused Rasmus Ristolainen. It got to the point the big Finn's season cratered to the tune of a minus-41 rating. That number, by the way, tied the franchise record and is the second-worst by any NHL player since the 2005 lockout.

Housley didn't get nearly enough good goaltending in his two seasons, and some of that has to lie on the shoulders of goalie coach Andrew Allen. Robin Lehner and Chad Johnson struggled last season, with Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark too often letting in bad goals this season.

But while the goalies, particularly Ullmark, needed to be better technically, Housley never seemed to allow them to get much rhythm. Team results often dictated the starter, with Housley yanking one goalie and going to the other too much on the basis of, say, a 3-1 loss.

Housley's system was designed for his team to attack as a five-man unit but in the end, it fostered an environment where forwards lollygagged back to the defensive zone and coverage near the net seemed optional, which was a nightly issue for Scandella, even though Housley kept running him out there.

The goals-against totals in Housley's two seasons were 280 and 271. The numbers in Buffalo's two tank seasons of  2013-14 and 2014-15 were 248 and 274. That's just unacceptable.

It may simply be a case of the Wade Phillips Syndrome, that Housley is a good man better suited to be an assistant rather than a head coach. The Sabres' coaching carousel, once non-existent as Lindy Ruff spent 17 seasons in charge, continues to spin. Since Buffalo's all-time victories leader was fired in 2013, Housley is the fourth to fail, joining a list that includes Ron Rolston, Ted Nolan Version II and Bylsma.

Whoever Botterill brings in next needs to be handed a better roster. And fast. The Atlantic Division is brutal, with Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto on top, Montreal on the rise and Florida on the verge of hiring Joel Quenneville to be its coach.

Assessing possible candidates to replace Phil Housley as Sabres coach

The GM is on the clock now too, getting the second chance at a coaching hire that Murray never got. The new coach is going to inherit the organizational albatross of having the longest playoff drought in the NHL, and we all saw how difficult it was for the Bills to deal with that tag over the years.

This is an organization trying to spread an illusion that it knows what it's doing by setting up to win games in Rochester. That narrative gets crushed if the Amerks have another early playoff exit.

After eight straight non-playoff seasons in Buffalo, patience is running low among the fan base. Ownership is trying to stay calm but Kim Pegula admitted last month in Phoenix that it has been difficult.

If this team doesn't make the playoffs in 2020, Botterill might be toast, too.

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