Since climbing within a point of a playoff position in the Eastern Conference the Sabres have hit one of their worst runs of play in the entire 2016-17 season, dropping seven of their last eight games and falling well out of reach of serious playoff contention.
The skid has been defined by blown third period leads, losses to teams below Buffalo in the standings and sub-par goaltending. However, the third period collapses are by far the most concerning aspect of this recent run. It’s something that’s highlighted many of Buffalo’s other shortcomings this year.
In some ways this run was probably inevitable. The Sabres have been allowing absurd numbers of shots and shot attempts on a game-to-game basis and had been winning the odd one thanks, in part, to the play of Anders Nilsson and Robin Lehner. Both have given the Sabres strong play throughout the year but recently only share one game with two goals against or fewer (shootout loss to Tampa Bay). Both have still played well through the course of these games despite the ugly results. Look no further than Nilsson’s play in Pittsburgh or the handful of sterling saves Lehner made against Philly in an otherwise forgettable performance.
Simple logic would indicate that Buffalo’s poor defensive play finally caught up to them and despite otherwise strong play from their goaltenders, the team just isn’t good enough to cover all of their shortcomings. It’s a combination of poor personnel (hello defensemen) and poor usage that’s undermined what could have been an exciting season for the Sabres and now it appears the focus has shifted firmly to Dan Bylsma.
Even prior to this slump, postgame comments had indicated that all wasn’t well in the Sabres locker room. There were warning signs that the players were ignoring their coach’s wishes and going off script at key points in each game. Now that they’ve only accrued one win since the bye week, those whispers are growing louder.
As the season slips away from the Sabres it seems more likely that Bylsma’s future sits on rocky ground. Even with the obvious shortcomings on Buffalo’s roster, many of his tactics and systems seem to work against the strengths the Sabres do boast. In many ways it seems as if he’s being haunted by many of the ghosts which pushed him out of Pittsburgh.
I reached out to Rich Miller of The Pensblog for some additional insight on Bylsma, his shortcomings and what led to his downfall with the Penguins. He was candid regarding the issues Bylsma’s systems presented and made a number of points which will sound eerily familiar to Sabres fans.
“It was just his time when he was fired,” Milller said. “Honestly, he should have been fired after Boston embarrassed his system in four games – somehow he lasted another year plus.
“The system was a big thing, but even if he was trying to do something different, the players weren’t listening to him. He completely lost the room towards the end of his tenure, which was probably the biggest indicator a change was needed.“
Bylsma’s systems have been the biggest point of irritation for me during his tenure. I don’t have as much issue with decisions to sit or play certain players if there’s good reason to do so. But the over-reliance on long stretch passes through the neutral zone and a desire to over complicate certain aspects of defensive zone coverage and breakouts drives me crazy.
There are plenty of issues with the Sabres that don’t tie to the coach, too. The Sabres are among the league’s youngest teams and many mistakes can be tied to that youth. It can also be tied to personnel as Buffalo’s blueline is woefully undermanned, as General Manager Tim Murray has noted on a number of occasions. However, far too often are the Sabresare running their heads into the wall trying to make the stretch pass work or adding needless regroups in the defensive zone as they attempt to break out.
What seems to happen more often than not is that Buffalo’s opponents have a good prescout and know they can pressure higher up the ice in order to disrupt the passing lanes and flow of Buffalo’s breakout. It’s a fairly simple concept, especially when the Sabres try to reverse the flow by having the center regroup back to a defenseman who then swings a d-to-d pass to his partner. It’s an overly complicated addition that’s easily disrupted by pushing a second forechecker down onto the defensemen. What’s even more troubling is that Bylsma remains married to these systems despite their shortcomings. Once again, this was the case in Pittsburgh as well.
“The biggest issue was other teams figured it out,” Miller said. “They would stack the red line and jam up everything in the middle, usually leading those passes being broken up. When they would connect, someone would be all over whoever was receiving it. At this point, you would think Bylsma would notice and, I don’t know, maybe try something else. Something else never came. The guy is the epitome of round peg, square hole.”
Rich added that the stretch pass was a sticking point for many Pens fans as it is for many Sabres fans as well. Despite the merits that particular tactic does offer when it’s working.
“It was so stupid. You have elite puck carriers and you put them in a system where they have to go forecheck for everything. When the passes connected, Crosby and Malkin were getting it in space with speed, which is great. But how often did that happen? Not often is the answer.”
It should be noted that Bylsma does allow Buffalo’s stars to freelance in areas such as the breakout and zone entries. Look no further than the play of Jack Eichel, one of the league leaders in carry-out and carry-in zone exits and entries.
What has stood out to me this year is the overly complicated aspects of Buffalo’s systems. The penalty kill and breakout immediately spring to mind in this regard and brings to mind comments that have been connected to Jarome Iginla who said Bylsma’s system was the most complicated he’d played in. Those comments have been referenced in a number of places but finding an actual transcript has proven to be quite difficult. Rich didn’t necessarily agree with that point, however. He went so far as to say that claims that the system is complicated are probably overblown.
What Miller did agree on was Bylsma’s penchant for sitting on leads and he didn’t shy away from the view that it’s likely coming from the head coach and not the players.
“That one is one Bylsma. He is the king sitting on a throne when it comes to packing it in to try to protect leads,” Miller said. “Hard to say if he doesn’t trust this group because I don’t watch a lot of [the Sabres], but in Pittsburgh that was standard procedure. He loved the 3-2 win. The difference is it worked in Pittsburgh because he had the talent to pull it off. I’m certain the Pens were outshot in every third period that occurred while he was the coach here.”
Nearly everything Rich had to say helped to confirm the concerns I’ve had and I’ve seen related to the Sabres this year. Sitting on leads, the terrible, awful, no good stretch pass and even the occasional over-reliance on veterans. However, he didn’t heap all of Buffalo’s struggles on Bylsma’s decisions. For example, the lack of contribution from the blue line was something that was an issue for the Penguins as well. Rich noted that it was related to personnel more than deployment as Kris Letang was the only player truly capable of getting forward for the Pens during those final years.
The most difficult factor here for the Sabres is what to do if and when Bylsma is let go. It’s fair to say he deserves a chance to start next season with a fully intact roster – a luxury he wasn’t afforded this season. But sticking with the status-quo could be disastrous if nothing improves by mid-November. Unlike the last time Buffalo went searching for a coach, Mike Babcock isn’t waiting for a team to back up the Brinks truck. So finding a replacement will be a bit of a challenge. Do they bring in a newcomer to the NHL coaching fraternity? Or do they pick up a retread like Gerard Gallant? There’s no obvious answer like the last time, so the decision-making process will be difficult.
Rich’s comments didn’t change my outlook on Bylsma. I think it’s time for the Sabres to move on from the coach. I’ll leave the last of Rich’s comments to stand on their own as I asked him if Pens fans still enjoy beating Bylsma coached teams in something of an “I told you so” moment while also asking him to sum up his view of Bylsma as a bench boss:
There is still a lot of angst towards Bylsma for ruining the best years of Crosby/Malkin (injuries played their part, too) by consistently pairing them with guys who aren’t anywhere near their level.
Point blank: He just isn’t a good coach. He loses control of games, locker rooms – He’s the perfect example of a coach that is in way over his head. He doesn’t know how to adjust to his opponents. He doesn’t know how to cover his team’s weakness. He doesn’t know how to play to their strengths. He values specialty players who are only good at one thing, like blocking shots or killing penalties (sound familiar?). He doesn’t have a clue about running a power play (probably because he never saw one as a player). He is, without question, the most overrated coach in the league right now. Him coming in for Michel Therrien in 2009 was a great change of pace for that group at the time, and them winning the Cup that year was obviously a clear indicator of that, but that Cup win bought him too much leeway once it became clear that, hey, maybe this guy was just in the right place at the right time.