Before every new NHL season, I get The Hockey News‘ NHL yearbook and preview edition. It’s a good read and has reasonable predictions for the most part, I recommend it.
Longtime Buffalo News writer John Vogl writes the Sabres portion each year, and this year he shed light on an issue the Sabres have that may have fallen under the radar in the wake of the team’s organizational overhaul this summer: identity.
The Dan Byslma experiment failed for a number of reasons, and the biggest one was the team’s lack of unity under the former Stanley Cup champion bench boss, and Vogl was not shy about this.
“There’s little doubt that (discipline, structure, communication and character) were lacking. Bylsma’s message either didn’t get through or was ignored … Though everyone said they liked each other, there was little semblance of team play,” – John Vogl.
Regardless of the reason why, Bylsma simply couldn’t inspire the team, and it showed clearly on the ice. The 2016-17 Sabres never truly looked like the solid club that critics and fans alike were sure was emerging. Instead we saw a jumbled mess of a team, with players constantly seeming out of element and not playing cohesively. Since clubhouse culture is a head coach’s prime job, it makes sense that the Sabres chose to part ways with Bylsma after only two seasons, even if many of his issues stemmed from Tim Murray, who was also canned.
Talent is not the issue here because even the most contrived NHL media personalities (Pierre McGuire) can deny that the Sabres have it. The pieces are in place for a formidable team with stars Ryan O’Reilly, Jack Eichel, Rasmus Ristolainen, Sam Reinhart and Evander Kane leading the way alongside a plethora of others. The problem has always been identity.
Bylsma and Murray could not create a system that utilized each player’s abilities, which is why pretty much everyone except Eichel and Kane had sub-par seasons last year. It was evident by season’s end back in April that a culture change was needed. I feel like Bylsma deserved better and a lot of his issues could have been fixed had it not been for Murray, but change was necessary and the slate was wiped clean.
Hall of Famer and Sabres legend Phil Housley was chosen to right the ship, and he immediately made efforts to establish more open communication within the team. New GM Jason Botterill has also done this and brought in many players over the summer who share the “open” mentality Buffalo is seeking. Former captain Jason Pominville was one of them and his return provides much needed leadership and solid depth. Sabres fans are eager to see the Population rise again. G Robin Lehner is also a respected clubhouse figure and will benefit from an improved defense under the savvy Housely, who worked wonders as an assistant with Nashville.
The role of captain remains open and Eichel is the overwhelming favorite, though ruling out O’Reilly would be foolish. Proving his maturity and commitment to winning throughout the tumults of last season, Eichel is ready to assume the responsibility and become the official leader of his team. Big things are expected from him this year.
ROR emerged as a leader in the locker room shortly after his arrival two seasons ago and placed the leadership blame on himself, admitting that he failed to assume that role last season. A selfless player like him would be a terrific fit as well. Whomever Housley gives the honor to will be tasked with establishing chemistry and a sense of togetherness between players, something that never existed under Bylsma.
The magazine unsurprisingly predicted the Sabres to finish seventh in the Atlantic. It isn’t a completely unreasonable forecast because the team does have a ton to prove this year. But sometimes no expectations are the best expectations. If Housley and co. can get Buffalo on the same page, the Sabres could turn a lot of heads this season. The pieces are in place, the puck is on your stick, Sabres.