At 5-4-0, the Buffalo Sabres are off to their best start in years. However, even with the team winning more than three games in October — five as of this writing — for just the second time in seven seasons there are still many that appear to be done with Phil Housley as the head coach of this team.
After an overhaul of the roster and the arrival of number one pick Rasmus Dahlin, it made sense that fans wanted to see a drastic improvement right off the bat. But when the team opened up with a dismal performance against Boston at home, fans were left thinking “not this again”.
After back-to-back wins to get up over .500 for the first time in over five years, the fire cooled a bit as the team looked like it was starting to gel. Then the performances in Las Vegas and San Jose happened.
Losing by a combined score of 9-2, the Sabres gave up four power-play goals in the two games while scoring none of their own. Falling to 3-4 on the year and looking just as bad as they had in previous years in the four losses, the panic meter was high. Some were already ready for some changes rather than wait until it was too late to save the season.
If Housley isn’t the guy, then find someone who is.
I get it. Patience has worn thin with this organization. You’re tired of waiting for progress, and having a coach that, like other coaches, seems to think dressing both Zemgus Girgensons and Johan Larsson on a nightly basis gives the Sabres the best chance to win clearly doesn’t signify that progress.
The argument for firing is valid in a lot of ways, but I’m here to help you calm down by taking a look at the bright spots so far this year.
This is a team that many expected to be better than last season, but not one that made a large enough jump in points to make the playoffs this year. Sure, there is always that chance of a playoff run, but a realistic expectation entering the year was a 20-point improvement from 62 to 82 points. Even a major improvement to, say, 90 points wouldn’t be enough to make it into the playoffs most years. In fact, the last to make it with 90 points or fewer in a full season was Philadelphia with 88 points in 2010.
Right now, the Sabres are a team on pace for 89 points according to Hockey-Reference’s playoff probability report. An improvement of 27 points, despite still missing out on the playoffs, would easily be seen as a success by any fan of the team.
You have a team in the Sabres with players across the roster producing in some way right now. Last year, it took until December 5 against Colorado for the team to have a defenseman score a goal. Through nine games, six — SIX! — have scored goals. It wasn’t until January 5 against Winnipeg that the team hit that mark last season.
Up front, Jack Eichel continues to be, arguably, the team’s best all-around player. He’s on his point-per-game pace that everyone has come to expect of him, but he’s also showing a personality both on and off the ice that we hadn’t seen yet in his short career. He’s a player who is taking the captaincy of the team seriously, and is showing everyone that he is capable of being the leader the Sabres need him to be.
Sam Reinhart, while not having yet scored a goal this season, has been a presence in the offensive zone on most nights. He’s continued to make the front of the net his office a la Tomas Holmstrom, screening goaltenders and setting up teammates. Currently, he’s on pace for 46 points, but that’s only if he doesn’t tally a single goal this year.
Now let’s talk about Jeff Skinner, the biggest acquisition of the season not named Dahlin. While it took him until the start of the western road trip to get his first points as a Sabres, a case can be made that Skinner has been the most consistent offensive player for Buffalo.
At 54%, Skinner’s Corsi is highest among Sabres forwards. And, even though it’s become a pretty arbitrary number in today’s NHL, his plus/minus sits at a team-high plus-8. You can even see a change in possession times for players he’s played with versus when he stops playing with them. Jason Pominville is a prime example, going from averaging under 40% Corsi before playing with Skinner to averaging over 60% with him as a linemate. It’s a small sample size, yes, but interesting to see nonetheless.
The Bottom Line
Look, I’m not here to tell you that you shouldn’t be critical of Housley. I fully agree that you should expect more from him. What I am here to tell you is that the Sabres have shown that they are a better team on the ice, and part of that reason is the job that Housley has done with his players.
He’s seemingly found a line combination that works with Skinner, Pominville and Eichel; his defensive pairs have shown signs of long-term chemistry; and the team is in the middle of the pack when looking at Corsi and other advanced statistics rather than sitting near or in dead last.
And if that doesn’t get you off the ledge a bit more, then think about the fact that at least Housley doesn’t think that grit is needed to play winning hockey thus staying in the stone age of his sport.