The Housley Problem
I could explain how the players have given up on Phil Housley. I could explain how his method for selecting which players to scratch and which to suit up is wrong. I could explain why his defense doesn’t work. I could layout why most of his coaching decisions are flawed. I could pick apart his press conferences. Everything I could say would be true. But then you already know everything I could say.
Housley isn’t a bad coach. He’s the wrong coach for this Buffalo Sabres team. He’s the wrong coach because he expects greatness without showing them the way. That might sound ridiculous but the Sabres are not a mature team, nor are they a member of a mature organization. Housley is demanding performance the players simply can’t deliver and he has proven that he is unwilling to develop them on the ice — instead he tells them to watch the game from the sidelines. This was true for Tage Thompson and Lawrence Pilut, both of which watched more games from the press box than any talented prospect should. It was also true for Alexander Nylander when he was benched because his line mates weren’t moving fast enough. Housley needed to enter this season with the mindset that developing the talent he had was the single most important objective of the season. Instead he benched and scratched players for making mistakes. That approach works with a mature roster but it doesn’t work with an immature roster. Mistakes are going to happen. If you want developing players to learn from their mistakes you need to explain what went wrong, how to avoid making the mistake again, and then send them back on the ice where they can improve whatever went wrong. Instead Housley sat players for making mistakes and then pointed those mistakes out to the media as justification. The players didn’t learn their lesson — they were embarrassed and ostracized. Housley didn’t teach them anything but how to give up. Make a mistake, sit. Motivation? I think not. In my opinion that’s the number one reason Housley lost the locker room and the reason players gave up on him. While we like to think of hockey players as consummate professionals their response to Housley is justified. He gave up on them every time they made a mistake and they gave up on him after two seasons of neglect.
Since Housley isn’t the right coach for this Sabres team why not just move on from him? Why was Housley even brought back for a second season? This is where General Manager Jason Botterill deserves criticism. If finishing 31st in the league wasn’t enough of a reason to move on from Housley, the moment Ryan O’Reilly stated that he had lost his love for hockey, Housley’s fate should have been sealed. Rather than move on from the wrong coach, Botterill moved an unhappy player. I’m sympathetic to Botterill’s decision — even if it was wrong — because I wouldn’t want to trade places with him. He inherited a train wreck of an organization. There were no free contracts to work with, little salary cap room, and he was playing to a disenfranchised fan base. To make matters worse, his predecessor Tim Murray drafted poorly. Botterill had his hands full trying to fix these issues and firing a coach after just one year on the job would have raised questions. The last thing a new GM wants to do is operate under a cloud of uncertainty, but the end result is the same. By sticking with Housley he’s left fans wondering if he himself is the right person for the job. Let me be clear— I do not think Botterill should be fired — but he needs to stop worrying about how it looks to fire his first coaching hire and do what needs to be done.
We can nitpick the Ryan O’Reilly trade but given the state of the Sabres and the talent he had available for trade, he took the best offer that was on the table. Why not hold on to O’Reilly? Because he was miserable and Botterill couldn’t let that resentment fester among his teammates. Also, hindsight is always 20/20. At the time pretty much everyone thought Botterill did well.
1st 2019. 2nd 2021. Tage Thompson. Sobotka. Berglund. That is a major return for the Sabres. I get why the Blues did it, they add ROR and Bozak today and they’re a better team. But given the midnight pressure to deal ROR, impressive by Jason Botterill
— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) July 2, 2018
The biggest mistake Botterill made when trading Ryan O’Reilly was what he did with Tage Thompson. Thompson should have been immediately assigned to Rochester where Chris Taylor would have developed his talent. Instead he spent half the season watching his teammates play from the sidelines.
The biggest piece of evidence suggesting that Botterill can turn things around in the NHL lies in the AHL. The Rochester Americans are enjoying back-to-back seasons of success and just clinched their second straight playoff berth. When Botterill took the helm, the Amerks were in bad shape. Rochester had just endured 3 losing seasons and a playoff drought to match. The Amerks missed the playoffs 6 out of 10 seasons prior. That playoff drought ended during Botterill’s first season as GM. He signed an Assistant General Manager, Randy Sexton, who also serves as General Manager of the Amerks. Botterill and Sexton signed quality veterans and moved on from prospects that weren’t working out. They signed Chris Taylor as head coach of the Amerks and Taylor has been doing a great job developing talent. Taylor is patient and he lets players learn from their mistakes. He understands that the only way to learn from mistakes is to play through them and get better as result. His team’s performance speaks for itself and his team’s success will translate to more success for the Sabres.
If Botterill can build a winning team in Rochester he can do the same in Buffalo — it just takes longer to right the ship in the NHL thanks to the nature of the salary cap. Turning around an underperforming NHL team requires a combination of well developed prospects and smart trades. For that reason Botterill deserves two more years before we pass judgement. By that time he should have legitimate NHL-ready players coming up the pipeline from Rochester.
Ownership is far from blameless in all of this. Before Botterill and Housley, the Pegula’s did the worst thing ownership can do. The Pegula’s empowered Sabres players to fire their coach. You could call that speculation, but here are the facts: the Pegula’s took it upon themselves to interview players about the organization and shortly thereafter they fired their coaching staff and general manager. For all their faults — and there are plenty — this was their biggest misstep. Players don’t have to like their coach but they have to listen to and respect them. Players that have the power to fire their coach don’t have to listen to or respect them. They’ll just have them fired when they don’t like the message. A dedicated hockey president would not have made this mistake. A dedicate hockey president would have walked away from Tim Murray far sooner than the Pegula’s did. The Pegula’s are inexperienced franchise owners and while they have a desire to be involved at every level they would better serve their fan base if they focused on the big picture and hired qualified staff to handle day-to-day operations.
For all their faults, there is one clear choice for Jason Botterill and the Pegula’s — it’s time to fire Phil Housely. Terminating Housley will reflect poorly on the organization, but no worse than back-to-back seasons of embarrassing finishes. Botterill will take heat for picking the wrong coach and keeping him around too long. The Pegula’s will take heat for a continued string of poor staff decisions. With egg on their faces, Botterill should continue as General Manager and the Pegula’s can continue Skyping into meetings from Florida.