BUFFALO, N.Y. – The Buffalo Sabres’ dreadful second-half free-fall left general manager Jason Botterill no choice but to fire coach Phil Housley after his second year on the job.
“Today certainly wasn’t an easy day, but the results in the second half were just not there. We were very inconsistent,” Botterill said Sunday, shortly after informing Housley he had been fired. “Our fans expect more. We expect more. In the end, I thought this decision had to be made for our organization to move forward.”
Though Botterill said the blame for Buffalo’s collapse deserved to be shared among the players and himself, he added it became evident the team was not responding to Housley.
“Unfortunately, the message wasn’t getting through,” Botterill said.
Buffalo went from matching a franchise record in winning 10 straight and briefly sitting alone in first in the overall standings in late November, to closing the season winning 16 of its final 57 games and finishing 27th.
As a result, Buffalo joined the 2016-17 Philadelphia Flyers in becoming the second of 50 NHL teams to miss the playoffs in the same season they won at least 10 straight games.
Botterill reached his decision to fire Housley a day after a season-ending 7-1 win at Detroit, and informed owners Terry and Kim Pegula of his recommendation during a meeting in Buffalo.
Housley said before the game in Detroit that he expected to return as coach.
The Pegulas released a statement through the team backing Botterill.
“We know Jason is operating in the best interests of the organization both short- and long-term,” the Pegulas said. “We are confident we share the same vision of bringing winning hockey back to Buffalo.”
The Sabres now open a search to hire their fifth coach in six years since Lindy Ruff was fired amid the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.
The 55-year-old Housley is a Hall of Fame defenseman who spent his first eight NHL seasons playing in Buffalo but failed to restore any semblance of success to a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff round since reaching the East finals in 2007.
Buffalo extended its playoff drought to eight seasons, which now stands as the NHL’s longest active streak after Carolina qualified for the postseason this year.
Overall, Housley finished with a 58-84-22 record in Buffalo.
Asked recently how much the string of losses was wearing on him, Housley responded: “It’s frustrating. I understand the fans’ frustration. Guys are frustrated. …. It’s always difficult when you don’t get the results.”
The Sabres’ victory at Detroit ended a 0-12-2 road skid, which matched the second-longest in franchise history.
But Housley’s fate was essentially sealed during a 0-6-1 skid in early March during which Buffalo was shut out in three consecutive games.
The slump began a little over a week after Botterill backed Housley by saying the team had made progress and added: “There’s not going to be a coaching change.”
Botterill acknowledged he ultimately changed his mind by watching his team commit too many familiar defensive lapses.
“At the end of the day, this is a result-driven business, and we didn’t get the results,” he said.
Housley replaced Dan Bylsma, who was fired along with general manager Tim Murray in April 2016, after Terry Pegula complained the team lacked discipline, structure and communication.
Much is still lacking in Buffalo despite the presence of two key building blocks in captain Jack Eichel and defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, the first player selected in last year’s draft.
Housley essentially ran out of answers after referring to the Sabres as being “soft” while closing a seven-game homestand with a 3-3-1 record following a 6-2 to loss to the New York Rangers on Feb. 15. The Sabres lacked secondary scoring beyond Eichel and Jeff Skinner.
Eichel defended Housley before Buffalo’s game in Detroit.
“He’s not the one playing the games for us. He’s not competing. It’s tough to pin it all on him or to point the finger at him. We need to be better for this to work,” Eichel said. “We had a lot of ups and downs. We were good early, but the last couple of months we lost our swagger a bit.”
Housley’s first season was also a bust. He oversaw a high-priced and underachieving team that became the league’s first to finish 31st in the standings, following the addition of expansion Vegas.
Housley’s largest failure was an inability to have the Sabres adapt to playing the creative, high-tempo style that relied on defensemen in jumping into the rush. It’s a system he helped develop during his previous four seasons in Nashville, where Housley was responsible for overseeing a Predators defense that included P.K. Subban, Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis.
Housley broke in with the Sabres as an 18-year-old after being selected with the sixth pick in the 1982 draft. He played for seven other teams, including Toronto, before ending his 21-year career by playing one game for Toronto near the end of the 2002-03 season.
Housley, who is from St. Paul, Minnesota, finished with 338 goals and 894 assists for 1,232 points in 1,495 career games. He ranks 39th among all players in points, fourth among defensemen and first among U.S.-born defenseman.
AP Hockey Writer Larry Lage in Detroit contributed.
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