Phil Housley

Previewing the 2019-20 Buffalo Sabres

11 Comments

(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Significantly better. Colin Miller is an underrated defenseman who might be able to take on a bigger role than he played in Vegas. Henri Jokiharju provides another (eventual?) boost on the right side, possibly opening up room to trade Rasmus Ristolainen.

The forward group gets a boost from Marcus Johansson, and Jimmy Vesey if Vesey can take a step forward. Maybe most importantly, they didn’t lose Jeff Skinner.

Strengths: The high end of this team is powerful, and could get better, being that Jack Eichel is just 22, and Rasmus Dahlin is only 19. There’s also a little more help beyond the top guys than in 2018-19, where little good happened when Eichel, Dahlin, and Skinner were off the ice.

Weaknesses: Buffalo took some significant steps in improving the talent around their top players, but this is still not a very deep team. The Sabres badly need Casey Mittelstadt to make a dramatic leap as a sophomore. Even then, the bottom two forward lines seem pretty shaky, and their defense faces similar depth challenges. The Sabres also didn’t really address their goaltending situation, so they’ll have to cross their fingers that Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark (or someone else, eventually?) will work out better than they did in 2018-19.

[MORE: Under pressure | X-factor | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): From 1997-2013, Lindy Ruff served as Sabres head coach. During the offseason, Ralph Krueger became the fourth Sabres coach since Ruff was fired in Feb. 2013. The Sabres have missed the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons (plus 10 of the last 12), and haven’t won a playoff series since 2006-07.

Ideally, Krueger’s seat would be ice cold, but patience is beyond thin in hockey-loving Buffalo. If the Sabres suffer more from the same under a coach who’s spent the last few years more interested in the 4-4-2 in soccer than the 1-3-1 in hockey, then the heat could start boiling pretty quickly.

But there does tend to be a grace period when a new coach takes over, so let’s call it a five or a six.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Jeff Skinner, Rasmus Dahlin, and Casey Mittelstadt.

Skinner got his money, stunningly so, to the tune of $9 million per season. Now he’ll face pressure to justify that price, and he’ll be following up a season where he played a little bit over his head, as his 40 goals came via a 14.9 shooting percentage, the highest of his nine-year career. If he’s closer to his 2017-18 numbers (24 goals, 8.7 shooting percentage), there will be grumbling.

Dahlin was absolutely dazzling as a rookie, to the point that I was arguing that the Sabres should have echoed the Dallas Stars’ handling of Miro Heiskanen by giving Dahlin even more ice time, just to see if he could handle it. Maybe the Sabres will drop any facade of the “training wheels” being on in 2019-20? I’d guess Dahlin can thrive even in tough, big minutes — particularly compared to the Buffalo’s less-than-ideal other options.

Again, Mittelstadt needs to be better in his second full season. He came into the NHL with Calder Trophy hype not that different from Dahlin, and 2018-19 readjusted expectations … but a leap in 2019-20 could be crucial for Buffalo’s chances to compete.

Playoffs or Lottery: The Sabres did a lot right, and if Krueger ends up being a big upgrade from Phil Housley as head coach, then Buffalo could leap even further.

Unfortunately, the Sabres are also in arguably the toughest division in the NHL. It’s difficult to imagine Buffalo being in range of last year’s top three Atlantic teams (Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto), and the Panthers spent a ton to improve on what was already an impressive core. There might not be a lot of seats left in this game of musical chairs, and my guess is that the Sabres will find themselves stumbling out of the mix once again.

It wouldn’t be shocking if Buffalo stayed in the bubble longer than last season, but I’d say they’re more likely to play the lottery than reach the postseason.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sabres fire Housley after brutal finish

Getty Images
11 Comments

Reminder: in hockey, it’s not three strikes and you’re out. If Sunday’s any indication, sometimes you only get two.

The Buffalo Sabres fired head coach Phil Housley after two seasons, giving him the same rope as the Florida Panthers afforded Bob Boughner, who was also canned after two seasons. The parallels continue from there – both the Sabres and Panthers are Atlantic Division teams with heightened expectations they didn’t reach, but also seem to change directions at the drop of a hat – and Sabres GM Jason Botterill has his work cut out for him in getting through another tough patch.

Housley failed to bring the Sabres to the 2018 and 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and Buffalo’s continued struggles has clearly left the mood strained for loyal fans. The Sabres went 58-84-22 under Housley, memorably going from first in the NHL briefly this season, to plummeting to the point that the Sabres have the fifth-best (8.5 percent) chance of winning the 2019 NHL Draft Lottery.

That flat finish improves their chances of landing an impact player like Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko, but it also cost Housley his job.

Can someone else right the ship in Buffalo? They haven’t exactly found a lot of answers, as this ship has been rudderless basically since they ended Lindy Ruff’s lengthy reign behind the bench.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Report: Devils deny they’re set on Housley for coaching vacancy

13 Comments

On Saturday Rich Chere of the Star-Ledger reported that Nashville Predators’ assistant coach Phil Housley is the lead candidate for the New Jersey Devils coaching vacancy.

However, according to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, the Devils have strongly denied they’re set on Housley.

Friedman added the Devils could name they’re new coach in the next 24-to-48 hours and that Housley is in the mix along with a few others.

Housley coached Team USA to a gold medal at the 2013 World Junior Hockey Championship.

The 51-year-old also had a brief stop in New Jersey during his playing days.

Report: Phil Housley the lead candidate for Devils’ coaching vacancy

9 Comments

Phil Housley could be the next head coach of the New Jersey Devils.

According to Rich Chere of the Star-Ledger, Housley, who is currently an assistant coach with the Nashville Predators, has emerged as the front-runner for the coaching vacancy in New Jersey.

Chere reports GM Ray Shero has also interviewed former Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher, Washington Capitals assistant coach Todd Reirden and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach John Hynes.

The Devils reportedly interviewed Dan Bylsma before he took the Buffalo Sabres job.

During his playing days Housley spent part of the 1995-96 season with the Devils.

The 51-year-old’s coaching experience includes a gold medal while behind the bench of Team USA at the 2013 World Junior Hockey Championship.

Eric Lindros’ open-and-shut case for the Hockey Hall of Fame

101 Comments

Peter Forsberg’s election to the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday may have helped take care of something that should’ve happened already – make Eric Lindros’ case to be enshrined in Toronto.

The two giants of the ice are forever linked because of the June 30, 1992 trade that sent Lindros’ rights from the Quebec Nordiques to the Philadelphia Flyers. The blockbuster seven-player deal saw Lindros go to the Flyers in exchange for Forsberg, Steve Duchesne, Mike Ricci, Ron Hextall, Kerry Huffman, and Philly’s 1993 first-round pick that turned into Jocelyn Thibault.

Both Lindros and Forsberg went on to have superstar careers.

Forsberg had greater team success winning the Stanley Cup in 1996 and 2001 with the Colorado Avalanche while Lindros made one Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1997 with the Flyers getting swept by the Detroit Red Wings. Forsberg won two Olympic gold medals in 1994 and 2006 with Sweden while Lindros won one in 2002 with Canada.

For Hockey Hall of Fame arguments, team titles are an easy way to distract from the point of the Hall of Fame. Getting elected to the Hall is based on individual success and, let’s face it, there are plenty of players who will never come close to making the Hall who have won multiple Stanley Cups.

When it came to individual accolades, their honors are similar. Both Forsberg (2003) and Lindros (1995) won Hart Trophies. Forsberg also won the Calder (1995) and Art Ross (2003). Both went to multiple All-Star Games and were season-end league all-stars as well.

When you look at the raw statistics and personal achievements between Lindros and Forsberg, suddenly things look a lot closer:

Forsberg:  (14 seasons – 708 GP)  249 G  636 A  885 PTS  690 PIM 1.250 PPG (points per-game)

Lindros:    (13 seasons – 760 GP)  372 G  493 A  865 PTS  1,398 PIM  1.138 PPG

Forsberg’s points per game total is eighth best all-time trailing Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Mike Bossy, Sidney Crosby, Bobby Orr, Marcel Dionne, and Peter Stastny. He was a no-brainer Hall of Famer whether you loved him or hated him or wanted to hold his history of foot injuries against him.

source: Getty ImagesWhile Lindros’ PPG total pales in comparison, put that into perspective of how great Forsberg’s play was. Lindros’ PPG total is 19th best all-time. The next 11 players behind Lindros on that list are all in the Hall of Fame. Of those between Forsberg and Lindros, Kent Nilsson is the only one who isn’t currently playing that’s not in the Hall (Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Jaromir Jagr are still going strong).

Forsberg was rightly considered a no-brainer to make the Hall of Fame yet this was Lindros’ fifth turn on the ballot. Next year’s vote won’t be any easier for Lindros to crack through.

Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, and Alex Kovalev will be eligible for the first time and join a growing group of worthy candidates to be enshrined. Lidstrom will be a unanimous selection with Fedorov being arguably close to that as well.

That means Lindros will be fighting for recognition amongst other guys with gaudy numbers like Phil Housley, Alexander Mogilny, and Dave Andreychuk or those with brilliant international careers like Sergei Makarov.

There shouldn’t be a way for others, aside from Lidstrom, to make as strong of a claim to make the Hall of Fame next year as Lindros. Now with Forsberg earning his own spot in history, it’s time for the Hall of Fame committee to open the doors for “Big E.”