Sabres’ Disappointing Season leads to Second Head Coaching Search in as Many Years

Jack Schmelzinger, Staff reporter

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The Buffalo Sabres had a convincingly disappointing 2018-19 season. The Sabres’ young core is made up of players like Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin, complemented by sturdy veterans including Jason Pominville and goaltender Carter Hutton. The Sabres seemed poised to take major steps forward going into the season. A ten-game winning streak that stretched over nearly all of November just added to the excitement around the young team. Despite their fast start through October and November, the Sabres finished the year in the proverbial basement as one of hockey’s worst teams. In the five months following their ten-game winning streak, the Sabres only managed to win consecutive games twice more, and rattled off three five-game losing streaks.  The Sabres even managed to go 1-15 in a particularly messy 16-game stretch.

All of this losing, to say the very least, left coach Phil Housley’s future behind the Sabres’ bench in jeopardy. On April 7, just a night after a rare Sabres’ win to finish the season, Buffalo General Manager Jason Botterill and the Sabres’ owners, Terry and Kim Pegula, confirmed suspicions of those around the league, with the firing of Housley.

The Sabres are now in the market for their fifth coach since 2013. Here are the names they are reportedly considering:

Jacques Martin: The oldest coach the Sabres seem to be considering, Jacques Martin would bring experience and an old-school approach to the Sabres’ locker room that is unparalleled by any other candidates. He last led an NHL team during the strike-shortened 2011-12 season where he guided the Montreal Canadiens to a 13-12-7 record, missing the playoffs. In 17 NHL seasons as a head coach, Martin has never won a Stanley Cup and holds a record of 613-481-119-81. The idea of signing Martin is a very unpopular one among Sabres fans, as most agree that his old school, defense-first style would not properly play to the talents of dynamic young stars like Eichel and Dahlin.

Rikard Grönborg: If the Sabres were to hire Grönborg, they would be hiring the first European NHL head coach since 2001. The Swede has had myriad successes with his country’s national teams. He has led Sweden to five medals in the World Junior Classic since 2011 and has won gold at three of the last four World Championships as Sweden’s head coach. The number of Swedish players on the Sabres roster serves to make the idea of Grönborg as the next Sabres coach seem even more realistic. Young stars like Rasmus Dahlin, along with up-and-coming prospects like Alexander Nylander and Victor Olofsson, would certainly benefit from being coached by a countryman. This idea is pretty popular one with Sabres’ supporters: long suffering Sabres fans are open to the idea of an infusion of fresh air behind their bench.

Chris Taylor: Taylor has spent the last two years as the head coach of the Sabres’ AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans. For the prior seven years, he was an assistant coach for the team. He has been reasonably successful during his tenure, leading the Americans to the playoffs both years when he was at the helm. Taylor seems especially attractive to the Sabres because he has spent the last nine years coaching the next generation of Sabres in Rochester. Most players on the Sabres roster played under him in the AHL. Taylor’s name lost a lot of traction among candidates for the job after the Americans recently made an early exit from the AHL playoffs, getting swept by the Toronto Marlies on April 24.

Sheldon Keefe: At age 39,Keefe is one of the youngest coaches being considered for the job. He has spent the last four seasons at the helm of the Toronto Marlies, who swept the Rochester Americans out of the 2019 AHL playoffs. He has led them to two first-place finishes and one Calder Cup (the AHL’s equivalent of the Stanley Cup) in his four seasons. He is one of the more under-the radar-candidates for the Sabres job, but the Sabres’ seemingly drawn-out coaching search could be explained by the fact that one of their top candidates is still coaching a playoff team.

Nate Leaman: Another dark horse candidate for the Sabres’ head coaching job, Leaman has been coaching in the college ranks since 1998, and has been the Providence College head coach since 2012. He won the NCAA’s prestigious Spencer Penrose Trophy (Coach of the Year) in 2011 and led Providence to an NCAA National Championship in 2015. The Sabres reportedly showed interest in him in 2017 for Rochester’s head coaching job, but Leaman turned down the AHL offer to stay with Providence. It is also worth noting that top Sabres’ prospect Jacob Bryson has played the last three years at Providence under Leaman.

Only one thing in this search is certain: the next head coach hired by the Sabres will be under immense pressure.  The amount of frustration felt by Sabres fans promises that. Jason Botterill and the Pegulas must find the right person to lead the Sabres, because every losing season from here on out will lessen the support from Buffalo fans.

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