Looking ahead for the Sabres: Fix the blue line, get Housley some help

Jack Eichel continued his development as one of the NHL's top young players in 2017-18. But in order for the Sabres to seriously contend, they need significant help elsewhere on the roster. Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

As each NHL team is eliminated from playoff contention -- either mathematically or by losing in the postseason -- we'll take a look at why its quest for the Stanley Cup fell short in 2017-18, along with three keys to its offseason and a way-too-early prediction on what 2018-19 will hold.

What went wrong

The Buffalo Sabres entered the season with their second franchise reset in three years, as GM Jason Botterill and coach Phil Housley brought in a sense of renewed optimism.

Alas, by the end of November, the Sabres were once again an also-ran: 6-15-4 for 16 points, tied for last in the NHL, and it didn't get much better. Buffalo was the third-worst defensive team (3.22) and the worst offensive team (2.38) this season. It became quickly apparent that the Sabres were in some sort of weird "Inception"-esque rebuild within a rebuild, and another Jack Eichel season (0.96 points per game) ending without a playoff appearance.

Keys to the offseason

1. Change the roster and the culture.

Botterill was blunt about Buffalo after what was a quiet trade deadline, outside of an underwhelming return for Evander Kane. "The group that we have right now is not working," he said.

The general manager has now had a full season to see what works and what doesn't, which players fit his plan and which do not. At this point, Eichel should be the only untouchable on the current roster.

2. Address the blue line.

Housley was responsible for a dominant defense corps with the Nashville Predators, but it's clear he's not a miracle worker. Rasmus Ristolainen is developing nicely and Marco Scandella was Botterill's first big acquisition; but with due respect to Zach Bogosian and Jake McCabe, everything else about the defense is in flux, as it should be.

Do they make a trade? Do they offer the moon to an unrestricted free agent like John Carlson? Do they perform several dozen voodoo rituals in the hopes that their lottery ball comes up and they can throw Rasmus Dahlin at this problem?

Housley's forte is the defense. Give him some horses to train, and build from the crease outward.

3. Help for Housley.

There's every chance Phil Housley becomes an excellent NHL coach. But in his rookie season, too many players tuned him out without fear of repercussions. Would the Sabres consider adding a veteran assistant to the bench?

Look no further than Botterill's former team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had Jacques Martin adding gravitas to the staffs of both Dan Bylsma and Mike Sullivan. It's a move that would help Housley and the Sabres.

Realistic expectation for 2018-19

First, the good news. The Sabres have a goalie of the future in Linus Ullmark, who is ready to take over the crease. They have forward Casey Mittelstadt on the way, a player who could be the Mathew Barzal to Eichel's John Tavares or the Leon Draisaitl to his Connor McDavid, depending on your preferred point of comparison.

And, of course, they have Eichel. The realistic expectation for next season is to not dwell in the NHL's basement again and to have Botterill aggressively shape the team in his preferred image this offseason. At least that would be realistic for most observers.

There's no telling what the expectations are for Terry and Kim Pegula, the former of whom said that "the Buffalo Sabres' reason for existence will be to win a Stanley Cup." That was in 2011.