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Players take accountability for second-half slump at locker cleanout day

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Kyle Okposo seemed to encapsulate the sentiment of his teammates in describing what it was like to see Phil Housley relieved of his coaching duties.

"That's not an easy day," he said. "That's not an easy thing because it causes you to look in the mirror. You have to. Botts did what he felt was best for the organization, but all of us as players have to look at your game and what you bring to the table and say, 'Could I have done more?' I think that everybody would say, 'Yes.'"

Video: BEST OF LOCKER CLEAN OUT

Players were unanimous in taking their share of accountability for Housley's departure when they met the media on Monday morning. Sabres general manager Jason Botterill made the decision to let Housley go on Sunday as a result of the team's lack of success in the second half of the season.

"It's on us," Sabres captain Jack Eichel said. "It's on us in the room. We're the product on the ice so it's unfortunate that that had to happen because Phil's not the one playing the games, and I've said this before. It's on us as players to be better on the ice every night. 

"It just hasn't been good enough. The product on the ice hasn't been good enough. It falls on nobody but ourselves."

Video: LOCKER CLEANOUT: Eichel

Eichel said he never felt a discord with his coach, adding that they communicated often throughout the season. Zach Bogosian praised Housley for his open-door policy. Sam Reinhart and Jason Pominville both said the news on Sunday came as a surprise.

"It was a shock, for sure," Reinhart said. "It's tough as players when you're the ones out there every night. We, as a team, feel responsible. That's all I can say on that, really."

As they packed their belongings, the Sabres had only just begun to unpack a season that began with playoff aspirations and ended with another locker cleanout day that had come too soon.

There were positives, as far in the rearview mirror as they may seem. The Sabres' rode a 10-game winning streak in November to the top of the NHL standings, inspiring an atmosphere inside KeyBank Center that was reminiscent of their memorable playoff seasons in the mid-2000s. 

Eichel, Reinhart and newcomer Jeff Skinner put together career years. Rasmus Dahlin completed one of the best seasons by an 18-year-old defenseman in NHL history. 

But there are also the harsh realities of the second half, which players did not hide from on Monday. Eichel pointed out that Sabres had not won back-to-back games since mid-December prior to earning victories in their last two games of the season. Likewise, alternate captains Bogosian and Okposo cited a lack of consistency as a pressing issue moving forward.

"We just weren't able to string games together," Okposo said. "We were consistently inconsistent. I've said it the last couple months. It was just kind of a slow death. We couldn't put back-to-back games together. We couldn't win a couple games."

Video: LOCKER CLEANOUT: Okposo

Prior to the season, the Sabres held activities within their leadership group to foster more communication and player-to-player accountability. Okposo and Rasmus Ristolainen agreed that it was an aspect that, while improved from prior seasons, slipped as the year went on. 

Carter Hutton took it a step further, saying players needed to hold themselves more accountable.  

"We have a lot of good leaders here that do a good job," Hutton said. "I think self-accountability too, I think a lot of guys need to be harder on themselves, too.

"Obviously, you need guys to chip in every once in a while and coaches need to hold you accountable and players, your peers - but at the same time, I think guys need to be harder on themselves. That's how you improve. I think a lot of guys, at times, struggled with that." 

Video: LOCKER CLEAN-OUT: Hutton

At the same time, Okposo insisted that the Sabres' early success was no fluke. 

"Call it what you want, but we're in first place at the end of November," Okposo said. "You don't just do that in this league [if] you don't have good things. You can even forget the 10-game win streak, the way that we played before that - you don't do that in this league if you're not a good team. I firmly believe that. 

"The wheels came off a bit. So, the bones are there. The bones are there. You saw some results early in the year. So, for sure, I have hope. I just think that we need to talk honestly about what happened in the second half and guys need to look in the mirror and have to come back and be ready to play a full season next season."

Eichel echoed that statement, saying the buzz felt in downtown Buffalo back in November should have players clamoring to recapture that feeling. 

To that end, nobody spoke with more optimism than Dahlin. Unburdened by past shortcomings, the defenseman said his rookie season only instilled hope for the future. 

Video: LOCKER CLEANOUT: Dahlin

"I came here to want to make a change here," Dahlin said. "Like what I've heard, we have made a small, small difference here, but we want to be a winning team. We want to make the playoffs every year so I'm here to make the change. 

"I'm super excited for next year. Somehow, we're going to turn this around. I'm a part of it so I'm super excited."

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