Two years ago, Terry Pegula introduced himself as the new owner of the Buffalo Sabres. He choked up as he called Gilbert Perreault his hero. He declared the team’s reason for existence was now to win the Stanley Cup. He also quoted the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Art Rooney on stability and success.
“Panic doesn’t seem to work,” Pegula said at that news conference on Feb. 22, 2011. “Our feeling is that you pick good people and you stick with them. If you have the right people in place, you always have a chance to be successful.”
Pegula stuck with coach Lindy Ruff and general manager Darcy Regier, a tandem since 1997. He gave them the financial support they had lacked before. He even gave them contract extensions.
When Ruff was fired Wednesday, it wasn’t panic. It was the opposite of panic. The man outlasted popes and presidents – in pro sports. Ruff was the longest-tenured coach in the NHL. One hundred and seventy coaching changes were made in the league while he was in Buffalo.
But now that he’s gone, it’s time to reevaluate everyone else, starting with Regier. The problem wasn’t patience, but the people. Ruff and Regier are good people, but Ruff clearly wasn’t the right coach anymore and Regier might not be the right GM anymore, either, based on the roster and the record.
Making the playoffs shouldn’t matter as much as making sure the Sabres have the leadership to execute their philosophy, so Pegula can remain patient and watch it pay off next time.
Pegula released a statement in which he praised Ruff: “His qualities have made this decision very difficult. I personally want Lindy to know that he can consider me a friend always.” The statement said nothing about Regier, let alone the plan for the future, but maybe silence speaks volumes.
Regier said firing Ruff was ultimately his decision. But he acknowledged that he made that decision in consultation with Pegula, team president Ted Black and senior advisor Ken Sawyer, and Ron Rolston is coming up from the American Hockey League’s Rochester Americans as only an interim coach. That means the Sabres have options. Regier could keep Rolston or hire someone else. If the Sabres hire a new GM, the new GM can hire his own coach.
Does Regier worry about his own future?
“Not right now, I don’t,” Regier said. “It’s not my day.”
But when will that day come?
Pegula came in as a billionaire businessman but also as a self-described fan, and he has done a lot to make this a first-class organization off the ice while learning what it takes to win. He has poured money into facilities and people.
It was reasonable to see what Ruff and Regier could do with more resources – a larger scouting staff, the freedom to add high salaries. These two had come close to the Stanley Cup in 1999 and won a Presidents’ Trophy in 2007.
But obviously overpaying for free agents like Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff wasn’t enough two summers ago, and obviously adding tough guys like Steve Ott and John Scott wasn’t enough last summer.
Tuesday night’s 2-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets was brutal. Ruff said he was embarrassed and sounded out of answers, as his players openly admitted their lack of effort. The frustrated fans booed the Sabres out of the building. The Sabres are 6-10-1 and entered Wednesday night with the third-worst record in the NHL in terms of point percentage.
“I think the prevailing factor here was where we are, where we’re going, conversations that I had with Lindy, how he felt about where the team was,” Regier said. “I think last game was quite honestly a tipping point, and it was evident to me that we were searching for answers to too many questions.”
But this was not the first crisis Ruff had endured in recent years, and the only reason his job security didn’t come up more often was because he had been fired in the media so many times before, it seemed like he could survive just about anything. This team has missed the playoffs three times in the past five seasons and hasn’t won a playoff round since going to back-to-back Eastern Conference finals in 2006 and ’07.
And the Sabres are still searching for answers to too many questions. Are they underachieving? Yes. Could they do better under a new coach simply because of a new voice? Yes. Will they do better under Rolston? We’ll see. Are they building toward a Stanley Cup? That’s the big question, and it seems doubtful, despite the parity in the NHL. Asked about the Sabres’ shortcomings before Ruff was fired Wednesday, one NHL executive said simply: “Talent.”
It’s not just Regier. It’s that Regier is essentially alone at the top. Even though the Sabres have added a number of scouts since Pegula bought the team and lifted the financial restraints – going from a staff of about 11 to two dozen – who is his trusted lieutenant?
It’s also that the Sabres lack a strong organizational identity. Who are they? What kind of hockey do they play? How do they beat you? Are they a skilled team? A skilled team trying to add toughness? What?
Pegula knows what he needs to do. He said it at his introductory news conference. He said he wanted the Sabres to be the best in the league at “finding,” “developing” and “keeping” talent.
Is Regier the best man for that job? Should he be the one making moves down the stretch before the Sabres are even in position to decide on the permanent coach? What about up-and-coming executives, like the Nashville Predators’ Paul Fenton, the Los Angeles Kings’ Ron Hextall and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Claude Loiselle?
Pegula needs a GM with a strong vision. He needs his GM to surround himself with a strong staff and his own coach. And then, yes, he needs to give more resources, more time and more patience before he ratchets up the expectations.
“I’m disappointed in myself,” Regier said. “I’m disappointed for Lindy. I’m disappointed … When I see the players, I’m disappointed for them, too. We should all be disappointed. As far as anger, we have too much work to do.”
The work is just getting started.
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