Blast from past, hope for future: Sabres might have stumbled on sensible solution in Pat LaFontaine

If anyone should know not to be seduced by a press conference, it’s the fans of the Buffalo Sabres. In February 2011, billionaire Terry Pegula bought his favorite team and talked about winning Stanley Cups. On Wednesday, the Sabres ranked last in the NHL.

The Sabres fired their general manager and coach. They brought back two blasts from the past: Pat LaFontaine and Ted Nolan, even though LaFontaine has virtually no resume as an executive and Nolan has been out of the NHL since 2008.

As Pegula introduced LaFontaine as someone “you may know” and said his goals had not changed – “we all know what they are” – at worst it seemed like a PR stunt. At best it seemed like Pegula was playing fantasy hockey again, moving the Sabres backward instead of forward despite his best intentions.

But in about 40 minutes, the farce faded. LaFontaine will not be the GM; he will be the president of hockey operations and will search for the next GM. Nolan will not be the coach; he will be an interim coach who will try to spark change in the short term. This is the first step of a long-term plan – hire a GM, hire a coach, build through the draft, stick with it, do it right.

Pegula might have stumbled on someone who can save him from himself. Frankly, he isn’t qualified to hire a GM, let alone tell that GM what to do. Most owners aren’t. He could have made a big mistake when LaFontaine impressed him at a meeting about concussions in the NHL and he got all excited.

“I guess I popped the question,” Pegula said. “I said, ‘Do you think you could be a GM?’ ”

LaFontaine could have said yes. He could have tried to sell Pegula. He could have claimed he was the man to make the personnel decisions for the Sabres, the team for which he played six seasons of his Hall of Fame career. What would have happened then?

But LaFontaine didn’t say yes.

“He said, ‘No, I can’t be a GM,’ ” Pegula said.

Pegula asked him why not.

LaFontaine had spent only six weeks in the front office of another of his former teams, the New York Islanders, and that was back in 2006. He had spent only a couple of months working under NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly as the league’s vice-president of hockey development and community affairs, and his duties involved things like youth hockey initiatives.

“I told Terry, ‘Do I think I could become a really good general manager? Yeah, I do,’ ” LaFontaine said. “I don’t have the experience right now, and honestly, I think my strengths are people and making sure everybody’s on board and doing their jobs. So I told him, ‘I could probably grow into that position, but right now I think I could best serve you in building the hockey operations side of things.’ ”

Is LaFontaine qualified to hire a GM?

“I don’t think anything about his time at the NHL prepared Pat for his new role necessarily,” Daly wrote in an email. “I think Pat’s entire life and experience in hockey has prepared him. He is a bright, committed individual who is passionate about the game and its future. It certainly was my privilege to have him working with me, even if only for a short time. I have no doubt he will be successful.”

We’ll see. But an honest self-evaluation is a good start, so you stay within yourself and put yourself in a position to succeed. Hiring an interim coach is a good start, so you can shake things up immediately without committing yourself and handcuffing the incoming GM. If Nolan fails, no big deal. If Nolan succeeds, you have unearthed a strong candidate. He won the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year with the Sabres in 1997.

This approach is a good start:

“We have to be patient, and we have to be smart,” LaFontaine said. “We have to be selective, and it’s not going to happen overnight. But I can tell you this: We’ll get the right people, and we’ll start filling the holes, and that environment and the team will grow. Obviously our vision and our dream is to get the team to be a championship-caliber team year after year after year, and we’ll get it there.”

Again, you don’t win championships with big bucks, grand dreams and happy pressers. But the Sabres have so much to offer. They have passionate fans. They have a loyal, deep-pocketed owner. They have first-class facilities. They have a stockpile of draft picks because of moves made by former GM Darcy Regier, and they have assets to make even more moves.

LaFontaine should have little trouble attracting a good GM. Rick Dudley and Neil Smith are the first names that come to mind. Dudley, the assistant GM of the Montreal Canadiens, is not only a former Sabres coach and player, but a veteran NHL executive and top talent evaluator. Smith, now a TV analyst, won a Cup as GM of the Rangers. He joined the Islanders briefly in 2006 – and LaFontaine quit the day he was fired. But LaFontaine should conduct a thorough search, ignore outside opinions and hire the best person he can. Some other names: Jim Benning, Jason Botterill, Brian Burke, Paul Fenton, Laurence Gilman, Claude Loiselle.

Then the two of them should agree on a vision and identity for the team. Then they should hire a head coach who fits that vision and identity. Then they should draft, sign and trade for players who fit that vision and identity. It’s easy to say but hard to do – what has been the Sabres’ identity lately? – and Pegula should stay out of the way.

Goodness knows Pegula has given his people time and resources since buying the team. It worked to his detriment when Regier signed free agents like Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino to crazy contracts – and he is directly to blame to whatever degree he pushed Regier to do so. It worked to his detriment when Regier stuck with coach Lindy Ruff too long and when he himself stuck with Regier too long. But it can work to his advantage if he has the right people in place and he gives them the space to do their jobs.

Pegula said he told LaFontaine he should be comforted by the way he hangs in with his people. “In other words, your first mistake, you’re not out,” he said. “Your second mistake …” His voice trailed off. Then he added: “Let’s get an attitude and build something.”

LaFontaine was in Toronto for the Hall of Fame and GM meetings early this week. He drove to Buffalo on Tuesday night, and as he crossed the bridge in Lewiston, N.Y., the customs official recognized him.

“He said, ‘You should be running the Sabres,’ ” LaFontaine said. “And I told him, ‘You know, maybe that’ll happen one day.’ ”

Today is the day. Today is the first day – the first day the Sabres have had hope in a long time, the first day in what is still a long process. The key, of course, is what comes next.


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