It seems like it would be the best thing in the world, right? A guy takes over ownership of your team, and he basically says, “Hey, I’m not in this to make money. I’ve loved this team since I was a kid, and I’m already a billionaire. So I will love this team as much as I ever have, and the only difference will be my name is on the checks.”
So when Terry Pegula comes in as owner of the Buffalo Sabres in 2011, it was such a nice change of pace from the previous owner, who penny-pinched and generally oversaw a club that was pretty good — they finished with 100 points the season before Pegula bought the team — but about to decline.
And the first thing Pegula does? He takes the 196 points the Sabres earned from 2009-11 as proof that his brand new club is proof that they’re on the cusp of contendership and, in his opening presser, promises Stanley Cups. Plural. And I swear to god this is true and you can look it up: He said the first one would come in three years.
We all know what happened next. So there went the three-year plan.
Not to re-litigate the sins of the past too much here, but it turns out Pegula’s idea to make his beloved boyhood team better — “Just spend money on literally whoever you want, even if it’s Ville Leino or Christian Ehrhoff” — doesn’t actually work in practice. Sports isn’t like regular business. You can’t throw millions of dollars at your problems to make them go away. The team fell apart almost immediately.
All that starts the rebuild in earnest, and while Pegula probably doesn’t like it, everyone except the biggest crybabies in the local and national media sees the logic behind the move: In today’s NHL, you basically have to rip it down to the studs if you want to build things back up again.
Only the Sabres, despite icing two of the worst teams in modern NHL history and finishing 30th both seasons, don’t win the draft lottery. In failing to do so, they miss out on Aaron Ekblad and Connor McDavid.
Here it must be pointed out that, when it came to tearing down the decaying husk of the old, pretty-good Sabres and rebuilding it anew, Murray did not do a particularly good job in the “rebuilding” part. It’s easy to trade every veteran you have on the roster for first- and second-round picks. And while that went on, Murray said all the right things, and clearly understood what he should be doing. The problem was obviously that he did not do what he should be doing.
Everyone knew the Sabres were going to take a step forward in Bylsma’s first year, and 81 points for a team that just finished with 54 isn’t bad. As a means of powering out of the tear-down phase, Murray added Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane to the mix up front — important for a team with an historically horrendous offense. He also brought in Robin Lehner in net, which addressed another huge hole the team dealt with.
In theory, a team with O’Reilly, Eichel, Kane, and Sam Reinhart — the consolation prize in the Ekblad sweepstakes — has a pretty good young forward group that’s going to score you some goals. It’s something you can build around fairly quickly. In theory. Adding Matt Moulson (who only played 11:36 a night this season)? That wasn’t gonna do it. Adding Kyle Okposo? That probably helps a lot going forward.
To be fair, Murray was also saddled with Regier’s horrendous history at the draft, so the cupboards were a little bare. This was a problem that really only required time to fix, but Murray didn’t acquit himself all that well at the draft table either.
The real problem was that in all the help the team added up front, Murray’s moves to address one of the worst blue lines in the league were baffling to say the least. For one thing, no, Rasmus Ristolainen actually isn’t as good as everyone in Buffalo makes him out to be. Honestly, he’s just not a difference-maker that helps you win games. And he was their best defenseman this past season by approximately one mile.
The Dmitry Kulikov trade was a disaster. He was terrible in his first year in Buffalo, and the Sabres gave up Mark Pysyk (who was decent enough in Florida), as well as a second- and third-round pick to acquire him. Another defenseman Murray actively acquired (in the Tyler Myers/Evander Kane trade) was Zach Bogosian, who’s horrible. Jake McCabe, bad. Cody Franson, perfectly fine but used in limited minutes and played only 68 games. Josh Gorges, one of the worst in the league. Justin Falk, a guy you might as well forget is even in the league.
That Bylsma couldn’t make a team go with this crew is not in any way surprising. That Eichel got sick of it in a hurry is not in any way surprising.
Murray had, in my estimation and apparently Pegula’s as well, not done enough to keep his job. A combination of mediocre-verging-on-bad and unlucky at the draft, the Buffalo pipeline isn’t exactly bursting with talent. And that D group is so ugly as to be actually embarrassing.
But Bylsma? I say it every time a good coach gets fired: Who do you hire that’s better than the guy you canned? What is Bylsma, a top-six coach in the league? Top-eight? If you have him outside your top 10, you’re nuts. His replacement is likely to have at least an equally difficult time. assuming there is no major overhaul; Kulikov, Franson, Brian Gionta, No. 7 defender Taylor Fedun, and backup goalie Anders Nilsson are the only UFAs whose contracts run out this summer. Whoever replaces Murray has to let ’em all walk. After he adds a coach.
But here’s the problem: Who made the decision to fire the coach and GM? Pegula. Check the letterhead. Who’s going to hire the new GM, if not have a big say in the hiring of the coach? Pegula. If you don’t think so you’re deluding yourself.
And what happened the last time he brought in people to run his beloved club? He brought in a beloved former player who quit after four months, and a beloved former coach who had no idea what he was doing. So what prevents Pegula from doing the same thing this time? Rumors are already swirling about Chris Drury, currently in the Rangers front office, potentially being a candidate. On Thursday Greg also mentioned maybe bringing Lindy Ruff back to coach.
And why not? This kind of thinking — that former players for any given franchise can successfully guide them back to winning ways — is currently going great in Vancouver and Boston, right? Worked even better in Edmonton for a decade-plus.
The problem with owners who get involved in decision-making for their professional sports franchises is that very few of them got rich by owning a professional sports franchise. Pegula knows how the fracking business works, and he — like all obscenely wealthy people — figures that makes him some sort of expert on just about any topic. Because hey, when you have $3 billion in the bank, no one’s gonna tell you no about anything. “Yes Mr. Pegula, good point,” is the most ardent disagreement the rich encounter.
One supposes that if you own a team no one gets to tell you how to run it, but rich people don’t have brains that allow them to see things in the way a normal human being would, no matter how much they’d like to think otherwise. Pegula may see himself as a fan first, but he’s making franchise-changing decisions based on one year’s won-lost record, and (probably) the say-so of a 20-year-old. It’s only going to lead to trouble.
A natural gas tycoon owning the team and deciding to fire an elite coach and so-so GM after one injury-riddled, bad-luck season — the Sabres shot 6.4 percent at 5-on-5, and 8 percent overall, both in the last-six in the league — in which the D corps was never going to allow it to be competitive anyway? Alright, explain to me how that’s any different from letting lucky Caller No. 7 to the WGR morning show make that decision.
They both, ultimately, have the same qualification when it comes to understanding this sport on any sort of deeper level.
They’ve loved the team since they were kids. And that’s it.
All stats via Corsica unless otherwise stated.
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