Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula opened his press conference on Friday by declaring that “accountability starts with me.”
Minutes later, he was throwing former team executive Pat LaFontaine under the bus – an executive Pegula hired – as having been the person who picked general manager Tim Murray, who was the person who hired coach Dan Byslma, who were both fired by Pegula on Thursday.
“I was not involved in the last GM and coach search to a large extent, and I regret that move. And that’s all I’m going to say about that,” he said.
Now, you could say that’s Terry – sorry, Mr. Pegula, as WGR radio hosts Andrew Peters and Craig Rivet called him – being accountable for failing to take a more aggressive role in the team’s previous hires.
Or you could say that Mr. Pegula isn’t holding himself accountable for hiring the hockey operations guy who made those calls as his proxy, while also not holding himself accountable for handing Tim Murray a new contract LAST FALL despite these misgivings about the way he ran the franchise.
“You know… what happened a year ago is not important. I don’t want to discuss that,” said Mr. Pegula.
But the past is prologue.
Mr. Pegula actually made the right decision in hiring LaFontaine: Putting a hockey guy at the top of the organizational chart, and trying to develop a brain trust rather than putting the Sabres in the hands of one general manager. It didn’t work out with Pat, but it wasn’t the wrong way to structure a team.
As Mike Harrington notes, this is a League where moribund franchises have seen their fortunes turn around with the right hockey guy as president of hockey operations (or some other leading role): Brendan Shanahan with the Toronto Maple Leafs, John Davidson with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Bob Nicholson with the Edmonton Oilers and so on.
Instead, he handed the team to Murray as a traditional general manager, and said on Friday that he doesn’t regret that structure despite the fact it led to break downs in “discipline, structure and communication within our organization.”
Personally, I loved Murray. He’s a really solid player personnel guy. He’s a nerd and a wonk, and I always loved his press conferences because he seemed like a guy who wanted to be anywhere but in front of a mic and yet relished every moment he was forced to sit behind one.
What he’s not, necessarily, is a brilliant manager of people, nor was he a great communicator. Thus, the Sabres were like if Dwight Schrute ran Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch. Efficiency was up. Morale was down. And ownership stepped in when sales dropped.
“Kim and I spoke with Tim and Dan separately, and decided our organization needed more discipline and communication to be successful,” said Mr. Pegula. “All of that starts with character. You have to have character in the organization and on the ice. You have to have a disciplined, structured environment where everybody is communicating.”
The biggest character test for the Sabres right now?
Whether Pegula has learned anything as an owner.
Take his general manager search. What’s the most important aspect he mentioned? Experience, thanks to his “mistake” with Murray, who was an assistant general manager with the Ottawa Senators but never ran his own show.
“I would say that’s probably a safe assumption. Experience is going to be key in our search,” he said.
So does that eliminate great managerial prospects like Jason Botterill, Julien BriseBois and Norm MacIver because they haven’t run an NHL team?
One hopes not.
Mr. Pegula offered one glimmer of hope that he’s learned something here, with regard to the GM search; something that seemed to point to the idea that the right guy for the job could be the guy who runs the show, leaving room for a new voice to become general manager under that person.
“Without disclosing specifics, on this search, we’re going to find the best candidates that we will bring into the organization to achieve our goals. The structure will land when we hire the first person,” he said.
So maybe Dean Lombardi, of the multiple Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings, arrives as a president of hockey operations, with an up-and-comer under him as general manager?
Assuming that Lombardi is in the mix, of course. Mr. Pegula slammed a Sportsnet report that Lombardi interviewed with the team on Thursday.
“We haven’t talked to anybody. Put that in the ‘Jack demanded his coach be fired’ category. It’s a pure fabrication,” he said.
Ah, yes. Jack.
A report from WGR claimed that Buffalo Sabres star Jack Eichel wouldn’t sign an extension this summer if Bylsma was still the coach, and the next day Bylsma and Murray were fired.
Both Eichel and his agent pushed back hard on the claim, trying to clear his name, but even with Mr. Pegula’s endorsement it’s not a label Eichel’s going to shake for quite some time.
“Jack’s involvement, as was reported, was a complete fabrication. I defend Jack as his agent did. It’s not a true story,” Mr. Pegula said.
“Were players unhappy? Absolutely. We’re standing here today. We’re not in the Cup race.”
In the last 30 years, only 15 different franchises have won the Stanley Cup. It’s not easy. But when Pegula, a Sabres fan, purchased the team six years ago, he said that winning the Cup for the first time in franchise history was “the reason for our existence.”
Maybe in those six years, Mr. Pegular has learned that getting there requires trial, error, mistakes and, above all else, pain. The Sabres have experienced all of it during his ownership, not only failing to make the playoffs but also throwing away a season in a tank that gave them Eichel.
Wait … the Sabres did tank, right Mr. Pegula?
“No,” he said with odd defiance. “We went through a rebuild.”
OK, whatever. The point stands: Winning a Cup means making tough calls, making mistakes and then, above all else, learning from those mistakes to create the right plan for success.
“The plan is to build a stronger organization, from top to bottom,” said Mr. Pegula.
The bottom will sort itself out. It’s the top end of that plan that has everyone worried at the moment. And that’s on the owner.
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