What If … Terry Pegula owned Sabres in the 1990s? (NHL Alternate History)

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(Ed. Note: It’s the NHL Alternate History project! We’ve asked fans and bloggers from 31 teams to pick one turning point in their franchise’s history and ask ‘what if things had gone differently?’ Trades, hirings, firings, wins, losses, injuries … all of it. How would one different outcome change the course of history for an NHL team? Today: Dave Davis on the Buffalo SabresEnjoy!)

By Dave Davis

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Gary Bettman has had a vision of parity for the NHL pretty much since the day he became commissioner.

But in the 1990’s, before the days of loser points and salary cap ceilings and floors, the financial landscape of the league looked a bit like the Wild West. If you owned a team, the amount of money that could be spent on players was limited only to your resources and appetite for risk.

As it turned out, there was a select group of about a half dozen teams — residing in large markets and/or having owners with deep pockets — that had the inside track on the best players.

Buffalo was about as far away from that group as Siberia.

The Sabres fell into deep financial trouble. The team was losing well over $10 million per season in its last few years at Memorial Auditorium. It got to the point where payroll wasn’t being met on time.

As it turned out, Adelphia Communications CEO and future white collar criminal John Rigas became majority partner of the Sabres and kept them afloat financially, at least until the truth about his blatant misuse of funds came to light.

But consider this:

What would happen if the lifetime dream of a certain diehard Sabres fan/wealthy businessman came true 13 years earlier?

{Cue the Zamboni time machine graphic and cheesy alternate reality music.}

It’s 1997, and Rigas is in negotiations to bump up his ownership stake in the Sabres to 52%, which would give him operational control of the franchise.

Enter Terry Pegula, who sold East Resources a year earlier for $500 million. The 46-year-old oil & gas tycoon jumps into the mix and significantly outbids Rigas with an all-cash proposal.

The best offer wins. Pegula takes control of the Sabres in January of 1998.

After staying in the background and letting GM Darcy Regier do his thing through the end of the 1997-98 season, Pegula is feeling frisky and ready to make his mark.

The NHL Draft is in Buffalo that summer, and the new owner has visions of drafting Vinny Lecavalier first overall in front of the hometown crowd. But Regier’s attempt is futile as Tampa wants nothing to do with trading the pick.

Frustrated but undaunted, Pegula flies Regier and head coach Lindy Ruff with him to Pittsburgh to incessantly stalk Ron Francis until the veteran forward finally agrees to a four-year, $22 million dollar contract. While they’re out there, the triumphant trio also land another ex-Pittsburgh Penguin, talented offensive defenseman Fredrik Olausson.

For the 1998-99 season, Francis is named Sabres captain. He and Olausson finish second and third behind Miroslav Satan in team scoring.

The additions of a two-time Stanley Cup winner and the scoring touch from the blue line, to a resilient and well-coached team that already has the best goaltender in the world in Dominik Hasek, puts Buffalo over the top.

The Sabres are up three games to two against the Dallas Stars in Game Six of the Stanley Cup Final. Brett Hull flips the puck over a sprawling Hasek and into the net in the third overtime.

But as the polished Cup is slowly being packed and readied for a trip to Dallas for Game 7, video review shows that Hull’s skate was in the crease. The goal is disallowed, and Michael Peca scores the game-winner moments later.

The Sabres defeat the Stars in six games, becoming champions in Pegula’s first full season as owner.

Hull cries foul to the media about Buffalo getting preferential treatment for being an established hockey market.

After a down season and first-round exit the following year due in large part to a Hasek injury, the Sabres contend again in 2000-01. Peca signs a 5-year, $20 million contract and Hasek wins another Vezina. Buffalo reaches its third Eastern Conference Final in four years but falls to Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils in six games.

Pegula and the Sabres make a huge splash by acquiring Jaromir Jagr from the Penguins for Maxim Afinogenov, Dmitri Kalinin and prospects. Buffalo then shocks the hockey world by signing Jagr to an 8-year, $92 million contract – the richest deal in NHL history.

Buffalo also signs trade deadline acquisition and familiar friend Dave Andreychuk. Hasek appears at the presser and tells the media how happy he is to be part of an organization committed to winning and willing to spend whatever it takes.

After losing in the second round to Toronto, the following two seasons are even more painful for Buffalo, as their veterans show signs of age. They miss the playoffs twice.

As the NHL races on a crash course to a work stoppage, Pegula is targeted in the national hockey media as the main culprit for skyrocketing player salaries.

During this period, Francis, Peca and Jagr are traded while Regier wheels and deals to bring in centers Daniel Briere and Chris Drury.

Hasek announces his retirement to spend more time with his family. Following the lockout, however, he decides to come back but is rebuffed by the Sabres. An angry Hasek signs with Ottawa and declares his intention to someday enter the Hall of Fame as a Senator.

Two months before the 2005-06 season opener, Pegula outbids the Hurricanes to land free agent Cory Stillman, who ends up leading the Sabres in scoring.

Andreychuk is waived during the season and Jaroslav Spacek is acquired at the trade deadline.

Despite a rash of injuries on defense, the Sabres overcome Carolina in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on a late third period goal by Stillman.

Buffalo goes on to win its second Stanley Cup, beating the Edmonton Oilers in six games.

After winning the Presidents’ Trophy but falling to Ottawa in the 2007 Eastern Conference Final, the Sabres are in a predicament. Making the deals necessary to be a champion had taken its toll on the payroll.

Buffalo’s cap situation makes it extremely difficult to keep both Briere and Drury. The Sabres sign the latter to a 4-year, $21.5 million extension during the season. Briere signs with the Flyers at the opening of free agency.

Things go downhill from there. Drury has two productive seasons with the Sabres but isn’t able to lead them past the first round of the playoffs. Meanwhile, Briere is having the better of it in Philadelphia, which stirs up criticism in Buffalo for keeping the wrong co-captain.

The controversy intensifies during the 2009-10 season when Drury has issues with his knee and sees a huge drop in production, relegating him to reduced ice time and even some fourth-line duty. His eventual contract buyout causes more problems with Buffalo’s cap situation.

Pegula, challenged by the media and fans for failure to adapt to the salary cap era, doubles his investment in the scouting department and focuses on finding his best players via the draft.

After repeatedly failing to make the playoffs, Regier and Ruff are eventually fired and replaced by Jason Botterill and Phil Housley.

Sabres management makes the tough decision to go full tank, errrh, aggressive rebuild. Buffalo drafts Sam Reinhart second overall in 2014 but has quite a battle for the bottom on its hands the following season.

Senators GM Tim Murray is awarded the moniker “Tanking Tim” from the Ottawa media after trading Robin Lehner and Craig Anderson during the season while both goaltenders are on hot streaks.

Buffalo barely wins 30th place by finishing one point lower than Ottawa and two behind Arizona. The Sabres fail to win the draft lottery but select Jack Eichel at No. 2.

Botterill is lauded as a patient GM who has the Sabres on the right track, while Murray is fired in Ottawa and days later is spotted having a beer at a Don Cherry’s Sports Grill with recently canned Redblacks GM Doug Whaley.

Dave Davis recently left Kukla’s Korner for his own sports media venture, which will be announced shortly. 


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