We know that Pat LaFontaine had every intention of staying with the Buffalo Sabres for a long, long time. He spoke about it being a dream job and how he wanted to build a future for himself and the franchise.
We also know that just 108 days after he was hired as president of hockey operations, LaFontaine was either fired or left the organization. Nobody who knows is saying exactly what happened. Neither is anyone giving the reason. There is speculation that LaFontaine felt he had been cut down at the knees after losing a power struggle over Ryan Miller, a player he reportedly wanted to re-sign and GM Tim Murray obviously wanted to trade. (There were people close to the situation who were convinced that if Miller was going to be dealt at all, it would be on trade deadline day after all attempts to re-sign him had been exhausted.)
Whatever the reason, this sticky situation makes one thing very clear: that the new-age NHL concept of having a bunch of sets of hands running a team’s hockey department does not work. The Sabres, before LaFontaine either left or was fired, was top-heavy with people in the hockey operations department. Along with LaFontaine and Murray, there was Joe Battista, who was vice-president of hockey-related business (whatever the heck that is) and special advisor Craig Patrick. That’s a lot of potential for differences of opinion.
Now I don’t agree with Brian Burke on many things, but I do wholeheartedly endorse his notion that you have to have one, undisputed and confident hand at the tiller when it comes to making player personnel and coaching decisions. Management by committee almost never works in the NHL.
And when the Sabres hired Murray as their GM, they also hired his vision for the future of the franchise. If they didn’t like it – and they had to have known what it was before they brought him aboard – they shouldn’t have hired him. If they didn’t want a forceful, opinionated and decisive person to run their hockey department, they should have steered clear of Murray, who is all of those things.
In short, if you’re going to hire someone to execute a rebuild of the magnitude of the one facing the Sabres, you have to allow him to do the job for which you hired him. As far as this corner is concerned, Murray knocked it out of the park with the bases loaded on his first major league at-bat. The goaltending market is a very limited one and, while the St. Louis Blues had concerns in goal, they didn’t need a superstar goalie to put them over the top. All they needed was a good one who wouldn’t lose games for them. At the time of the Miller trade, the Blues were third in goals-against average and second in shots against in the NHL, yet went out and paid a huge price for Miller and Steve Ott. It’s hard to imagine Murray could have found a better deal out there.
But even if Murray had not made such a good deal, that’s not the point. Actually, when you look at the structure the Sabres had when it came to hockey operations, it was doomed to fail from the start. LaFontaine and coach Ted Nolan – as an interim coach, it should be remembered – were hired, and then Murray was brought on board. The problem is it’s next to impossible to appease that many layers of hockey people on every move that is made. And if I’m the Sabres and it comes to player personnel matters, I’m going to take Tim Murray’s advice over Pat LaFontaine’s. That’s not a knock against LaFontaine as much as it’s a tip of the hat to Murray’s experience in hockey matters.
We will find out eventually what actually happened in L’Affaire LaFontaine. Chances are the truth will not be pretty. But hockey is often a blood sport on and off the ice. And if Murray’s moves work out and the Sabres are a Stanley Cup contender in four years because of the moves he made, few will remember that the Sabres were dysfunction personified on the day they traded Ryan Miller.
So much of Murray’s work has yet to be done, whether he decides to flip Chris Stewart to Ottawa, trade Matt Moulson and Christian Ehrhoff, sign Nolan to a contract extension or buy out key players over the summer. But at least when the results are in – good or bad – there will be one person standing to take either the credit or the blame.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.