In their respective searches for new GMs, it looks as though Pat LaFontaine of the Buffalo Sabres and Brian Burke of the Calgary Flames are taking opposite approaches.
According to sources, LaFontaine is casting a wide net and interviewing lots of candidates before making any decisions. Burke, on the other hand, appears eager to get this done quickly and has zeroed in on a small group, one reportedly headed by former Dallas Stars GM and Flames star Joe Nieuwendyk.
If Nieuwendyk gets the Flames job, it will be an enormous leap of faith for the club. When you look at his record in Dallas, even taking into account the ownership issues he faced, Nieuwendyk did a poor job. The Flames position will allow him to work with a mentor in Burke and also give him a safety net. And just because Nieuwendyk made a lot of mistakes in Dallas, doesn’t mean he’ll do the same thing in Calgary. After all, Bob Murray wasn’t a particularly good GM in Chicago, but has developed into one of the top three in the game since taking over the Anaheim Ducks.
Which brings us to the question: which would be the better job to take for an up-and-coming GM? And for a number of reasons, there’s no doubt in my mind Buffalo would be the more desirable destination.
First of all, the new GM in Buffalo would presumably be free to do his job without much interference from LaFontaine. He would be able to pursue his own vision of the team, unlike Nieuwendyk or whoever Burke hires in Calgary. When Burke fired Jay Feaster, he made it very clear that he has a distinct vision for his team, one that includes more belligerence on the roster.
As he is wont to do, Burke threw around a bunch of catchphrases about not wanting to play flag football and playing black and blue hockey. “I like teams that bang and I don’t like the way we play,” Burke postulated. “I want a little more hostility out there than I’m seeing right now.”
The reality is that when it comes to aspects of the game such as hits and fights, the Flames are right around the middle of the pack in the NHL and are second in the league in blocked shots. But of course, Burke had to make it out like the Flames were too soft and that’s the reason they’re losing. He conveniently forgot to mention that five of the top seven teams in hits are currently out of the playoffs, as are two of the top three in fights.
The real reason the Flames are doing so poorly is they’re simply a bad team. If they fought and hit more, would they be any better than 24th on the power play and 28th in goals allowed per game in the league? Would they be any higher than 27th in shots per game?
Doubt it. But they would be much better if their third- and fourth-liners weren’t almost being outscored by Sidney Crosby. Most nights, the Flames’ bottom-six forwards consist of T.J. Galiardi, Mikael Backlund, David Jones, Lance Bouma, Joe Colborne and Brian McGrattan. Their combined scoring totals for this season (taking into account they’ve received multiple points on the same goal on occasions) are 16-29-45 in 165 games. Crosby, on the other hand, has 16 goals and 43 points in 32 games, while Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks has 17-25-42 totals in 34 games.
If Burke doesn’t realize the Flames need an infusion of talent more than size and truculence, he hasn’t been watching the Western Conference play. The best teams are big, to be sure, but they also have third and fourth lines that can do much more than just log minutes. How a guy such as Nieuwendyk would deal with Burke’s vision would be fascinating to watch. And then there’s Burke’s admission that he has no patience for a rebuild, which should have any prospective GM and fans in Calgary very nervous. In fact, you could argue that the Flames’ refusal to tear down and rebuild is what cost Feaster his job in the first place.
That certainly isn’t the case in Buffalo, where regardless of what you feel about the job former GM Darcy Regier did, the new GM there will be walking into a situation where he has a ton of valuable draft picks. The Thomas Vanek trade netted the Sabres an additional first- and second-round pick (in 2015), with the first-rounder having some real intrigue. Let’s say the Islanders opt to use their first-round pick in this draft, which would give the Sabres the Islanders’ first-rounder next year. Let’s say, just for kicks, that the Islanders are a complete disaster next season, not a stretch given they’re currently 29th in the league. Let’s say they finish last. Welcome to Buffalo, Connor McDavid (plus the Sabres’ own high first-rounder in 2015).
And thanks to the trades of Robyn Regehr and Jason Pominville, the Sabres have two more second-rounders in June, plus they have promising young players Nikita Zadorov, Johan Larsson and Matt Hackett from the Pominville deal.
And perhaps most importantly, you can rebuild your team into a contender in the Eastern Conference much quicker than you can in the West because it’s such an inferior group of teams. When your opponents are as mediocre as the ones in the East, it can cut years off the rebuilding project.
Both teams have ownership groups willing to spend to the cap, so that’s not an issue. But Buffalo provides a cleaner canvas and no artistic genius looking over your shoulder to see if you’re painting his vision instead of your own.
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.