Owner Terry Pegula of the Buffalo Sabres presents an award before their game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at First Niagara Center on March 30, 2012 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
It’s comforting to know that Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula and the guy who checks the passports at the Queenston-Lewiston border crossing are on the same page. They both think Pat LaFontaine is the best man to run the Buffalo Sabres.
And they both apparently came to that conclusion in about the same amount of time. The border-crossing guy blurted his observation out when LaFontaine crossed the border on Monday afternoon. Pegula made his decision after talking to LaFontaine about concussions recently.
“One thing led to another and it was like, ‘Wow, this guy is pretty impressive,’ so I guess I popped the question,” Pegula said. “I asked him if he thought he could be a GM. He said, ‘No, but here’s what I think I can do.’ ”
And so it goes with the Buffalo Sabres. With that conversation, so ended Darcy Regier’s 16-year run as GM of the Sabres and Ron Rolston’s very short, and very disastrous tenure as coach. LaFontaine will name a GM soon – don’t count out former Rangers GM Neil Smith – and hired Ted Nolan, who hasn’t coached in the NHL in five seasons and will be behind the bench for Latvia at the 2014 Olympics.
Even with the Sabres in last place in the NHL, it didn’t seem that long ago when Pegula said, “Starting today, the Buffalo Sabres’ reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup.” But now, they’re preaching patience in Buffalo and talking about rebuilding and changing the culture. And if the owner is finally getting his head wrapped around the fact that you can’t just throw money around in order to win a Stanley Cup, that’s a good thing.
Because, quite frankly, I sometimes wonder whether the only difference between Pegula and the guy checking the passports at the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge isn’t their net worth. Ever since Pegula showed up with his bags of money, the Sabres have gone downhill at breakneck speed. When Pegula bought the team in February, 2011, the Sabres were in the midst of a season in which they would finish seventh in the Eastern Conference and extend the Philadelphia Flyers to seven games in the first round of the playoffs.
And since then, this corner would argue, Pegula has been the worst thing to happen to the Buffalo Sabres on the ice in years. Please read that again. On the ice. Off the ice, Pegula has been nothing but a godsend, both for the Sabres and hockey in general. He has given the organization ownership stability, he donated $102 million to build an arena and start a Division I program at Penn State and the Sabres Harborcenter project will help revitalize downtown and provide grassroots hockey with a state-of-the-art training center.
That’s the good that comes with Pegula’s money. The bad comes from the fact that Pegula is basically a fan and he has a fan’s mentality. He’s a fantasy owner with the means to fulfill his fantasies. And that can be dangerous. After that promising season, Pegula signed off on moves that have been black holes for the Sabres. First, with still a year left on Tyler Myers’ contract, he gave Myers a seven-year, $38.5 million extension with a $10 million signing bonus that created wild expectations that have stunted Myers’ development. The Sabres then dealt for Christian Ehrhoff and signed him to a 10-year, $40 million deal that was front-loaded and gave Ville Leino a six-year, $27 million deal. That’s the same Ville Leino who has one shot this season.
Those moves have crippled the Sabres. They put the Sabres near the upper limit of the salary cap and forced them to deal local favorite and captain Jason Pominville to the Minnesota Wild because they wouldn’t have been able to fit his new contract under the salary cap. Those moves created the downward spiral that has resulted in the Sabres having to tear down and rebuild, which cost them Thomas Vanek, who determined that he didn’t want to stick around and wait for the Sabres to be contenders again. And it will likely cost them the services of Ryan Miller, whose future will be LaFontaine & Co.’s first order of business.
And as good as the Vanek trade was, it boggles the mind that Pegula allowed Regier to make it if he wasn’t going to be the one steering the course for the franchise going forward. Will LaFontaine succeed as an NHL executive? He seems to think so. His only NHL head office experience was a brief stint as a consultant with the New York Islanders and he’ll have to get up to speed on the league. Much will be determined by his choice of GM, the man who will now be charged with rebuilding the Sabres.
As for Nolan, he is an outstanding bench boss to be sure with an uncanny knack for getting the most out of his players, his short shelf life notwithstanding. But in the past 16 seasons, he has coached exactly two. It isn’t Barry Melrose in Tampa Bay all over again, but it’s close.
Pegula told LaFontaine that he should take comfort in the fact his new employer has a track record of being loyal with people and allowing them to grow into their jobs. “In other words, your first mistake and you’re not out.” It would have been a lot more comforting to LaFontaine if Pegula had said he will now keep his nose out of hockey decisions and will be a little more judicious in throwing his money around.