Buffalo Sabres: Time to Sharpen those Dull Swords

This season, the Buffalo Sabres, is celebrating their 40th anniversary as a member of the NHL.  With almost half of the current season played, the team is 25th in the league, 11th in the conference and 8 points out of a playoff spot.  I have been following this team for as long as I can remember.  My father had season tickets when the team came into existence in 1970.  I was lucky enough to have worked for the Buffalo Sabres for 2 seasons.  I bleed blue & gold.  I even bled red & black for a time.  It’s safe to say that the Sabres is my favorite sports team by far.  Like any FANatic, I want my team to win their league’s championship, at least once.  As a long-time suffering Buffalo sports fan, losing is a way of life.  It shouldn’t have to be!

I’m going to borrow Mr. Peabody’s Way-Back machine and take us back to the Summer of 1997, when then Sabres President, Larry Quinn, hired Darcy Regier to be the team’s new General Manager, replacing John Muckler.  Regier’s first act as Sabres GM was to offer the reigning Coach of the Year, Ted Nolan, a one-year contract tender.  Nolan balked and Regier pulled the offer.  He then hired former Sabres Captain, Lindy Ruff, to be the team’s 15th head coach.  From that day, Regier and Ruff have become the longest active tenured head coach/GM tandem in the NHL.  Ruff is the longest active tenured head coach.   As for general managers, only the New Jersey Devil‘s Lou Lamoriello has held his position longer than Regier.  The New Jersey Devils have won 2 of their 3 Stanley Cup championships during the time Regier has been the GM of the Buffalo Sabres.

So Regier and Ruff are currently in their 14th season in charge of the Buffalo Sabres team, and they have won a grand total of ZERO Stanley Cups.  Wait, let me check that, in case maybe I missed one.  Nope!  Zero championships is the correct total for these two gentlemen.  I think they’ve been given a sufficient opportunity to bring a championship to Buffalo.  Maybe they’re on the cusp?  Maybe they’ve been slowly building the team and the chance to drink from the cup is right on the horizon?  Let’s take a look.

They have coached and managed in 12 full seasons.  The ’04-’05 NHL season was not played due to a lock-out.  In those 12 seasons, the team’s average record (counting regulation wins & losses) was 40-30 for 92 points.  They made the playoffs 7 times and missed out 5 times.  They won the President’s Trophy (for most points) once.  In their 7 playoff appearances, they’ve gotten to the Conference Finals 4 times, advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals once.  They’ve had a second round exit once, and a first round exit twice.  Currently, the team is on pace for one of their worst seasons, under this pair’s tutelage, since the ’02-’03 season when they finished with only 27 wins and 72 points.  Under Ruff and Regier, the team has performed to a slightly better than average level.  The team is inconsistent.   How can this kind of performance for this duration be acceptable to a team’s ownership?  Maybe that’s the problem.

Regier and Ruff are about to be employed by their fourth owner during their Sabres tenure.  They were hired by future felon John Rigas.  They held the status quo under NHL stewardship when the team went through bankruptcy.   They performed admirably for Tom Golisano, operating the team like a business and turning a profit for the billionaire hockey novice.  Our hope as fans of this team is that anticipated new owner, Terry Pegula, will bring his love of hockey to Buffalo and make the necessary changes that will bring a championship to Buffalo.  Changes that Managing Partner, Larry Quinn, has refused to make since he returned to the team in 2003.

While I think Darcy Regier has failed in building a winning team here in Buffalo, it’s HIS boss, Larry Quinn, who has failed the Buffalo Sabres fans.  As Managing Partner, he is responsible for the day-to-day activities of the Sabres organization.  Larry Quinn deserves credit on a number of fronts. Most importantly, he brought in Tom Golisano to pull the team from bankruptcy and keep the team in Buffalo. From a marketing and sales standpoint, his oversight has brought the team to profitability, for both Golisano and himself.  In regards to the product on the ice, I cannot accuse Quinn for being cheap or for being more concerned for his profit margin than for player salaries.  The team has spent at or near the cap for the last several seasons.  It’s his decision to stand pat with a GM who has been given more than enough time to build a winner here that has me most infuriated!    This is all about personnel decisions and this is where Quinn has failed.

I’ve been involved in the sport of hockey for a number of years.  It’s my opinion that hockey, more so than any other sport, is all about the chemistry of the players on the team.  Obviously, a team needs some talented players, but you also need to get the right “type” of players.  I haven’t talked much about Lindy Ruff and what he’s accomplished with the Sabres as head coach.  It’s his job to take the players he’s given and put them in together in such a way as to wins games.  There are two ways a coach can fail.  Either he does not have to right players to succeed, or, he is not utilizing them, or coaching them, well enough for them to reach their full potential to win games.  I believe Ruff has shown that he is adaptable to the players he is given to coach.   At one time, Ruff was accused of being too defensive-minded; suppressing some his player’s natural offensive talents.  Then, after the lock-out, when the rules were changed, he modified his approach and the Sabres became a high-flying team that seemingly could score at will.  Ruff has been nominated for the NHL Jack Adams trophy for Coach of the Year twice, winning it after the ’05-’06 season.  So if Ruff is a good coach with bad players, it falls on Darcy Regier to get better players.

Regier has made very few trades during his tenure.  He has made an equally low number of free-agent signings.  In fact, he is more known for the players he has lost to free-agency than those he has signed.  He prefers to draft and develop his own players.  This is the cheap, easy and safe way to do your job as GM.  Hey!  It’s worked!  Remember?  He’s held his job longer than everybody with one exception.  It’s just not a way to win championships.  I’m not going to criticize Regier for relying on video instead of eyeballs to evaluate draft talent.  Eyeballs can be just as wrong as video tape.  It falls on his shoulders to select the players who will wear the Buffalo Sabres jersey.  12 seasons.  No championships.  FAIL!

So why does he still have his job?  Larry Quinn is his boss.  Quinn has publicly stated that the organization’s ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup.  26 teams have changed GM’s since Darcy Regier was hired by the Sabres.  9 different teams have won the Stanley Cup during that time.  This season, the team is regressing, despite some off-season moves by Regier.  There have been some hits and some misses.  This current team exemplifies what Regier has done wrong all these years.

This team has some talent, starting in goal with Ryan Miller, but one thing that has set this team back is the back-up to Miller.  Their choice’s for the #2 goalie has been atrocious at best.  They had a great goalie in Marty Biron, but they had to let him go.  Biron wanted his chance to be a number one and they gave it to him.  They had a chance to get Marty back and he wanted to come back, but for some reason they stuck with the brutally horrible Lalime. Ruff had no choice but ride Miller hard last year, even though Miller left it all on the ice during the Olympics, but Lalime was too awful, and Miller had nothing left in the tank when the playoffs came around.  The team’s defense has been pretty rock solid for the most part, but the chemistry among the forwards is virtually non-existent.  The Sabres finally got themselves a bona fide goal scorer in Thomas Vanek (by virtue of drafting him 5th overall) and only have one center who can get him the puck.  The team’s misplaced faith in the HIGHLY overrated Tim Connolly is nauseating!  I believe the team has some talent at the forward position in players like Pominville, Ennis and even Stafford.  The team has enough finishers.  They just need more play-makers, and more leadership.  Regier has had enough time to figure this out.  Quinn has had enough time to figure out, that Regier can’t figure it out.

Perhaps the reason why Quinn hasn’t made a move has to do with the impending sale of the team to Terry Pegula?   This would make sense if the news hadn’t just broke a few weeks ago.  When the news first came out that Pegula was about to sign a letter of intent to buy the Sabres, Larry Quinn denied the report and said that the team is not actively on the market..  If that’s true, then you can’t use the impending sale as an excuse for not moving out Regier.  Quinn must feel that either mediocrity is acceptable for Sabres fans or that 13 years isn’t quite enough time to build a winner.  Apparently, 26 other NHL teams are just too darn impatient.  It certainly looks like there will be a new owner for the Sabres.  That probably means Managing Partner Larry Quinn will be looking for a new job.  Hopefully, we will finally get a true hockey man making the decisions and his first decision should be finding a new GM.


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January 2011
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