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Dismantling the Buffalo Sabres

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  • Greg WyshynskiESPN

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      Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.

Who are the Buffalo Sabres?

This isn’t meant to be a “Jeopardy!” answer to “This National Hockey League team has had six head coaches, four general managers and zero playoff appearances since 2011,” although that would be applicable.

This is a legitimate question: Who are they?

What style do they play? Is the roster built for a hard-checking strategy or for finesse? What is their elevator pitch as a franchise? Are they building a champion? Are they rebuilding? Team president Kim Pegula said they’re not rebuilding, right before the team did a gut renovation on its hockey operations department on Tuesday, but she says a lot of things. Such as on May 26, when she said Jason Botterill was “our GM” and “our plan is to continue with him” even though “it’s not popular with the fans” because “we have a little bit more information than maybe a fan does.”

That was three weeks before she fired him.

Are the Sabres the team of Terry Pegula? Nine years ago, Pegula was introduced as their new owner and resident folk hero: the lifelong fan who spent $189 million to buy his favorite team, to pump unprecedented money into its coffers and, who stated, unequivocally, that the Sabres’ “reason for existence is to win a Stanley Cup.”

It’s difficult to capture the contrast between the boundless enthusiasm from that moment in February 2011 — commemorated on T-shirts and in tribute videos — and the newly established nadir of Pegula’s Sabres this week, in which seemingly everyone was fired outside of head coach Ralph Krueger and newly installed neophyte general manager Kevyn Adams, the team’s senior VP of business administration.

Goodbye, Botterill, assistant GMs Randy Sexton and Steve Greeley. Goodbye, AHL head coach Chris Taylor and AHL assistant coaches Gord Dineen and Toby Petersen. Goodbye, director of amateur scouting Ryan Jankowski and a healthy portion of his team. (Terry and Kim Pegula did get through Tuesday without accidentally firing the rest of the staff and each other, which could have left the organization in the hands of a marketing intern named Cole.)

Are the Sabres still the team of Terry Pegula’s deep financial resources?

That was the Sabres’ identity in 2011, when Pegula said that he would have a hockey operations department with “no financial mandates,” and was “cutting the chains” of then-general manager Darcy Regier so that he was free to fund the team’s scouting department, player development and coaches. “We’re going to pour some resources into that area of the team,” Pegula said. “There is no salary cap in the National Hockey League on scouting budgets and player-development budgets.”

I can’t stress enough what a “new sheriff in town” declaration this was from Pegula, the fracking billionaire flush with natural gas money. This was four years after Danny Briere and Chris Drury both bolted from Buffalo as free agents, the catalyst for feelings of financial inadequacy around the organization, even if there were other factors at play. To be a small-market team with a bulging wallet in its pocket was a radical look for Sabres fans.

In 2020, that fiscal swagger is gone. While Terry Pegula pushed back on the “rumor” that his financial situation had taken a downturn, he acknowledged that the industries in which he has made his money are “all hurting” and that, more concerningly, pro sports are looking at an uncertain financial future. “If we don’t have any fans in the seats next year, what are your economics in the world of sports? We need that component, especially in the NHL. Even though times are not good in any of these businesses, you gotta find those solutions,” he said.

The solution, in this case, being a player personnel bloodletting. Reading between the lines about a “lack of communication” and “not being on the same page,” it’s a process in which Botterill didn’t want to participate. And then he was gone, too.

Are the Sabres the team of ‘discipline, structure, communication and character’?

No, that’s what Pegula said they were in 2017, when he fired Tim Murray and Dan Bylsma and started searching for his fifth head coach and third GM in six full seasons as Sabres owner. That mantra was called “The Pegula Doctrine” by one local paper. “This is how you win. We need to get better at that in the future,” Pegula said.

The three pillars of that foundation, three years later? “Effective, efficient and economic,” Pegula said this week. “In today’s sports world, with all the existing technology, we can move forward much leaner and much more efficient. We’re gonna get leaner. It’s just the way the world’s heading.”

From the soaring language of “structure and character” to … something one of the Bobs from “Office Space” would have mumbled in a redundancy meeting. Quite a change in tone.

Are the Sabres a team of many voices?

No, and that’s by design.

The search for Botterill’s replacement was limited to Adams from business administration. That’s it. No casting of a wide net. No studious interviewing of a variety of candidates. Teams can be introspective with their hiring, but they can’t be myopic. The Washington Capitals, for example, did a thorough search before deciding assistant GM Brian MacLellan was the right person to replace George McPhee and promoted from within. That’s the right way to do it.

While the trend in the NHL is to have a managerial brain trust, Terry Pegula said he’s not in favor of hiring a president of hockey operations. “We feel that with the three pieces we have in place now — our ownership and Kevyn and Ralph — that we’ve got this 100 percent open line of communication that we, as owners, have always felt was necessary for any sports team to be successful,” he said.

As one NHL insider said to me this week, regarding the Sabres: “You have to know what you know, and you have to know what you don’t know.” But there’s no appetite to bring in someone who might know better in Buffalo. And with most of the hockey operations staff summarily fired this week, is there any expectation that their replacements will independently push back against ownership or the general manager?

Are the Sabres the team of Ralph Krueger?

They should be. He’s the one guy with the hockey cachet to tell the other links in the chain they’re wrong.

We’ve lobbied in the past for Krueger to take on the dual coach/GM role with the Sabres, in the spirit of a Mike Keenan or a Bryan Murray. But when I asked him if Adams getting the general manager job would lead to Krueger being more involved in hockey operations, the erudite coach replied, “I signed on here to be the head coach of the Buffalo Sabres.”

Are the Sabres the team of Jack Eichel?

That’s as close to an identity as they’ll get.

There’s no one in this league whom I feel worse for than Jack Eichel. He played to an MVP level this season, on both ends of the ice: By goals (16.5) and wins (2.9) above replacement, the 23-year-old star was the eighth-best forward in the NHL this season. He set a new career high in points per game (1.15). Since the regular season is done, Eichel can say he finished as a plus player (+5) for the first time in his career. That’s great.

Not so great? The fact that half of Buffalo thinks Eichel fired his own general manager. That’s what this ridiculous series of events did to him: Kim Pegula says Botterill is the team’s general manager, going forward. Two days later, Eichel says in a media call that he’s sick of all the losing: “Listen, I’m fed up with the losing and I’m fed up and I’m frustrated. You know, it’s definitely not an easy pill to swallow right now. It’s been a tough couple of months. It’s been a tough five years with where things have gone. I’m a competitor. I want to win every time I’m on the ice. I want to win a Stanley Cup every time I start a season.”

Three weeks later, Botterill goes from “our GM” to unemployed. “It was our intent that Jason was going to continue. At that time, we had just found out that the regular season had ended, and the draft had been pushed back to this fall. It gave us a little bit more time to dig in and plan for the future. That’s what changed in those three weeks,” Kim Pegula said. And with that, social media blew up with accusations — serious and satirical — that Eichel, one of the few people in the organization who has demonstrably cared at all about making this work, had gotten another coach or GM fired during his tenure.

Again, my hockey heart breaks for the guy. For the situation this put him in. For being signed through 2026. I don’t know if there’s another young star in NHL history who has had more general managers (three!) than playoff appearances after five seasons in the league.

Are the Sabres the team of Jason Botterill?

This one we can answer definitively as “nope.”

As bungled as this decision was, it’s not necessarily the wrong one. He swung and missed a bunch during his tenure: overpaying for Marco Scandella; not getting much back for Evander Kane; his whiff on the Ryan O’Reilly deal, which stung worse when The Factor led the St. Louis Blues to the Stanley Cup; and while the team lucked into trading for Jeff Skinner, the $72 million contract Botterill gave him (with full trade protection) might already be regrettable. Botterill is a talented executive who inherited a crummy rebuild and unfortunately mangled it even worse.

The NHL has a long tradition of teams attempting to graft someone else’s legacy onto their skeletons. The Sabres hired Botterill because of his championship pedigree with the Pittsburgh Penguins, which earned him credit as an “architect” of three Stanley Cup winners. His replacement is an internal hire, from a team whose legacy is failing to make the NHL playoffs in a parity-filled era that’s allowed every other franchise to reach the postseason at least once since Pegula bought the Sabres in 2011. The NHL even let 24 teams into the postseason this summer. The Sabres were 25th.

We called them “the NHL’s biggest disaster” back in February and that disaster has only grown more voluminous since then. If the question is “Who are the Buffalo Sabres?” then the answer can be only one thing: “The franchise every other NHL team is happy it isn’t.”


Jersey Fouls

From reader Emily Hall:

@BlackGirlHockey @wyshynski Sadly, it looks like I’ll have to wear this again. #TakeAKnee is now a totally different thing. #JusticeForGeorgeFloyd #JerseyFoul #PoliticalJerseyFoul pic.twitter.com/2SS1ezHe9s

– Emily Hall (@Pooks_rutherfor) May 28, 2020

We’ve seen all manner and sort of Jersey Fouls through the years. Rarely have we seen one that made a statement like this. Powerful stuff, then and especially now.


Three things about the Hockey Hall of Fame

1. The Hockey Hall of Fame will announce its 2020 class next week. Jarome Iginla will be at the head of it, a surefire first-ballot candidate who has the numbers (1,300 points, 625 goals in a career that included some “dead puck” years) and the accomplishments, and was one of hockey’s greatest ambassadors during his career. Simply put, this is a guy you want in the Hall of Fame so you can point to his plaque and tell your young ones what he meant to hockey.

I thought about Iginla recently, as NHL players started to speak candidly about race and politics. Back in 2008, when I was working with AOL FanHouse, the Flames were coming through Washington, D.C., and I asked Iggy about the race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to be the Democratic presidential nominee. Specifically, what did the NHL’s first black captain think about the man who would become the first black president in American history?

“It’s been real interesting, how tight it is. We always joke about how some of us [Canadians] would say we’d be Republican and some of us would say we’d be Democrat, and then we argue about it. You watch on TV, and I think it’s pretty amazing for a lady and a black person to be, you know, that close to the Democratic nomination. [It’s amazing] to hear them speak,” he said.

Again, it’s 2008. I’m a blogger for a site most famous for using physical mail to send you CDs to get your email address; he’s Jarome Iginla, a Canadian who played in Canada; both race and politics were the third rails of sports interviews (although that might be changing, finally). But I asked, he answered and I always appreciated that.

2. Marian Hossa is a fascinating candidate. He’s a Hall of Fame player, no doubt: 1,134 points, three Stanley Cups in five trips to the finals, an awesome 89 points in 110 playoff games and a reputation as one of the best defensive wingers of his era. He’ll get in … but will he get in on the first ballot?

Here are the first-ballot Hall of Famers in the past 15 years: Patrick Roy (2006); Ron Francis, Al MacInnis, Mark Messier and Scott Stevens (2007); Brett Hull, Brian Leetch, Luc Robitaille and Steve Yzerman (2009); Ed Belfour (2011); Joe Sakic and Mats Sundin (2012); Chris Chelios and Scott Niedermayer (2013); Peter Forsberg, Dominik Hasek and Mike Modano (2014); Sergei Fedorov, Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Pronger (2015); Teemu Selanne (2017); Martin Brodeur and Martin St. Louis (2018). That’s a lot of Hart, Vezina, Norris and Conn Smythe trophies right there, along with scoring and goalie stat titles.

Hossa is surrounded by players who waited (Joe Nieuwendyk) and are still waiting (Daniel Alfredsson) on the career scoring leader list. He never won a major award, and was a finalist just once (for the Calder). He is a lock for the Hall, but I wonder whether he’s a lock for the first ballot.

3. Two names worth watching: Alex Mogilny and Rod Brind’Amour. Mogilny is in his 11th year of eligibility, but as the induction of Vaclav Nedomansky showed last year, there has been a shift in the selection committee toward Russian and Eastern European players. He’s a Triple Gold Club member with a 1.04 points-per-game average in his NHL career (40th all time). He was also the first Soviet defection to the NHL. An incredible, important player who was an absolute star in his heyday.

Like Mogilny, I think Brind’Amour got a boost from last year’s class when Guy Carbonneau was inducted. Carbo won the Selke three times while Brind’Amour won it twice. He crushes Carbonneau statistically, too: 1,184 points in 1,484 games to 663 points in 1,318 games for Carbonneau. Brind’Amour had 18 points during the Hurricanes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run. His candidacy is on the upswing, and he’s a well-respected player. It’s his seventh year of eligibility. I’m intrigued.


Listen to ESPN On Ice

Emily Kaplan and I talk about the mess in Buffalo, following the firing of GM Jason Botterill (3:54). Sabres analyst and former NHL goalie Marty Biron offers his thoughts on where the Sabres go next (13:41). We then provide the latest on the NHL restart, comparing hockey’s plan to come back with the NBA’s return-to-play concept (26:50). ESPN NHL draft and prospects analyst Chris Peters shares his great story about the worst team in professional hockey this season (36:48). Plus, we open up the mail bag (49:15). Listen, rate and review here.


Winners and Losers of the Week

Winner: Kevyn Adams

All that being said above, congrats to Adams on securing one of only 32 general manager jobs in the NHL. His enthusiasm was infectious during his introductory call, and everyone I’ve spoken to this week has praised his acumen and insight. Hockey jobs are inherently political. It’s about relationships and impressions. Adams played the game well, and earned an incredible opportunity. Good luck to him.

Loser: Amateur scouts

The Sabres letting go so much of their amateur scouting staff highlights how much these people are taken for granted. They put in the work to create scouting reports on draft prospects. The Sabres will rely on that work, while jettisoning its authors. Hopefully this isn’t a trend: Even as draft rankings solidify, there’s still video work to be done on moving prospects up and down the board ahead of the actual event.

Winner: Chicago

While an NHL source denied it to us, there seems to be a perception around the league that if it can’t bring this postseason road show to Toronto or Vancouver, Chicago could be the fallback. First the Blackhawks are a playoff team, and now Chicago might host a playoff tournament. Interesting times.

Loser: Face shields

The NHL apparently won’t mandate full face shields on the ice when it returns, even though the epidemiologists I’ve spoken to recommend some kind of plastic covering for players in contact sports. But this is understandable. The league is trying to coax players to return to play in a pandemic; it’s not about to be like, “Cool, now wear this fishbowl, too.”

Winner: Artemi Panarin

I think the postseason expansion to 24 teams propelled Panarin higher on some MVP ballots than he otherwise would have been (mine included). His 5-on-5 play was extraordinary this season, especially when you look at the disparity in goal differential when he’s on or off the ice for the Rangers. It’s a crowded field, though.

Losers: Seattle nickname watchers

The COVID-19 pandemic has apparently pushed back the official name and mascot reveal for the NHL’s Seattle franchise until the fall. C’mon, Seattle, we can’t wait that long. Get … Kraken.

Winner: Being Henrik Lundqvist

Always in style. �� pic.twitter.com/RAtkFi3Py6

— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) June 16, 2020

The genetic lottery win that resulted in Lundqvist being one of the best goaltenders in NHL history while also looking this cool at all times is like winning $2 billion in the Powerball.

Loser: Gritty

Chance, the giant lizard that serves as the Vegas Golden Knights‘ mascot, recently was voted the winner of the NHL Fans Choice Award for best mascot. We actually had to double-check that Gritty was eligible for the award, as we couldn’t fathom the ubiquitous mascot losing a popularity contest. But the results are in: Chance (32.7%) beats Gritty (28.2%), which probably speaks more to the motivated Vegas fan base than anything else. Spartacat from Ottawa and Stanley C. Panther from Florida were tied for last.


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Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)

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