Terry Pegula has bought the Sabres and has written the book on how to destroy a franchise, demoralize it's players and fans.
Chapter One: Delusions of Grandeur:
February 18th, 2011. Terry Pegula officially becomes the owner of the Buffalo Sabres. He holds a press conference that would live in Sabres infamy. There were famous alumni present, tears, awkwardness and most importantly a grand promise. "From this day forward the Sabres reason for existence would be to win the Stanley Cup".
*Raahhhhhh, the crowd goes wild. But then a pause. Wait a minute? Did we never exist to win a Stanley Cup? Did he just insult every owner, coach and player that had been in Buffalo from 1970-2011? Sort of. It would seem that comment was directed at the man he bought the team from, Tom Golisano. And more closely focused on what had been at the time one of the franchises worst decisions in letting both team captains go from what was arguably the best team in franchise history in 2007.
Oh so um, Terry, when is this um, Stanley's cup you speak of arriving? "Three years". Hmmm, sounds amitous, okay.
Chapter 2: Tunnel Vision:
At this point Pegula set the bar ridiculously high. He has no idea what effect this has just had on his existing team that is already in place. I could only imagine the chatter in the locker room. "Oh were a Stanley Cup team now. I didn't know all you needed was a press conference. So am I the reason were going to win or is it you? Is someone else getting brought in? Am I being replaced?"
Well we saw the first glimpse of what "Pegulaville" would look like. The Sabres jumped at the first guy the saw available in forward Ville Leino and decided to back the brinks truck up to him and make him rich to the tune of 27 million dollars. Days later they would add defenseman Christian Erhoff on a 40 million dollar deal.
Ok so we'll ice essentially the same team with another winger and defense men who we decided to give a lot of money to. Were these moves supposed to match promises made? Did anyone believe they could? What was most apparent was the weight of the promises and the signings made weighed on the team. Under coach Lindy Ruff suddenly they were playing tentative hockey like I've never seen before. I used to comment that they all played like "I'm not this mega star who can deliver these promises made, maybe it's you." "Hey I'm not the new high paid superstar so I must not be expected to hog the puck, YOU TAKE IT". And that just seemed to permeate across the lineup. Ruff no longer had control and for the first time a divide between himself and GM Darcy Regeir was apparent.
Chapter 3: Welcome to the Morgue:
The fans immediately noticed too. There was SO MUCH EXCITEMENT among the fans heading into the 2011-2012 season. Chat boards like this were ablaze with activity and season tickets were selling at record pace. It was entire off season of momentum. A new owner who wasn't cheap, new players. ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE. The Sabres came out ablaze, winning 10 of their first 15 contests, but they would follow that up winning only 9 of their next 33 contests. Yes nine of 33. They would find their winning ways again, but it was a four game losing streak in February that would seal their fate.
The following year would add frustration with a lockout. Play would resume in January 2012 but the Sabres would be mediocre again going 21-21-6. Again much of the losing coming early, then the team finding a winning stride when it no longer mattered.
The exciting, gritty hockey fans had come to love was gone. Replaced with lax, uninspired hockey. Some of the worst seen in decades by the Sabres. What compounded the issue is fans didn't come to see the Sabres of old. They came to relive a better version of all the best teams they'd ever known. It was then the HSBC arena would be donned "The Morgue". Expectations set so high and a delivery so low it left fans dumbfounded. I remember being there, we were all just quietly waiting for "it" to happen. But it never did. Fans who used to have reasonable expectations just sat in silence, dumbfounded. 18,900 people and you could hear a person cough on the other side of the building.
Chapter 4: Ruff Sailing:
During the shortened season of disappointment that was 2012-2013, longtime head coach Lindy Ruff was fired. From the outside looking in, this was a head coach who had been employed since 1999, had zero championships and was in the middle of two straight disappointing, playoffless seasons. It reasonable to think many coaches would be fired at a time like that. But this case begs some serious questions.
When Pegula made such grand plans upon firing the team, what was his plan for and belief in Lindy Ruff. I t would seem from the outset that he had nothing but adoration for Ruff. He spoke glowingly off him. So in Two years time of ownership did he really sour that much on him? Was he so disappointed in the output of the team given his financial input? Starting from Feb 2011, what was the threshold of failure for Ruff set to be? What was the expectation for success? What went so wrong in 24 months, or was Ruff setup to fail?
These were difficult questions that largely went unasked and those that were went unanswered. The team decided to sail on by promoting Ron Rolston from head coach of the Amerks.
Chapter 5: Let's Get Weird:
Heading in '13-'14, I think many people held onto the idea that maybe this Ron Rolston guy was a rising star in the hockey world. He wasn't and nothing more needs to be said about it. 5 weeks into the season longtime GM Darcy Regeir and coach Rolston are shown the door. Not unexpected, but their replacements would turn heads. Former star from the early 90's(ooh those were good days) and captain Pat Lafontaine would be named "President" of Hockey Operations and charged with hiring the teams next GM. Even crazier, Ted Nolan is named head coach. Yes head coach! The guy who was discarded in shame after bringing the team to an Eastern Conference final in 1998. He wasn't really a name in coaching at the time. This had Pegula's fingerprints all over it? What was going on?
The pivital moment would be early January where President Lafontaine would select his General Manager in Tim Murray. This is where the fireworks come in. There was clearly a miscommunication at the foot of Washington street when Lafontaine was hired. Lafontaine was not "President" of anything, he would be no ones boss. That became evident when GM Murray was on cahoots with ownership on completely blowing the team up and "tanking". We will never know exactly what transpired in the Sabres front office, but what is clear is the Mr "President" Pat Lafontaine was not on board, not properly notified and would not have his name on a move like that. And with that he was gone. The children were left to play their game. Any familiar or beloved face was traded from the team.
The list of alienated for Sabres during Pegula's ownership now includes:
Lindy Ruff, Darcy Regeir, Pat Lafontaine, captain Steve Ott, Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pomminville, Robyn Regehr(yes he was major commitment by the Sabres not long before). I'm leaving out others I'm sure, but it's just strange that a guy who platformed on the idea of not letting people go and alienating them is taking some of the biggest name in franchise history and doing that in short order.
Oh and some on ice notes from this season(2013-2014)
Cody Hodgson signed to a six year 25 million dollar extension before the season. Yeah this was out grand plan. Somehow on the flip side of this horrible rebuild, Cody Hodgson would be in our plans.
Cody Hodgson would be the team points leader with 20 goals and 24 assists. He really achieved that more by default because everyone else that could skate or hold a stick.
Ville Leino would score ZERO goals in 58 games. His grant total would be 10 goals in three season(he only scored 30 in the four seasons prior to joining Buffalo)
The Sabres finished dead last in the NHL.
Chapter 6: Tanking is a Dirty Word:
The Sabres would lose the NHL draft lotteries first postition after 2014. They would draft Sam Reinhart 2nd overall. They finished last again in '14'15. They would again lose the lotteries top pick, losing out on phenom Connor McDavid and draft Jack Eichel 2nd overall.
Sabres fan's vision became narrower and narrower. It had to. We came in dead last twice and neither top were awarded the league's top pick. They failed intentionally and then failed at failing. How much this would matter going forward was a great question and would dictate the outcome of the next several seasons up to today.
It was apparent immediately that Sam Reinhart was no golden goose. He wasn't lighting in a bottle. He was a talented but very young and raw talent that needed proper grooming for the big leagues. But that doesn't matter right? WE DIDN'T DO THIS FOR REINHART WE DID THIS FOR JACK EICHEL! Right? Yeah! Or wait we really did this for Connor Mcdavid, but we won't talk about that.
After all of that coach Ted Nolan was immediately released from duty. What was he there for? To do as bad as possible? If so why would bring back a familiar and successful name from the not so distant past and do him like that? Was it mutually agreed upon since he knew his big money earning days were short lived? Not many answers to be had.
Chapter 7: Riverboat Gamblin:
When GMTM took over in 2013 he spoke of patience and rebuilding through the draft. A long rebuild. Sounded like a sound, methodical idea at the time. Would he stick with the plan? Hell Naw. During Eichel's rookie campaign that would double down again and again, acquiring mainstays in Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian, Robin Lehner and Ryan O'Reilly. To this point Murray has also given away 4 second round picks and two firsts.
Side note: Matt Moulson was also signed to a five year 25 million dollar deal in 2014.
It was a massive commitment and a wild gamble to win now on a team that didn't even know what it had in Reinhart or Eichel yet. The result was nothing short of a disaster. The hastily assembled team performed as such. The acquired players contributions ranged from "meh" to downright pitiful.
Note: Cody Hodgson's stats would plummet to a woeful 6 goals and 7 assists in 78 games.
Chapter 8: Chasing Your Loses:
In 2015-2016 Matt Moulson had a career worst year scoring only 8 goals and 13 assists in 81 games(Notice the glaring pattern here? Sign for tons of money and somehow put up unimaginably bad numbers not long after?). Evander Kane was in trouble with the law, Zach Bogosian as constantly injured, rumored to be partying a bit too much and Robyn Lehner is a mess. O'Reilly is pretty good, but in the bigger picture the Sabres made massive commitments and have little to show for it.
So what to do now? Let's take what little wiggle room we have left and give it all to B-rated NHL player Kyle Okposo to the tune of $42 Million. Hey Kyle, why don't you go have a couple of career low point seasons for us? K thanks!
Chapter 9: We Have No Captain:
In the 2017-2018 season the Sabres would deliver the knockout blow to anyone hopes and dreams. They would regress from their moderate growth since Jack Eichel's arrival and turn in one of the worst seasons in team history. Just weeks into the season it cemented the idea that this team knew know bounds of terrible. Despite many reasons to at least be average, they appeared they didn't even belong in the league. And while a few years earlier it was hard to believe it could ever get so bad, rock bottom was the new norm.
The bombshell of an example was Ryan O'Reilly's candid and somewhat eye opening media exit interview at seasons end. He said he at times "Lost the passion for the game". He said he accepted losing at times and expressed regret within himself for allowing himself to feel that way. This guy, a major commitment by the team and candidate for team captain and a big name in hockey admits the season, the situation and the franchise broke him.
It wasn't a total shock as it was somewhat apparent in his play, and rampant among other players both current and recently departed on the Sabres. If a guy like O'Reilly, a career workaholic can be broken in such short order ny this franchise that just imagine how bad it really is on the inside? Fans are broken. Most I know that have season tickets have no plans to renew them. The secondary ticket market has vanished along with the season ticket waiting list. The teams top players and strongest fans have all been broken. This story is an extremely truncated version of the real experience but illustrates what a wild ride it has been in just 7 years. 7 years to destroy all the momentum of a franchise. It may take 7 years from now to get any back.