The Foundation Part 2
This was going to be an article about Ralph Krueger.
It could have been an article about Ralph Krueger but making this article about Ralph Krueger wouldn’t be right. Ralph Krueger is a symptom of the disease in the Buffalo Sabres organization. So instead of looking at the symptoms, let’s talk about the cause. The decision-makers of the Sabres organization are the cause. Specifically, the owners, Terry and Kim Pegula as well as President Kim Pegula (sorry for the redundancy).
But I’m also not sorry for the redundancy because it highlights the lack of knowledgeable hockey people at the top of the organization. For all of the good things the Pegulas have done for this community – and there are a lot, believe it or not – their inability to hire hockey people to run the Sabres is inexcusable. They learned the wrong lessons from the odd and not-fully-understood departure of President Pat Lafontaine, and from the dismissal of Ted Black before him. When they brought Russ Brandon in, they were already going the wrong way. Russ Brandon is not a hockey man. He wasn’t even really a football man. He was a numbers man who implemented a successful Southern Ontario strategy designed to draw-in Bills fans from across the border. But Russ Brandon was someone the Pegulas thought they could trust. And trust, in the Pegula world, is as good as wins (at least when it comes to hockey).
Enter Kevyn Adams.
Kevyn Adams would follow the up-and-down tenures of Jason Botterill and Tim Murray before him. That’s probably a polite assessment of the previous two, but that’s a topic for another day. Adams was left with a cupboard full of Botterill’s puck moving defensemen, a couple of goalie prospects and some questions in the forward ranks at all levels. Adams had worked his way up through the Pegula system. After his playing days were over following a Stanley Cup win that I don’t want to talk about (damn you, Henrik Tallinder’s fragile arm and Jay McKee’s shin guard), he became an assistant coach for Lindy Ruff in 2011, got fired when Ron “Garden Gloves” Rolston took over, worked at the Harborcenter and found himself Sabres General Manager. Adams was someone the Pegulas knew for a decade. A likeable, charismatic Western New Yorker with an “aw, shucks” attitude. And similar to Krueger, I don’t want to make this about Adams, because it’s not. This isn’t his fault.
But he shouldn’t be GM. And Kim Pegula shouldn’t be president.
Adams is GM because it’s all about trust with the Pegulas. They are seemingly insular people who have no interest in hearing criticism from the outside world. They value loyalty and they close ranks around people they trust. They often act like parents looking out for their children, in this case Sabres fans. Case in point, Kim Pegula declaring that the Sabres would keep Jason Botterill on following the 2019-2020 season, saying: "I realize, maybe it’s not popular with the fans, but we have to do the things that we feel are right. We have a little bit more information than maybe a fan does, some inner workings that we see some positives in.” That felt great. Super awesome. We’re all ignorant, and the Pegulas have the answers.
Being talked down to like a child does not sit well with anyone, let alone a once-proud fanbase that has beaten down by years of losing. A year later, I still have no idea what positives she was talking about. Also, spoiler: they ended up firing Botterill shortly after that ill-advised comment. That’s the president of the team uttering some weird, cryptic remark and then doing a 180 three weeks later and firing Jason Botterill. Stability! Leadership!
I said at the beginning that I didn’t want this to be about Adams, Krueger, Botterill, Housley, Murray, Bylsma, Nolan, Brandon, Black, Rolston or Lafontaine, but you’ll have to excuse me for using them briefly to illustrate what the disfunction at the top has wrought. We need to take a brief detour. For the three years before Adams, we saw Jason Botterill assemble a very fast, mobile puck moving group. And then we saw this organization hire Ralph Krueger who had no intention of using them effectively as a transition-based defense. We’ve seen prized pieces in Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju regress. We’ve seen Skinner and Hall be neutered. And none of this is meant per se as an indictment of Ralph Krueger. It’s just that there’s no direction to this team.
What is the organizational philosophy of the Sabres? (Insert lifestyle joke here). It’s impossible to say what the direction or the identity is because there is no top-down message, and there is no consistent vision. You bounce from Tim Murray “heavies” to Botterill’s puck-movers, to Phil Housley’s whatever-that-was, to Krueger’s stifling, smothering rebuke of anything resembling fun. So what’s the answer? It’s easy.
Put. Hockey. People. In. Charge.
For the love of god, hire a President of Hockey Operations who has a hockey background. Or even better, bring in a managing partner/minority owner who has some skin in the game and let THEM pick a president. The more layers the Pegulas can put between themselves and the general public will serve everyone well. We, the fans, are sick of being talked to like this, we’re sick of seeing a horrendous product, we’re sick of being treated like children. If this is about money, again, I implore the Pegulas to at least sell a minority stake in the Sabres. Let someone buy in and share in the gains that will come with a properly run franchise. We will all be there when this turns around, but it’s not going to turn around until the right people are in charge.
So this isn’t about Ralph Krueger. It’s about making the right hockey decisions. It’s about hiring savvy hockey minds to properly run this franchise and create a cohesive vision from the top-down.
It’s about leadership.