February 3, 2011:
“Starting today,” Pegula said, “there will be no financial mandates on the Buffalo Sabres hockey department,” in their effort to fulfill his dream of winning multiple Stanley Cups. “There is no salary cap in the National Hockey League on scouting budgets and player development budgets.”
“A clarion call should go out to the league and to hockey players everywhere,” Black said at the press conference, “that Buffalo is hockey heaven.
11 months ago Terry Pegula came into Buffalo to save the Sabres. Optimism was at an all time high, and rightfully so. Buffalo sports fans were finally given an owner who had money, and gave a damn whether the team won or lost. The total opposite of Ralph Wilson, or so it seems.
Fast forward 11 months after those strong mandates were spoken to the loyal fan base and the frustration level is as high or even more than it has ever been in Buffalo. Some of this perhaps was unrealistic expectations of how much a team can change in just one year, Rome was not built in one day. But another part of it may also be that while the owner has said and done a lot of great things, he is still prone to making mistakes as well.
Pegula was correct when he said there is no salary cap on the non player contract aspect of the CBA. However, that being said there is a cap on the players. Ultimately you have your hockey personnel people making those decisions on who to target and for how much. No matter how much money Pegula is willing to spend, he like every other owner cannot exceed the salary cap. This is where he will run into problems. Because like the Bills for so many years, the new Sabres ownership so far has been content to keep the old boys club around (Regier, Ruff): A pairing which has been in Buffalo for 14 years and 3 ownership groups, pre-lockout, post-lockout. The pairing has not been void of success as there have been some good times, however mediocrity has been predominate.
Since 97-98 when Regier/Ruff were brought on the Sabres have made the playoffs 8 times, they have missed 5 times. One Cup Final, and three Conference Finals. Not bad on the surface. However since 2007 the Sabres have missed the playoffs twice and have been bounced from the playoffs in the first round twice. Not exactly a team moving towards the ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup.
Why the undesirable results since 2007? One reason is that I believe Regier and the Sabres fell ass backwards into the post lockout rules and not because they tactically knew how the rules would play out, so for two seasons they were in decent shape.
However the biggest factor; you don’t have to look any further than Darcy Regier, who probably had one of the worst off seasons in professional sports history. It started with his philosophy of not negotiating with his players until July 1:
Briere and Drury are eligible to become unrestricted free agents July 1.
Regier said he hasn't had any talks with either player, but he expects the process to begin as early as next week.
The Sabres waited more than a month after their season ended before finally making Briere an offer Wednesday. The offer was reportedly a 5-year, $25 million deal.
The offer was considered low, matching the one-year, $5 million contract the nine-year veteran center received in arbitration last summer. The Sabres offer was similar to the deal Briere sought a year ago.
This laissez-faire approach set the table for the Sabres to lose both of their captains in the same off season, the heart of the Sabres locker room and the driving force behind their competitiveness.
If that was not bad enough Regier stuck to that same philosophy with RFA Thomas Vanek. Vanek hit the RFA market and was given an incredibly lucrative offer by the Oilers. But not before Regier took a shot across the bow at the entire league that he would match any offer given to Vanek. The Oilers tried to call his bluff and made their huge offer. Instead of Regier negotiating his own terms for his best player, he let an outside organization dictate the terms to him. The situations with Briere, Drury, and Vanek had significant consequences to how Regier handled business after that. Regier then started locking up his “core’ players left and right with inflated salary cap hits in an effort to prove he was serious about keeping the team together, unfortunately for him he lost the heart and soul of his squad and now was left with bad cap value on his returning players. Since then the results have spoken for themselves.
Since that season the Sabres have desperately trying to find leadership for their locker room. They tried the rotating captaincy, they tried bringing in grizzled vets like Rivet, and recently they have named Pominville captain. But the room has not been right since Regier allowed his room to be gutted by his passiveness.
Aside from the leadership issues the since the Sabres lost 48 and 23, the Sabres have struggled to find solid play from the center position as an organization. Regier has tried plenty of shortcuts with wingers who he tries to convert to center (Leino, Boyes, Hecht etc.) to no avail. The problem is that with very few exceptions, all Stanley Cup winners have high quality centermen on their rosters. Instead of investing heavily in center and defense, Regier invests heavily on wingers and goalie. A high priced goalie in the present landscape isn’t worth a damn if you are not strong up the middle in front of him.
Why pile on and rehash stuff that was 5 years ago? Because the same guy is still in charge of spending Pegula’s money on players. If the Sabres are going to indeed become a franchise who competes regularly for the Stanley Cup do you want that guy to be the one making the decisions?
The next 6 ½ months are huge with what kind of direction the franchise can move. It starts now with the trade deadline approaching, the draft, and culminates with July 1 free agency period. The Sabres can keep the same stale philosophical approach that Darcy has had under three different ownership groups. Or Mr. Pegula can get rid of the old boys club and get entirely fresh faces to move the organization in a new direction. This much is known, the status quo has not and is not working towards the ultimate goal.
What can the Sabres do? First Pegula should revise his three year mandate for a Stanley Cup in Buffalo to it being a three year process to rid the franchise of Regier’s core players. It will be a tough process but Regier’s core will not be bringing any championships to Buffalo.
The Sabres need to get strong at the center position. This may come at a high cost, but it is one they will need to pay, and yes I am talking about players that some fans do not want to part with: Myers, Vanek, Miller (well not so much Miller). I think fans will have the biggest problem with potential of Vanek being moved. I don’t/wouldn't blame the fans as Vanek has finally matured into the player the Sabres anticipated when Darcy matched the Oilers deal. However what good is Vanek if his prime is going to be wasted with no proper blueprint in place to win it all? Those are the kind of tough decisions that a GM not named Regier should be making.
The reality needs to set in that players like Roy, Stafford, Ennis, Boyes, Hecht, Gaustad are not in high demand, nor will they bring in what the Sabres need most. A new GM and a fresh outlook would be best as they do not have any attachments to the players and will make the best decisions in order for the team to become better long term, not maintain the short term mediocrity. It might mean the Sabres struggle for a year or two but that is how you rebuild. You are either going for it all or rebuilding. You cant get better as a franchise by doing what the Bills do, bad enough to have unwatchable seasons, but not bad enough to get the proper draft picks to significantly get better.
I have hit on changes that need to be made with the GM as well as the players, however the coaching position needs a change as well. That does not mean that Ruff is a bad coach. It just means that his time in Buffalo has expired. He will catch on somewhere else and probably do a great job. However that has nothing to do with how he can be successful in Buffalo. He had a nice run but 14 years is unheard of to be with one franchise. The nature of being a coach in the NHL is that you have a shelf life, and during that shelf life you get the most out of the players. Once that shelf life is over, more times than not you will get uninspired play, something Sabre fans have grown accustomed to since 2007.
Pegula can have this franchise go one of two directions right now. He can continue his commitment to Regier and Ruff and hope their philosophies finally start to pay dividends. Or he can make the bold decisions to clean house and do a complete and proper rebuild. Sometimes you have to take one step back to take two steps forward. Buffalo fans already have one franchise that is content with mediocrity and half assed rebuilds, they don’t need a second.
That is how I see the current Sabres landscape.