Simply put, it was time for Darcy Regier to go.
The Buffalo Sabres’ longtime general manager, fired by owner Terry Pegula, pitched various plans to three ownership groups through the years. He said he could build through trades. He wanted to build through free agency. He said building through the draft was the way to go.
None of his ideas brought a Stanley Cup to Buffalo, and a championship has never seemed farther away.
“Sometimes you get to a point where change is needed,” Pegula said Wednesday in First Niagara Center. “It’s not like he was a failure.”
The lack of success would counter that statement. The unbridled excitement that accompanied Pegula into the owner’s chair has tumbled into a total letdown. The Sabres have missed the playoffs in two straight seasons, part of disappointing runs of four in six and seven in 11.
Not getting the job done will be Regier’s ultimate legacy. He left other marks.
Devoted to players
It must be said Regier is an emotional man.
While standing in a pub in Germany, he repeatedly wiped away tears as he told the story of a young soldier with unimaginable injuries he saw suffering that day in a military hospital. He cried while announcing the trades of popular players Stu Barnes and Brian Campbell. He choked up while uttering, “The sky is not falling,” after Chris Drury and Daniel Briere left town. He had to catch his breath while trying to capture the legacy of dismissed coach Lindy Ruff.
Regier cares, especially for his players. In the end, that passion for his guys and failing to assess their talent level helped lead to his dismissal.
Nobody loved Regier’s players more than Regier himself. He drafted, acquired and gave big dollars to the Sabres’ core of Ryan Miller, Jason Pominville, Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek, Jochen Hecht, Drew Stafford and Paul Gaustad. They failed to reward the GM’s faith. Only Stafford and Miller remain, and it’s unclear whether either will be part of the Sabres’ rebuilding project.
As the players underperformed, a losing culture enveloped the dressing room. Calls for Regier’s job grew.
Finally, the breaking point came.
“I’m not surprised,” Ruff said in Edmonton, where his Dallas Stars were set to play. “I’ve seen a few games. I’ve seen the crowd reaction and where they’re at.”
Although Regier’s downfall was assembling the current players, his legacy is tainted by the stars he couldn’t keep.
Regier and Michael Peca engaged in a yearlong contract squabble, with the captain sitting out the entire 2000-01 season. It came after Peca helped lead the team to the Stanley Cup finals during the 1998-99 season.
The dispute prompted future Hall of Fame goaltender Dominik Hasek to question the team’s commitment to winning. He demanded a trade, and both Peca and Hasek were shipped out six days apart in the summer of 2001.
The Sabres missed the playoffs the next three years.
Drury and Briere led the team back to the postseason, with Buffalo advancing to the Eastern Conference finals in 2006 and 2007. Neither was retained as July 1, 2007, became one of the darkest days in Sabres history.
Regier never finalized a verbal contract agreement with Drury, and the center signed with the New York Rangers. The GM decided not to offer Briere a deal until days before free agency opened, and the center signed with Philadelphia.
The Sabres have appeared in only two playoff series since, and they lost them both.
Hits and misses
Regier had enough successes to keep his job under three ownership groups. Hired while John Rigas was in charge, he stayed through the B. Thomas Golisano era. Pegula immediately announced his admiration for Regier upon taking over in February 2011 and repeatedly backed him before finally making the move.
Regier’s first jackpot came five weeks after getting the GM job. He hired Ruff, who became the team’s all-time winningest coach. Regier fired Ruff in February while temporarily avoiding the ax himself.
Regier’s reluctance to trade through most of his tenure had nothing to do with his ability to win them. He brought several key players to Buffalo:
• The acquisitions of Stu Barnes, who became team captain, and defenseman Rhett Warrener in 1999 helped propel the team to its appearance in the Stanley Cup finals.
• He made a lopsided deal with Chicago in 2000 that brought Doug Gilmour and J.P. Dumont to Buffalo for Michal Grosek.
• Briere and Drury came to town in separate deals in 2003 that sent underachieving (Chris Gratton) and aging (Warrener) players elsewhere.
There were also moves that backfired. Regier received nearly nothing of consequence in the trades that sent Hasek to Detroit and Barnes to Dallas. The Campbell deal in 2008 brought forwards Steve Bernier, whose stay in Buffalo lasted just 17 games, and Tyler Ennis, who has yet to prove himself.
So far, Regier’s big moves of the Pegula era are failures or incomplete. Ville Leino, signed to a six-year deal worth $27 million, has had two forgettable seasons. Tyler Myers has regressed badly after getting a $10 million signing bonus. Cody Hodgson has had mixed results.
In addition to a roster filled with underperforming players, the inadequate people/communication skills of the 56-year-old became public through the past two years. During an interview with Canadian cable outlet the Score, former Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke said talking trade with Regier would lead to an hour of wasted time.
“When we’re talking players, he’s talking one language and I’m talking a different language,” Burke said. “So it means one of us is really unreasonable, and I think it’s him.”
The conversation barriers were known around First Niagara Center for years. The hockey department, which Regier oversaw as GM, rarely communicated with the public relations department regarding trivial moves like minor-league recalls or even big announcements like season-ending injuries. Routine telephone calls took all day or longer to be returned. His temper often boiled over with subordinates, especially during road trip travel delays.
Nothing, however, had a bigger impact on the franchise and Regier’s fate than the core signings. In the wake of the Drury and Briere departures, Regier targeted Hecht, Pominville, Miller, Gaustad, Roy and Vanek as players around which to build. He committed $155 million to the players, and he added another $16 million with an extension for Stafford.
Most of them have disappeared. Regier has, too, and he’s left behind a shell of an organization.