On the day Terry Pegula took over the Sabres, I gave him a free bit of advice: If he insisted on keeping Darcy Regier as general manager, he should at least bring in an outside hockey man, a fresh set of eyes to oversee the operation and lead it to a brighter future.
Pegula didn’t listen. He dug in his heels, swore his allegiance to Regier and Lindy Ruff, and let his team continue on its inexorable downward spiral.
The new owner predicted it would take three years to win a Stanley Cup. Instead, as we approach the three-year anniversary of Pegula’s arrival, the Sabres are the worst team in the NHL.
Pegula was too slow to act, too stubborn to realize that things move more swiftly in pro sports than in the business world. Like his former GM, he mistook foot-dragging for virtue, and it cost him dearly.
But finally, and grudgingly, Pegula got around to transforming the stale culture of his organization. He got rid of Regier and stumbled upon Pat LaFontaine as the man to turn around the franchise.
Even then, there was dumb luck involved. Pegula wanted to make LaFontaine the GM, perpetuating a monolithic management structure. Patty knew he wasn’t qualified to be a GM. And he realized that the Sabres needed a more modern, expanded NHL management model.
And so it was on Thursday that LaFontaine, the team president, sat with two respected new management figures on his flanks: Tim Murray, his new general manager; and Craig Patrick, a Hall of Famer and long-time NHL personnel man who will serve as a special assistant and advisor.
That’s TWO sets of eyes to watch over the GM, a radical departure from the Regier era and an overdue concession to the move toward broadened upper management in today’s NHL.
“It’s divided now,” LaFontaine said. “The traditional general manager that did everything, that’s not the case today. If you look at other organizations – general manager, two assistants; or president, general manager, assistant. They’re really a team. They make team decisions.”
LaFontaine called it a culture change. It’s clear that he felt the old GM model held the Sabres back. Pegula deserves credit for expanding the scouting staff and the organization as a whole. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t have bold, creative leadership at the top.
There’s a division of power now. This also diminishes the power of what LaFontaine called “the general manager’s office.” He made it clear that Murray will answer to him. There will be times when LaFontaine and Patrick overrule their GM. So be it. In any competitive organization, creative tension can be a good thing.
Murray is 50; he has been around the NHL and is considered one of the top talent evaluators in the sport. Still, this is his first GM job. It will be good to have an experienced hockey man like Patrick to lean on for advice. Murray seems to have an edge. He says he’s not afraid to take chances and make mistakes. Sounds like the anti-Darcy.
Strong leaders aren’t afraid to be challenged. That’s what makes for great organizations. Murray has an intimate knowledge of today’s NHL. Ultimately, it’s his vision that needs to drive things. He has to identify the players who can give the Sabres the tough competitive edge they’ve sorely lacked.
They cannot be ruled by sentiment, which is one of the reasons they got into this mess. It’s great to have an owner who is a fan. But Pegula’s fondness for Ruff and Regier got in the way.
Pegula’s intransigence on Regier forced him to search for a new GM in the middle of a season, an Olympic season, no less. Murray looks like a solid hire. Still, they would have had a deeper pool of candidates if the search had been conducted in the offseason.
Murray also inherits a touchy situation with his coach, Ted Nolan. Nolan is an immensely popular and politically charged figure in this town. It was short-term genius to make Nolan the interim coach, which helped to mollify an angry, disaffected fan base. But that makes it difficult for the new GM. Murray has the same dilemma as Regier when he took over in 1997. If he doesn’t retain Nolan, he’s a villain. If he keeps him, people will wonder if he was instructed to do so as a condition of getting the job.
“Ted was brought in, obviously, before Tim came in,” Pegula said Thursday. “But Ted and Pat have a strong relationship, so ... ”
Murray said there were no preconditions. He said Nolan is “his guy” for now. Nolan has gotten an honest effort from the Sabres since taking over. He might be just the guy to lead a young, evolving team in a difficult transition. He certainly deserves a chance.
But Murray can’t bow to sentiment. He needs to take a hard, objective look at Nolan and decide if he’s the right guy to entrust with all these kids. Most new GMs want to hire their own coach. If Murray knows of a future coaching star in need of a chance, he should push for him.
It comes down to players, however. The Sabres have a bushel of high draft picks and millions to spend. Murray’s main task is finding gems in the draft, free agency, and on other NHL rosters.
The word is, Murray knows the league; he has an opinion on every significant player in the sport. If so, he’ll have a chance to prove it. Can he identify the uncovered gems in the NHL? Can he find the next Michael Peca or Daniel Briere, a star just waiting to emerge?
There’s plenty of work ahead for the new management team. There’s a lot of hockey knowledge in that front office now, a lot of bold, creative minds. No doubt, they’ll fight and argue and disagree at times. But they won’t be afraid to act, to make the big moves.
“You don’t get to 30th place overnight. We’re not going to get to first overnight,” LaFontaine said. “We’re going to slowly work our way. But you’ve got to build it right. When you pour a foundation ... ”
The foundation is vital. But an NHL organization also needs to be strong at the top. No, it won’t happen overnight. But they’re finally emerging from the darkness.