It seems laughable now, but Terry Pegula actually had the right idea when he rolled into town three years ago with a $190 million check to purchase the Sabres and started talking about winning Stanley Cups. He even had three blueprints to help carry out his master plan.
If you remember, Pegula wanted to pattern his franchise after the Red Wings, Patriots and Steelers. The three teams have combined for 20 championships in their respective sports, so give the guy credit for having good taste. But you might say he’s had teeny-weeny problem with execution.
The Red Wings, with their 4-2 win Tuesday over the Sabres, were on the verge of nailing down a playoff spot for the 23rd consecutive season. It’s the longest current streak in professional sports. They have changed coaches and general managers and superstars and goaltenders with barely a hiccup.
“I don’t think it happens by accident,” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said. “I think they have a great plan. They’ve got a great structure, obviously a great method to their success. It’s almost like a cookie cutter for them, and how they do it is a secret. But they do a great job getting those players year after year after year.”
Ken Holland has a knack for finding great players, which is why many consider him the best general manager in the NHL. The Red Wings were perennial powers before the salary cap was implemented in 2005, and they reached the finals twice and won the Cup once within four years of the new system.
The cap was designed in part to level the ice surface between the rich and poor of the NHL so every team had an opportunity to make the playoffs and contend for a title. The idea was to help teams like Buffalo compete with teams like Detroit with variations of failure and success in a cyclical league.
Buffalo’s idea of success these days would be competing for a playoff spot. Detroit defines failure as losing the Stanley Cup. The Red Wings are loaded with players who believe they can win. The Sabres are loaded with players who don’t belong in the league. It will take years for Tim Murray to close the gap, if he ever does.
It means acquiring the right players, and his coaches developing them into better players. They’ll need leaders, guys who can change the culture if not create their own from the dressing room. It’s a tall order for a team sitting at the bottom of the league with more questions than answers.
Detroit is handing down its success to the next generation of players, a practice that started when Steve Yzerman became captain. They reload every few years and continue to take their cracks at the Cup.
“I’m a firm believer that when you get young players, in four or five years, if he’s not a good pro, that’s on you. That’s on your watch. It’s your responsibility,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “If they don’t have enough personal drive to be a good one, make sure they’re in someone else’s organization. The ones that stay in yours have to be pros.”
For years, Sabres management tried convincing fans that players were slow to come to Buffalo because the city had a bad reputation. It was nonsense. The Sabres have had trouble luring good players because the team had a bad reputation and still does. Many see it as the destination of last resort.
Detroit isn’t the prettiest or warmest or wealthiest city. The Red Wings play in an outdated arena that doesn’t include a $10 million dressing room, but they attract good talent every year because players think they can win. Their own players often stick around for the same reason.
Daniel Alfredsson had numerous options when he bolted from Ottawa last summer before settling in Motown. Todd Bertuzzi was in a similar situation five years ago with his career approaching its final stage. He wanted to play with pros such as Nicklas Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg, so he signed with Detroit.
“It starts with Yzerman, goes to Lidstrom and now Zetterberg,” Bertuzzi said. “They all had the same recipe. They all ran a very good dressing room. I liked the personnel. They have very good players, good people, good human beings and a winning attitude. It’s a pretty good formula for success.”
The Red Wings last missed the playoffs in 1989-90, back when Gerry Meehan was running the show for the Sabres and before several players who played Tuesday night were born. Detroit has missed the playoffs twice in 30 years. Buffalo is about to whiff for the third straight season and fifth time in seven years.
Winning breeds winning. Losing breeds losing.
Detroit hasn’t played under ideal conditions this year. Pavel Dastyuk missed 38 games. Zetterberg has been sidelined for the last six weeks along with Mikael Samuelsson. Veteran Dan Cleary has been out for more than a month. Jonathan Ericsson has been injured since March 20. Stephen Weiss has been out since December.
Their standards, established at the top, haven’t changed.
The Red Wings, Patriots and Steelers have one thing is common more than anything else: great ownership. Mike Ilitch placed winning above all else and put people in place to pursue that singular goal. It’s how he has been running a class operation for more than three decades.
It’s not to say Pegula is a bad owner. He has owned the Sabres for slightly more than three years. He’s made an enormous financial commitment. He wants to win, but he doesn’t know how. It can change in the coming years but, so far, his has been a blueprint for failure.