Concentrating less on why Mike Babcock chose Toronto over Buffalo and more on the next step, the Sabres remain in an awkward position as their coaching search continues. It could get extremely uncomfortable if Plan B, whomever that may be, also takes his dry-erase board elsewhere.
Tim Murray deserves credit for making an honest attempt to land Babcock, in my book the best coach available before he signed with the Maple Leafs. The Sabres identified their man, made an aggressive pitch and showed him Terry Pegula’s money. They did everything they could to hire him and more than most teams would.
And it still wasn’t enough.
Babcock is a terrific coach, but it’s not as if he has cornered the market on X’s and O’s, motivation and development. Every coach in the NHL knows the game. With the exception of Ron Rolston, any coach at the highest level had enough experience and success to get hired.
More than anything, Babcock would have helped the Sabres in terms of credibility. He would have sent a message across the league that Buffalo was a franchise on the rise, a destination free agents should consider. He would have served as their top recruiting tool and accelerated the rebuilding process more than any single player.
To me, the respect he had in NHL circles was more important than his actual ability to coach. For decades, Buffalo has been known as a great hockey town. For years, the Sabres have been known as a lousy franchise. Babcock would have changed the landscape if he signed the eight-year, $50 million contract offer from Buffalo.
As it turned out, the one quality the Sabres needed most in their next coach was one they couldn’t buy. It was a double-whammy for Buffalo, a short-handed goal against and the last thing it needed to turn around the franchise.
Babcock’s decision effectively took away potential credibility from Buffalo and redirected it toward Toronto – an impossibly bad situation until the Leafs hired him. His arrival gave the Centre of the Hockey Universe an infusion of energy after years of serving as Canada’s punchline, a laughingstock.
Dan Bylsma, the best coach currently available, would help soothe a wounded Buffalo franchise. But what message would it send if the Sabres also can’t land him?
Do they think outside the box and make a pitch for Boston University coach David Quinn for Jack Eichel’s sake? Do they call former Blackhawks’ assistant Mike Haviland, a one-time AHL coach of the year now at Colorado College, or some other coach desperate for an NHL opportunity?
In sports, there are certain places that established players and coaches avoid unless they have no better options. For years, Long Island sounded like 20 years in solitary. Edmonton had that distinction. In recent years, it’s Buffalo. The Sabres need to repair their reputation and reverse the trend if they want to gain respect.
This is where it gets tricky.
The pressure on Murray to hire a good coach has been cranked up several notches, and he’s already working at a disadvantage. Any coach the Sabres hire will know he was, at best, their second choice. Virtually every coach accepts being behind Babcock, but it’s not as if candidates are climbing over one another for Buffalo.
Money should not be discounted. The Sabres were willing to pay $6.25 million per year to Babcock, more than doubling the salary of the highest-paid coach in the league. Chicago’s Joel Quenneville was the highest-paid coach at $2.75 million. It showed just how much Buffalo valued the man behind the bench.
Bylsma is no slouch. He had a 252-117-32 record during his six seasons in Pittsburgh. The Penguins never finished worse than second in their division. They won a Stanley Cup, beating Babcock and the Red Wings in 2009. Bylsma coached the U.S. Olympic team in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
He doesn’t have Babcock’s leverage after getting fired last June. He certainly could argue that he’s half the coach Babcock has been in the NHL. Does that mean $3 million for him? Not only would he be the Sabres’ second choice, it would make him the NHL’s second-highest paid coach after being out of work for a year.
Of course, that’s assuming Bylsma doesn’t land in San Jose, New Jersey or somewhere else. The Sharks have more talent on the roster and a greater chance for success than the Sabres do at this stage. Bylsma could be looking for a team where he believes he can win right away and restore his reputation.
Luke Richardson, whose name was mentioned as a candidate long before Ted Nolan was fired, is no better than the third choice. He could be a good coach. He might even be the right coach for this team. No matter his relationship with Murray, he has no experience as a head coach in the NHL.
If it reached that point, it would look like Buffalo settled for him because it couldn’t attract someone better. How much would the Sabres pay him considering how much they valued coaches? Perhaps that’s the wrong question. Here’s a better one:
How much do coaches value the Sabres?