TORONTO – One of the more memorable parts of Terry Pegula’s introductory speech as Sabres owner – behind the “reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup” and alongside his ode to “hero” Gilbert Perreault – was his promise to spend whatever it takes to make the organization better.
“There is no salary cap for the National Hockey League on scouting budgets and player development budgets,” Pegula said in February 2011.
One of this season’s primary expenses for player development was the creation of a “performance department.” Buffalo added a director of player performance, a head of injury prevention, a new strength and conditioning coach, and a new athletic trainer.
The performance department is off to a tumultuous start.
After significant personality conflicts and occasional pushback from players, the Sabres have fired the director of player performance, Oliver Finlay. He failed to make it through the first season of a long-term deal that was worth $4 million, according to two sources. It was clearly an unexpected departure for the British-educated Finlay, who purchased a $975,000 home overlooking Delaware Park in the fall.
The nutrition plan put in place by Finlay’s performance department hit a snag with players early in the season. While the smell of pizza and wings often wafts near the visitors’ room after games, Buffalo’s players were discouraged from indulging in savory snacks. The policy was later eased.
There also have been setbacks suffered by rehabilitating players, most notably goaltender Robin Lehner and defenseman Cody Franson.
Personality differences with longtime Sabres employees helped push Oliver out.
Despite the big change at the top, the Sabres remain committed to the department.
“Starting at the beginning of this year, sports performance has been a big focus for the Pegulas,” coach Dan Bylsma said Saturday. “That hasn’t changed with the recent move.
“I think how we deal with our players and our players’ recovery, our players’ regeneration, our workouts, our off-ice program with the people we have in place is at an elite level at the top of the league. It’s something that’s going to be a strength for us going forward.”
Bylsma, in a clear attempt to keep the Sabres’ proprietary information private, spoke in vague terms about how Buffalo’s work differs from his previous employer in Pittsburgh. Much of the performance program is done behind closed doors, aside from weigh-ins before and after practice and an increase in protein-heavy beverages in the dressing room.
“There’s some significant changes in numerous areas for the players,” Bylsma said. “Players see the difference. It’s really been an integration progress throughout the year.”
The Sabres hired Finlay despite him having little hockey experience. Previously a freelance physical therapist and performance consultant, Finlay has boasted employment in professional soccer, rugby, tennis, swimming and Formula One racing.
His assistants have remained on the Sabres’ staff.
Lehner missed his second straight game with an ankle injury as the Sabres lost to Toronto, 4-1. Bylsma said rest remains the course of recovery and not surgery.
“That’s not necessarily the case for Robin at all,” the coach said. “Just rest and rehab right now and strengthening. There will be an evaluation a little bit later in the week next week.”
After Friday’s victory over Ottawa, Bylsma praised the goal celebration skills of Nicolas Deslauriers. The forward smiled when informed of the comments.
“For me you’ve got to celebrate like it’s your last one,” Deslauriers said. “You never know. I kind of lose control.”