Tim Murray admitted Thursday night his mind is far from made up. By his own admission, the Buffalo Sabres have been "obvious sellers" at the NHL trade deadline in his first three years as general manager. It's not automatically the case this year and it's not really Murray's call either.
A jam-packed February leaves the decision for March 1 really up to the players and coaches.
The GM is open to pawning off his unrestricted free agents as he has in the past or looking for pieces to help a playoff push, provided it doesn't compromise the team's longterm plan. Clubs calling, for instance, about a future rock like Brendan Guhle will be told in no uncertain terms to hit the pavement.
The first game after the All-Star break did not leave a favorable impression. Tuesday's 5-2 loss in Montreal might rank as the club's worst game in Dan Bylsma's two seasons. Murray called it a "fiasco" and said he met with captain Brian Gionta before practice Wednesday.
"I told him my expectations and said we could go in two or three different directions here," Murray told The News prior to Thursday's 2-1 overtime loss to the New York Rangers, a far better representation of how this team should look. "I know he talked to his teammates about the game and how it wasn't acceptable. I talked to the coaches as well. We had a lot of meetings. I told Brian I believed in the team, in the guys that are here.
"But the Montreal game was unacceptable. I don't put that on the coaches whatsoever. I met with Brian and I stared down players before practice too. I went and met with the coaches. I said to Dan, "They'll be ready for you to talk at center ice" and I knew he would have his thing with them. So I said to him, 'Get their attention.' "
Bylsma sure did at the start of practice Wednesday. It was up to the players to heed the message and push back into the playoff race.
If they can't and Murray thus sells, he should get some action on pending free agents like backup goaltender Anders Nilsson and defenseman Cody Franson and Dmitry Kulikov. But the player that might pique the most interest is Gionta, who is having his best year of his three seasons in Buffalo and clearly looks like he could help a playoff team on its bottom two lines.
But trading your captain is always a sensitive subject. Especially a guy who came here to be close to his Rochester home and has been nothing but a super soldier through all the losing that's gone on.
"If we are a seller, I will have the conversation with him at the deadline and I hope this team takes this right to the deadline," Murray said. "I've had that conversation with every guy when we've been sellers in the past. Most of them have wanted to move on and have a chance to win but I can't tell you what the answer will be."
The Sabres have obvious holes that Murray knows. The defense is too thin and the bottom-six forwards aren't good enough, a work in progress as evidenced by Thursday's decision to put Cal O'Reilly on waivers and try former AHL defenseman Nic Deslauriers at center. Murray said he'd be interested in "a really soft deal on a legitmate fourth-line center," a reference to the salary cap and his desire to not give up a major asset.
Jake McCabe and Josh Gorges are both getting healthy and could be ready to help the 'D' as soon as next week. Especially in McCabe's case, that could help Murray's decisions. He said he's not carrying eight defensemen, with Taylor Fedun and Justin Falk possibly needing to go on waivers, but Zach Bogosian's injury Thursday could give Murray a stay on some of that activity.
The elephant in the room is Bylsma, who takes a pounding on social media after every loss and prompts plenty of slow nods from folks down in Pittsburgh.
Bylsma has his shortcomings for sure, but it seems to be ridiculous to be talking about his job status in the second year of a five-year deal and a major rebuild. It seems inconceivable that Terry Pegula would have the stomach to dump another big name after two years. And let's not forget that Bylsma inherited a 54-point hockey team, not the 9-7 football team that Rex Ryan failed to build a bully with for Pegula.
Murray understands the grouchy climate of fans and media in this town these days. He feels some of the same frustrations you do.
"That's a rollercoaster, to be honest with you," he said of his relationship with Bylsma. "Some days I go in there and say, 'What are you doing?' Other days I go in and say, 'Good job tonight, really good.' But it's hard for me to say good job a lot. It's just my nature. We can win 4-1 and I'll find something to needle the coaches about. Yes, they can enjoy it. They're coaches. But they're not high-fiving because I'll be like, 'What about this? Work on this.' "
Murray recounted how he went into the dressing room prior to the team's practice last week in Dallas with Pegula -- while the team was on a three-game winning streak, remember -- and made a clear point to Bylsma.
"I walk in with the owner and say, 'So what are we doing, pirouettes and spin-o-ramas or are we going to bleeping battle today?' Murray said slyly. "And it was just done lightly. Terry looks at me like, 'You talk like that all the time?' It's not me being unreasonable. It's just me reminding these guys we have to battle every single night. I think that's part of my role as GM. I'd rather do that than not go in there at all because I don't want to talk to them. I just think it's part of a healthy, good relationship."
Part of a deeper message too.
"Look, this part is clear to me," Murray said. "We can all be better. Players, management and coaches. We're not happy where we are. We're trying to be better and we have been in certain areas. But when you go to the bottom, you can't snap your fingers and learn how to win. This is a process and we're sticking with it. You have to."