Jerry Sullivan: Tim Murray needs to answer for same old soft Sabres - The Buffalo News
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Jerry Sullivan: Tim Murray needs to answer for same old soft Sabres

Sabres coach Dan Bylsma had to answer some legitimate questions about his job security over the weekend in Florida. It's only fair that General Manager Tim Murray be subjected to the same sort of scrutiny during Wednesday's season-ending press conference.

Granted, Murray isn't going anywhere. As history tells us, GMs survive longer than coaches in pro sports, even when they're generally more responsible for the team's failures. Murray got an overly generous contract extension from the Pegulas for guiding his team to average. See any parallels to Doug Whaley with the Bills?

But TM the GM has to take a sizable chunk of the blame for the Sabres' discouraging season. He's the genius who put together this maddening and flawed hockey team, one that created unrealistic expectations by rising from historic depths to 81 points, but was exposed as a playoff impostor this season.

Murray's act is beginning to wear thin. It became fashionable to overpraise him simply for not being Darcy Regier, as a scowling straight shooter who charmed the media with tough-guy quotes and wasn't afraid to take a big gamble on trades.

But what do the Sabres have to show for it, exactly? An underachieving bunch of overpaid veterans and entitled kids, with an embattled head coach, a sieve of a defense and an increasingly disaffected fan base.

It's a squad that doesn't exude much personality or inspire any discernible passion in its long-suffering public. I can't blame the fans. Ever since I arrived in Buffalo in 1989, I've heard their lament about the Sabres, how they lacked grit and were too easy to play against. Why couldn't they be more like the big, bad Bruins?

After 28 years, things haven't changed all that much.

For all his tough talk, Murray has put together a team that's suspiciously like the ones Regier created in his day. It's built around finesse forwards who look great when things are going their way but tend to fall apart when they encounter a tough and determined opponent.

You know, soft.

Look at that Sabres roster and ask yourself, what is this GM's essential philosophy of winning hockey? What has Murray done but supervise a tank, draft a couple of guys second overall, and make a few bold, dubious deals?

He systematically took apart the defense, leaving behind a thin unit that was weak in its own end, couldn't make the long passes to initiate the offense and allowed the most shots on goal in the NHL (34.3 a game). Robin Lehner should have been given a blindfold and a cigarette on some nights.

Ryan O'Reilly called the team pathetic after it was eliminated from the playoff race. You know what's pathetic (aside from O'Reilly pocketing $11 million this year for 20 goals?) The Sabres led the NHL in power-play percentage, but were only 28th in the league in scoring at even strength.

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That tells you something about their competitive makeup. They're comfortable when they have a distinct advantage, when their wondrous skills can manifest themselves. But they don't do the gritty work that produces goals at even strength in today's NHL, the battling down low in what Lindy Ruff liked to call the "dirty areas."

There's something entitled about the Sabres. It's been that way since Pegula rolled into town and started rewarding players before they won anything. When Jack Eichel talked about players not hating losing enough, he might also have been talking about the Pegulas, who seem more interested in their brand than winning titles.

Murray was supposed to know how to identify tough, winning hockey players, the ones who would skate through a wall for a Stanley Cup and play the game for more than a paycheck. So where are they? It seems to me that Murray is mainly impressed with raw skill, the kind Evander Kane and Sam Reinhart bring to the ice. Those two don't seem especially passionate about winning.

Reinhart is a lucky man. If Eichel hadn't come along, he would be a singular focus of the fans' discontent, a second overall draft pick who hasn't come close to jusifying it. Reinhart had eight even-strength goals this season. Being late for a meeting is less troubling than the thought of him as a poor man's Derek Roy.

The fact that Reinhart was second overall in a weak draft doesn't soften the impact. Leon Draisaitl, who went one pick later to Edmonton in the 2014 draft, is eighth in the NHL in scoring with 77 points. Sure, he plays with Connor McDavid. Draisaitl is also a 6-2, 215-pound Cam Neely type, the kind of power forward that Sabres fans have long coveted.

Bylsma has his shortcomings, but this is Murray's handiwork. He's working with the roster that Murray gave him. It has to gall Sabres fans to hear echoes of the Regier regime, when Ruff was similarly accused of forcing a conservative system on a defensively challenged team and stifling the offensive gifts of the players.

It also must sting to see the Leafs' rebuild go shooting past them, led by a slew of precocious young players and a coach, Mike Babcock, who snubbed the Pegulas and went North. Toronto could torment them within the division for years to come, in the way the Patriots have the Bills for nearly two decades.

The honeymoon is over for Murray. He proved he could lose on purpose. Super. Now it's time to show he can put together a winner, a tough, resilient hockey team. Go ahead and point to injuries. But the Sabres seemed on the verge of a breakthrough on Feb. 18, when they got to 26-23-10 and a point out of a playoff spot.

They promptly lost eight out of nine, allowing more than four goals a game in that wretched span. That's who they were, a team that got a sniff of success and went to pieces,  a fraudulent contender that wasn't ready for the challenge of an honest-to-goodness playoff race.

Murray has become the hockey equivalent of Doug Whaley, a first-time general manager who spent a ton of money, made some dazzling trades and has yet to win a thing. Six months after getting an extension from the Pegulas, he's a diminished figure.

And people are calling for Bylsma's head?

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