So sometime within the next few days, Tim Murray will hop a plane to Boca Raton, Fla., and the future of the Buffalo Sabres will be set for the start of next season. Maybe even, depending upon the anger level of Terry (and Kim) Pegula, for the next several seasons. The general manager had few definitive answers to give reporters and fans at his news conference on Wednesday because opinions had yet to be gleaned from ownership.
With quarterback scouting missions putting hockey on hold -- who would have ever imagined that when Terry Pegula cried at the sight of Gilbert Perreault in 2011? -- the GM answered questions about the future as best as he could. He simply didn't know a lot of the answers. So when Pegula looks out at his GM through his plastic One Buffalo sunglasses in the coming days, what might he say about Murray and Dan Bylsma?
1. Forge on, Tim and Dan: The coach and GM both have three years left on their deals, with Bylsma owed $3 million per season. Even a bazillionaire like Pegula might be getting tired of paying people not to work. Especially since he just jettisoned Rex Ryan after the Bills' disappointing season. The no-change theory is a good one to start next season with, as Murray needs to give Bylsma a better roster and then have the coach work on his coffee-drinking skills with his players as he said during his presser.
One point on that: Why did Murray make such a point about the "walk around with a cup of coffee" chats? Because he does them plenty of times. Especially on the road, you'll see Murray hanging around the locker room in the morning with his cup, in the stick room, in the trainers' room and in the hallway. Just chatting. Sometimes it may be quick hellos to the media. Often, he's there for any player who wants to walk over and chat. Some do, some don't.
2. Time for a new coach, Tim: It would make sense for Murray to go forward with Bylsma, in part to keep some of the heat off his own missteps. But if Pegula thinks things are too far gone, he may tell his GM to pull the chute on his coach. This has to be some ugly deja vu for Bylsma, who was left hanging for several weeks by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2014 before getting fired. And the only jobs left right now are in Los Angeles and Florida, which was interested in Bylsma two years ago. Reading comprehension wasn't high on social media (when is it ever?) as I brought up the name Lindy Ruff on Thursday. Would I bring Ruff back? No. Might Pegula ponder it? Absolutely. That was the point. It's his team.
Other than that, it's a total guess who the Sabres might go after. There's chatter about Boston University's David Quinn, which would be a total let-poor-little-Jack-Eichel-have-his-way move. Not many other obvious candidates. Phil Housley in Nashville and Kevin Dineen in Chicago would be two that jump out but what connections Murray has to other coaches and what chemistry they could build is uncertain.
3. Tim and Dan, you're both fired: Murray stunned observers Wednesday when he talked about going forward provided he still had a job. Frankly, most people in the room had not thought about that possibility. It seemed to foreshadow the GM's understanding that ownership is furious at how this team underachieved this year and how The Tank is failing miserably. Two years after drafting Eichel, even the most ardent anti-tankers could not have expected the Sabres to still be last in the Atlantic Division, 15th in the East and 26th overall. The frustration of season ticket-holders is bubbling to the surface.
So does the coach have to scapegoated and sacrificed here or does the owner also say he's had enough with a GM who's spent nearly to the cap with nothing to show for it? Most people you talk to say Murray had a very good 2016 draft, the best of his three so far, but will he still be around when any of those players germinate into full-time NHLers?
And even with the thought it was a good draft overall, it continues to be a gnawing issue that the selection of Alexander Nylander at No. 8 may turn into a huge mistake given the organization's lack of depth on defense. Jakob Chychrun, taken No. 16 by Arizona, played 68 games in the NHL this year. Charlie McAvoy, taken No. 14 by Boston, played 24 minutes in his NHL debut in Game One of the playoffs at Ottawa. Mikhail Sergachev, taken one slot after Nylander by the Habs, projects into a longtime NHLer. Nylander, who struggled much of the year in Rochester, is going to have make huge strides merely to make the NHL next season.
4. Tim, you're fired: This is the least likely scenario. You're not firing Murray and keeping Bylsma, although Pegula should have done exactly that when he took over the team. Darcy Regier should have been out the door quickly, long before that fateful day in 2013 when Ruff was fired by the GM at the orders mostly of ownership's cronies. The problem the Sabres have is not having any true ready-made candidates and not having a hockey czar like Toronto's Brendan Shanahan in place.
No one has any idea what Russ Brandon's job is with the Sabres, and he readily admits he doesn't dabble in hockey. It seems like Murray or nothing, which wasn't what Pegula had in mind when Pat LaFontaine was brought in nearly four years ago. But his never-explained dismissal a few months later ended the thought of a multi-tiered hockey department and Murray, a first-time GM, has been left to run the whole show.
Eichel's act needs to stop
Murray made it pretty clear he's picking the next captain, which seems to indicate it's not going to be Brian Gionta. And that's even if the veteran returns. The quick assumption is it will be Eichel and that the captaincy will be part of the negotiations on a long-term deal.
For his part, Eichel said Monday he wanted to lead more at the end of the season. He certainly can. Connor McDavid is the captain in Edmonton and Auston Matthews will likely be in Toronto someday soon as well. That said, Eichel has some growing up to do if he wants to be taken seriously as a leader.
Leaders don't undercut the coach as many times as Eichel has this season. Or make veiled comments about teammates, like Eichel clearly has about Josh Gorges more than once when referencing players who speak but don't perform on the ice. Leaders don't brood and pout in front of the media either like Eichel did to absurd levels Monday on locker cleanout day.
Maybe Eichel was upset at narrowly missing a $2 million performance bonus. Maybe he was miffed about the Sabres' PR staff smartly asking him to meet the media at the interview room podium rather than form a mob scrum around his stall in the dressing room. Whatever. Deal with it. You're the face of the franchise. This wasn't a good face.
A leader doesn't roll his eyes at the media and stare at the ceiling. A leader looks a questioner in the eye instead of gazing at the sky or in the other direction. You have a problem with a question, say so. You'll get more respect for having a backbone. A leader doesn't provide snotty, clipped answers and doesn't act like he'd rather be somewhere else, as if he were still a petulant high school sophomore.
If I'm the Sabres and I'm about to give Eichel millions of dollars, I sit him down and show him the tape of that session and impress upon him that's not how he's going to behave as their captain. When reporters -- and fans -- will be expecting answers from him every single night, win or lose.
I'd remind him that real leaders are there in the toughest times, at the highest points of adversity. And not when things are going well and it's easy to face the music.
Eichel hates to lose and we all get that. It's commendable. This team needs more of it. But for those of you who aren't in the dressing room, I can tell you the media has given Eichel plenty of rope in his first two years in the league as well. Often when he didn't deserve it.
If he becomes captain, that rope gets much shorter and the demands and expectations on him will grow. And I'm not talking about on the ice either. He's going to have to become a stand-up adult. The teen-ager act won't play anymore.
Who was Eichel talking about?
When Eichel said guys need to make hockey their lives much more than they have been, that could certainly be construed by many as a point about Evander Kane. But Eichel also pointed out Kane had a solid year, leading the team in goals. You wonder how much of that shade was being thrown at roommate Sam Reinhart, who did not have a good year and stopped much of his post-practice work with Ryan O'Reilly until his embarrassing suspension late in the season in Columbus.
You want the one guy who in the Buffalo room who should really be under the gun come fall, and I'll single out Reinhart. Remember, this is a No. 2 overall pick and he's not even able to play center at a consistent level in the NHL. After two full seasons in the NHL, playing 79 games both years, did anyone think Reinhart would yet to have a 50-point season? From this view, a Reinhart trade for a top-tier defenseman would be more than a good idea.
Okposo answer a huge red flag
Biggest concern from the Murray presser: The way the GM jumped down the throat of a questioner for daring to ask again about the status of Kyle Okposo. Murray should have known better but the reaction also gave away the concern the organization is feeling. It was a question that had to be asked. Your $42 million free agent signee has vaporized without a trace. You're going to be asked if he figures in the plans for the future. And you will keep getting asked until there's some answer.
And while everyone understands patient privacy laws because we're not dealing with a hockey injury here, the CBA does provide teams the ability to describe how long the situation may last. Clearly, the Okposo situation is not about hockey. There is plenty of scuttlebutt around about the nature of his illness, and I can tell you none of it is good. Okposo has a young family and you wish him the best of health, irrespective of hockey.
Murray is 100 percent correct that the Sabres have become as transparent as they have in years about injuries, and it's appreciated by fans and media. It's been noticed by other teams as well. It's good practice. But come draft time in June, the franchise is going to need to provide some clarity on Okposo's situation going forward. He's too prominent a guy to just go poof in the night. At the very least, they're going to have to say whether or not they expect to see him on the ice come September, or if they're concerned his career is in jeopardy.
It's the unfortunate side of fame and fortune. When illness strikes, you're just not getting the amount of privacy afforded to the average person.
Petersen has all the leverage
When Murray said Notre Dame goalie and Sabres draftee Cal Petersen had not decided to leave school yet and sign with the Sabres, he didn't mention the newest wrinkle to the goalie's career. Petersen has been added to the United States team for the World Championships next month in Cologne, Germany, in what could be a precusor to being a part of the NHL-less U.S. Olympic team 10 months from now in South Korea.
Petersen can be a free agent on June 1 but could return to school for his senior year to be eligible for the Olympics. It would be a huge opportunity for his career, and give him huge exposure for a potential run at free agency next spring. And that would not be a good sign for the Sabres. They can offer Petersen the starting spot in Rochester for next year right now but he's probably wondering if Murray is going to be too wedded to Robin Lehner going forward to get a real shot at the No. 1 job. The Olympics would be a great play by Petersen and bad news for the Sabres.