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Pegula needs to know who's culpable

By all accounts, Terry Pegula's purchase of the Buffalo Sabres will produce an overnight change in franchise culture. Gone will be the dispassionate majority owner whose interest in the franchise waned as the quality of the product diminished and fans held him accountable. Gone with him will be the city planner/managing partner who implemented some highly successful ideas concerning ticket sales but couldn't keep his distance when it came to hockey decisions.

The Tom Golisano ownership era will be remembered as one in which the Sabres built a contender, secured long-term fan buy-in, and then allowed the promising nucleus to disband through miserly mismanagement and short-sighted views of the NHL marketplace. What's unclear is how much -- if any -- of what transpired should be considered a black mark against General Manager Darcy Regier.

Was Regier the driving force behind the Tim Connolly contract extension? Was he all for the decision to overpay Jochen Hecht? Was it his belief that the Sabres would be better defensively this season minus Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder? Or was he merely acquiescing to the desires of those with higher rank, bowing to their obsession with the bottom line?

Pegula would do well to have those questions answered before making changes in the hockey department for the sake of change.

Regier's the epitome of a company man, the good soldier, his commitment to his bosses so steadfast that he's accepted blame (or declined to declare innocence) even when matters were out of his hands. He remained quiet following the botched re-signing of Chris Drury. Only later did it become known that his superiors were responsible for scuttling a deal that was all but done.

Some may interpret Regier's silence as lack of backbone. After all, wouldn't most anyone set the record straight when their reputation's repeatedly sullied because their power's been usurped? Perhaps so. But should that be perceived as lack of backbone or the rare combination of unflappable inner strength and profound loyalty, which would make Regier about as rare as they come.

As for his hockey record, let's examine what we know. He landed Daniel Briere. And Chris Drury. And Doug Gilmour. And Rhett Warrener, among many others. He had the Sabres ideally constructed coming out of the lockout, a perfect fit for the rules changes that were implemented. Was it sheer luck or keen calculation? Probably a little bit of both. The NHL had received a fan mandate to enliven the game so it's entirely possible Regier anticipated what might transpire and acted accordingly. Doesn't he deserve at least some of the credit?

Those who advocate immediate change might argue that the Sabres look like playoff outsiders this season even though they've spent close to the salary cap. But why are they close to the cap? Is it Regier's fault that both Drury and Briere got away, unpopular departures that compelled ownership to match the hefty Thomas Vanek offer sheet to avoid further damage in fan relations? It was ownership -- not Regier -- that was convinced no team would court Vanek as a Group II free agent. Whoops.

None of this is to suggest that Pegula would be wrong to part ways with Regier. But he could be letting a good man get away under false assumptions if he believes that the general manager must be most responsible for the team's downward spiral.

We've often seen Regier operate from a point of weakness (bankruptcy) and rarely seen him work from a position of strength (trusting, unmeddling ownership). Pegula would do well to uncover what's happened and why before deciding if it's necessary to start from scratch.

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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