Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff huddled with their troops for end-of-the-season meetings Thursday and no doubt left the Sabres' nucleus with an upbeat message about next season and beyond. It was a good year. This team is skating in the right direction, but gone now are their annual excuses for falling short.
Ruff still needs to sign a contract extension, which appears to be little more than a formality. For years, Ruff has talked about his desire to win a Stanley Cup in Buffalo, for Buffalo, and you believed him. Finally, he's working for an owner who has the same passion and commitment to make it happen.
They have the right coach in Ruff, the right owner in Terry Pegula.
Is the same true with Regier?
The Sabres' general manager is signed through 2012-13 -- thank you, Larry Quinn -- and he's been granted the opportunity of a lifetime. His orders, build a championship team, are simple. The challenge, rearranging and acquiring the pieces needed to win the Cup, is far more difficult.
Regier has no financial restraints going into the offseason. General managers across the league spend their careers without ever having such freedom, but with it comes the pressure to produce results. It can be overwhelming, really. Regier has survived largely because he's been a good soldier under owners who worried about the bottom line.
The bottom line now is that he needs to prove he's up to the job. We're going to learn plenty about his management skills now that the word "no" has been removed from the Sabres' vocabulary. We're going to see whether his negotiating skills can be effective without him needing the hard-line approach common during his tenure.
Regier is a good man, he really is. He knows hockey, he really does. But I have my doubts about his ability to make the bold, unsentimental choices needed to build a winner. A few players are skeptical, too. He has a reputation inside his own organization for fretting over petty decisions, let alone the ones that can push the Sabres over the top.
Granted, Regier worked for owners who worried about money first and winning second, but it didn't mean he didn't have enough to succeed. This bit about him chained to an unreasonable budget is a myth. The Sabres spent enough money during the Golisano Administration, but they didn't spend it wisely enough.
In case you needed a reminder, Danny Briere just torched the Sabres for six goals and seven points in the playoffs. He was the same guy the Sabres were prepared to kick to the curb if it came down to him and Chris Drury. They ended up losing both.
Instead, Regier placed his bets on Tim Connolly and Maxim Afinogenov, two players among many who could win beauty pageants but not much else. He trumped keeping Connolly by giving him a two-year contract extension, all but setting a match to $9 million. He kept Afinogenov for far too long when it was obvious he needed a change in scenery.
Well, it was obvious to many others.
Quinn and Golisano had a hand in such decisions. If he disagreed, Regier should have held his ground. He had enough money to survive getting fired and enough credibility to land another job. He could have resigned on principle and told the truth afterward, and he would have been respected for standing up for his beliefs.
It didn't happen.
This isn't meant to revisit the past but to deliver warnings about the future. Regier might not have the stomach or temperament needed to keep this team moving forward and put the Sabres back into Cup contention. Then again, maybe he does. Maybe he'll prove that he had the goods all along and just needed a stronger commitment from the top.
Brad Boyes looked like a sound addition and worth the $4 million salary through next season. The Sabres probably wouldn't have reached the playoffs without him before his production plummeted late in the season and the playoffs. Boyes looked like a keeper after the trade, but he looked like a mistake in the playoffs. Does he stay?
The Sabres need help down the middle, and there aren't many No. 1 centers available after Brad Richards when free agency opens. Regier will need to sell the master plan, sell Buffalo as a great hockey town and in many ways sell himself. Trades are always a possibility, but it will take imagination and could cost them good prospects.
Can they get Patrick Sharp out of Chicago? Can they convince the Penguins they don't need Evgeni Malkin's big contract? If so, do they want him? Heck, any chance they can grab Briere from cap-strained Philly for one of their kids?
The options are limitless. Players previously deemed off limits are now on their radar. Rumors were rampant that he nearly pulled off a blockbuster at the deadline this year before making the swap for Boyes. The Sabres need to stop speculation about just-misses and start holding news conferences announcing deals that were completed.
That's when you'll know they're moving forward.