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Inside the NHL: Sabres in worse shape than before Pegula

You know the storylines. The Sabres have missed the playoffs two years in a row, four times in six years, seven times in 15 years. Their franchise goaltender and top forward have one foot out the door. Their owner, once considered a godsend for a championship-starved hockey town, had one foot in his mouth last weekend.

Terry Pegula purchased a franchise going nowhere, and it’s in worse shape than when he arrived. He’s clueless as an owner. Top advisor Ken Sawyer has told people General Manager Darcy Regier is a genius, an absolute mystery. President Ted Black hasn’t come up with any solutions. Lindy Ruff is gone.

At least nobody is stuck in a fax machine.

Pardon me. That was a little inside joke.

The real joke is on people, like me, who thought a new regime would be intelligent enough to make obvious changes. In simple terms, it meant getting the right person in charge, making strong decisions and supporting them with money. It would have improved their reputation around the league and made recruiting much easier.

Instead, they kept the wrong person in charge, made weak decisions, threw big money at a problem when it wasn’t necessary and compromised the salary cap. Their reputation is now worse than it was when Pegula arrived. If a player signs a big contract in Buffalo now, you have to wonder if it’s little more than a money grab.

The Sabres refuse to believe that others around the league view them as a small-time operation. They haven’t realized executives from other places are publicly cordial and privately mocking them and taking advantage of them. Do they have any idea how many GMs and agents despise dealing with Regier, for example?

I’m not sure if it’s pure stubbornness or downright arrogance, but the Sabres’ actions, or inactions, suggest that they think they have the answers. Their strategy, lowering the standards and making them easy to exceed, is straight out of the handbook for failure. What to do when all else fails? Blame the bloodthirsty media.

The Sabres were furious last week because the media had the audacity to ask Pegula longstanding hockey questions at a news conference for HarborCenter. There are some in the organization who believe my sole purpose is getting Regier fired when actually it’s nothing more than maintaining the same opinion about the same problem.

It hasn’t occurred to them that I’m stating the obvious.

Obviously, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, they believe Regier is the best man available. Obviously, they haven’t done their homework. All this less than three years after Camp Pegula was outraged when Regier was given a secret contract extension, a parachute, months before Pegula bought the team.

And they wonder why players are reluctant to come here and often aren’t interested in sticking around after a few years. Robyn Regehr and Jordan Leopold couldn’t split fast enough when the opportunity arrived. You know about all the others who either left or felt they were forced to leave because of the circumstances in Buffalo.

That’s how Ryan Miller has looked for some time. Say what you will about Miller, but he saved the Sabres from much worse this season. The Bronx cheer for him against the Rangers, which was grossly unfair, was similar to fans booing a few weeks ago. It was their frustration boiling over because management doesn’t listen.

Thomas Vanek has had just about enough, too. When good players line up at the exit, others around the league get the message. For years, Long Island was where careers were sent to die. The thought of going there turned players’ stomachs. I would imagine that’s how a growing number now feel about playing in Buffalo.

Perhaps it would be different if the organization tried something new. Why not tap into a guy like Pat LaFontaine or Rick Dudley? Why not open the doors to anyone who might be interested in helping an organization that clearly needs help? They would be surprised at the number, and the names, of people with strong resumes.

Instead, they get the same old results.

And with them, the same storylines.

Oilers changing it up again

Oilers president Kevin Lowe, who won six Stanley Cups as a player, responded poorly to the heat last week after firing GM Steve Tambellini and hiring Edmonton retread Craig MacTavish to replace him.

One of the primary complaints in Edmonton is that too many from the old guard have their fingerprints on the current administration. Lowe became snippy when asking why the same people who made the mess were allowed to clean it up, which is the same question that has been asked in Buffalo.

“I think it’s safe to say half the general managers in the National Hockey League would trade their roster for our roster right now,” Lowe said.

Apparently, the Sabres don’t have a monopoly on delusion.

MacTavish was replaced as coach four years ago, returned to college for a master’s degree in business and began taking steps toward becoming a general manager. He has a good group of young players, including three who were taken first overall after lousy seasons, to build around. He plans to make “bold moves.”

“It’s not about yesterday,” he said. “Maybe there are some skeptics out there and there are in this business. You don’t take a position like this with rose-coloured glasses. It’s not for the faint of heart. I walked in completely understanding the situation. … I’m an impatient guy and I bring that impatience to this situation.”

Too much of a good thing?

The Winter Classic has evolved into one of the marquee events during an NHL season, but a six-pack of the born-in-Buffalo event is five too many. Apparently, the league sees dollar signs and isn’t concerned about diluting its own product.

ESPN reported last week that the NHL plans to hold two outdoor games in Yankee Stadium in an effort to piggyback the Super Bowl and have others in Chicago, Vancouver and Los Angeles. One game was already set for the University of Michigan.

The Rangers would play in both games in Yankee Stadium against the Devils and Islanders. reported that the Blueshirts would be the visiting team in both games, making sure they didn’t lose any home games at Madison Square Garden. The Devils and Islanders for years have had slow attendance in their home arenas.

Los Angeles should be interesting. The Kings and Ducks would play in Dodger Stadium on Jan. 25. The low temperature was 59 degress in L.A. on that date this year with a high of 67 degrees. The rink experts face a tall order regardless of the refrigeration system.

’Canes Rutherford on hot seat

You can’t help but wonder how long Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford can hang onto his job after Carolina failed to reach the postseason for the sixth time in seven years. The Canes had a good start before a monumental collapse.

The other six teams to miss the playoffs with the same regularity – Toronto, Florida, Winnipeg/Atlanta, the New York Islanders, Edmonton and Columbus – have changed general managers over that stretch. All but the Islanders have had two GMs over that period.

Rutherford has survived, presumably because the Hurricanes won a Stanley Cup after the 2005-06 season when they beat the Oilers. Buffalo missed the postseason for the fourth time in six years and seventh time in 15 seasons with the same man running the operation.

It’s remarkable.

Penner needs to step up

The Kings are hoping enigmatic forward Dustin Penner can turn up his game for the playoffs much the way he did last season. Penner had just two goals in 30 games this season and 11 goals in 114 games with Los Angeles.

Penner (6-foot-5, 245 pounds) could be a horse but for years has been a dog. He provided an ample supply of aggression and competitiveness in the postseason last year, however, and had three goals and 11 points in 20 games en route to the Stanley Cup.

“There’s no deep, dark answer or anything like that,” Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. How’s he played? He hasn’t played well enough, but that’s obvious. We’ve played 40 games, and he’s got two goals.”

Matt Greene’s return should help the Kings and could help Penner. Greene is one of their better leaders and gives them another banger. The veteran defenseman was sidelined with a back injury that required surgery after the season opener. He returned Thursday night for a 2-1 win over Columbus.


Blues coach Ken Hitchcock after earning his 600th victory: “It’s basically because I’m old. If you last long and you’re old, you get this.”

Around the boards

• The Blues are back winning the Hitchcock way, with defense. St. Louis scored seven goals during a seven-game stretch going into the weekend and came away with a 5-2 record. The stretch included shutout victories over Detroit, Nashville and Minnesota.

• Philadelphia made a good move when signing forward Zac Rinaldo, who has earned his keep and expanded his fan base with his Kaleta-ian style, to a two-year extension. It wasn’t clear why the Flyers did the same for Jay Rosehill, a fringe player who ended up with his first one-way deal in the NHL.

• Toronto had a 99 percent chance of making the playoffs going into the weekend, but Leafs fans still feared the slight possibility of failure. Relax, folks. Toronto plays Tampa Bay and Florida this week. If enough snaps into place, Toronto would finish the regular season against Montreal and play the Canadiens in the first round.

• Sticking with the Maple Leafs, winger Phil Kessel entered the weekend two assists shy of his total after 82 games a year ago. Kessel had three assists in Thursday night’s 5-3 loss to the Islanders, giving him 30 helpers along with 16 goals.

• The Blue Jackets are certain to reach a milestone of sorts even if they miss the playoffs. Columbus, back in the race after a 16-5-5 stretch, is guaranteed of finishing within 20 points of Detroit. Big deal? It will be a first in the franchise’s 11-year history. The Red Wings have reached the postseason in 21 straight seasons.