Tim Murray has been a refreshing presence since taking over as the Sabres’ general manager 15 months ago. Murray won over the fans and media as a straight shooter, a brash personality who wasn’t afraid to take risks or say exactly what was on his mind.
But there are times when it’s unwise to shoot from the hip, when cold calculation is better than emotional gut response. If you’re going to be the voice of the hockey operation, sometimes it’s good to have a filter.
Saturday night was one of those occasions, and Murray failed miserably.
When the Sabres lost out to Edmonton for the top pick in the NHL draft lottery, he came across as indignant and whiny. He acted like some pouty schoolboy, instead of an executive for a professional sports franchise.
Murray was visibly upset by finishing second in the lottery for the second year in a row. He said the Sabres would simply have to “deal with it.” He criticized the process and complained about having to make the supreme sacrifice of showing up for the lottery.
Wow. You would expect a little humility from a GM who had just presided over the two worst seasons in franchise history. Not to mention a little PR savvy. It’s amazing, if not altogether surprising, that his own PR people allowed Murray to be so ill-prepared for an event of this magnitude.
Someone at least should have pulled Murray aside after the lottery and urged him to put aside his resentments. It was time to put a positive spin on the situation. How about putting on a big smile and talking about how excited you are to pick second and have a shot at Jack Eichel?
Murray actually had the gall to say, “I feel for our fans.”
Where has that been all along? I don’t recall Murray saying he was sorry for subjecting Buffalo fans to two years of unremittingly bad hockey, for making the public shell out big-league ticket prices for a product that was only a shade above minor league.
I guess he felt sorry for all those fans who swallowed the tanking strategy and felt a sense of entitlement because the genius GM had done such a marvelous job of finishing last. Losing was a grand strategy, after all, and Connor McDavid the rightful reward.
How do you think Eichel felt, seeing his likely NHL employer react so negatively to winding up with the second pick?
It was like a groom standing on the altar, staring into the eyes of his new bride, and announcing to the congregation that the true love of his life had eluded him, but he was going to make the most of it.
What happened to Eichel being a generational player, just like McDavid? Wasn’t the gap between the two supposed to be small? Wasn’t that one of the main justifications for tanking the season?
OK, it was evident before the draft that Murray felt the gap was more of a canyon. He gushed about McDavid and admitted that he couldn’t stop thinking about him. He was being honest, but he should have shown some restraint, knowing there was an 80 percent chance he wouldn’t win the lottery.
If any team should have been pumping up Eichel as McDavid’s near-equal, it was the team most likely to get him: the Sabres. Instead, they insulted him. I can’t imagine Eichel’s family was thrilled to hear Murray expressing his sympathies to his fans for having to pick second.
This won’t make Eichel any more eager to leave college after one year. The chances of him returning to Boston University are slim, but there’s increasing speculation that he might decide to go back to BU, which recently voted him an assistant captain next season.
Eichel hasn’t made his decision. He loves the college life and still has a sour taste after BU lost in the NCAA championship game early this month. There are college hockey insiders who believe there’s a better chance of him going back to school than is generally assumed.
It’s not uncommon for elite freshmen to stick around another year to chase a college title.
In basketball, three of Kentucky’s top freshmen stayed for a second year this past season for another chance at the title, rather than declare for the NBA draft after one year in college.
“There are positives to it any way you look at it,” Eichel said recently. “At the end of the day, when a decision has to be made, I will make it with my family and with my heart. I don’t want to be somewhere that I don’t want to be.”
That last sentence is a little troubling, considering that Eichel knew he had an 80 percent chance of coming to the Sabres. Buffalo is a terrific hockey town, maybe the best of its size in the United States, but if Eichel had any reservations about playing here, this can’t help matters.
Eichel was gracious on Saturday. He said he understood where Murray was coming from. He said any competitor would want to finish first. But as a competitor, might Eichel be reluctant to play for a franchise that is coming off the worst two seasons in its history?
I imagine Murray was upset to see Edmonton get the top pick for the fourth time in six years (which shows you there are no guarantees). Still, he and the Sabres ought to show some humility, instead of acting as if they deserved the top pick for being historically bad. The tank was an embarrassment to the league.
Apparently, Murray has been deluded into thinking finishing last two years in a row was some kind of achievement, a stroke of genius. He was dealt a bad hand and has made some bold moves. But all he’s done is tear a team down. Let’s see if he can build it back up.
Feel for the fans? It’s Eichel I feel sorry for. The pressure on him will be enormous when he comes to Buffalo. Maybe Murray did him a favor by telling people in advance that the kid isn’t as quite as good as everyone thought.
And look at it this way: If Murray’s rebuilding project doesn’t go according to plan, losing the lottery will be a convenient excuse.