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Sabres moving on from Babcock in coaching search

After losing out on Mike Babcock, Sabres General Manager Tim Murray is faced with the tough task of identifying a new No. 1 contender from Dan Bylsma and the other coaching candidates. Murray has one simple choice ahead, though.

Jack Eichel.

Murray made it clear Thursday that Buffalo will select Eichel in June with the second overall pick in the NHL Draft.

“Deciding on who we’re picking 2, that’s the easiest decision I think I’ll probably have in my general manager’s career,” Murray said during an interview with WGR-AM 550.

Murray raved on the radio about Eichel’s performance at this month’s world championships. The 18-year-old finished third in scoring for the U.S. team, putting up seven points in 10 games.

“He was great,” Murray said. “Expectations aren’t extremely high for me because I know how young he is and where he’s coming from, and any glimmer of above-average play let alone spectacular play I get excited about it, and he was exciting. As a scout watching on TV, he was above and beyond.”

Eichel’s coach in Buffalo could be one of the assistants from the U.S. team. Buffalo has been granted permission by Pittsburgh to interview Bylsma, ESPN reported Thursday. Permission is needed because the 44-year-old is still under contract with the Penguins despite being fired last year. The Pens may be entitled to a third-round pick if Buffalo hires him.

Murray declined to confirm the access during his radio interview.

“I just don’t feel like making the list public,” he said. “I’ve talked to one or two before Mike. I’ve talked to guys during and since and will continue to do so.”

The Penguins booted Bylsma from their bench in an organizational shakeup despite playoff appearances in all six of his seasons. He went 252-117-32 and won the Stanley Cup in 2009 after replacing Michel Therrien at midseason.

Bylsma was well-liked by his players. Many were upset when the Pens fired GM Ray Shero last May but kept Bylsma as a lame duck for three weeks before axing him when new GM Jim Rutherford took over. Bylsma was out of work this season.

“It’s not like Dan was a chump or something, but that’s how he was treated,” defenseman Matt Niskanen told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “He won you guys a Cup, you know?”

Bylsma played 429 games as a forward in the NHL, skating for Los Angeles and Anaheim from 1995 to 2004. Murray was director of player personnel with the Ducks during two of Bylsma’s seasons.

While the coach has NHL experience, Murray said that’s not a prerequisite for Buffalo’s next bench boss.

“I’ve always been open-minded about coaches,” Murray said on WGR. “I have no preconceived notions that I want a veteran NHL guy or that I want a young guy to grow with young players. I’m looking for the best guy, the guy that comes in here and is a good fit.”

It appeared Babcock would be the fit. While saying he wasn’t surprised Toronto landed the coach, Murray believed Buffalo and Detroit were the finalists.

“My understanding is it was Detroit and us, and that he’d spoken to Toronto,” Murray said. “That was my understanding of the situation.”

Babcock, of course, spurned both favorites and accepted an eight-year, $50 million deal with the Maple Leafs.

“When a team like Toronto’s involved, you can never be surprised,” Murray said. “We were quite a piece down the line. We were in negotiations of a contract, knowing full well that at the end of the day there’s no deal done until he says, ‘I’m coming to you.’

“At certain times, yeah, you might have thought that a conversation went well or whatever, but hey, it is what it is.”

Murray, who is conducting a job search for the first time as an NHL general manager, is still enjoying it despite losing his top choice.

“It was a great process to have a guy of his ilk, considered one of the best coaches in the National Hockey League available, and taking a real good, hard look at us in Buffalo after a 30th-place finish,” Murray said. “We were right there to the end knocking on the door. I’ve got to feel pretty good about that.”

Murray also needs to hire a coach for the Sabres’ minor-league team in Rochester but has yet to conduct an in-person interview. The GM is conducting amateur scouting meetings this week, and they are expected to wrap up Friday. The meetings have extra importance because Murray wants to trade the No. 21 overall pick acquired from the New York Islanders.

“I would like to move up from 21 to get a better prospect,” he said, “or I would put 21 in play for a young player on another team.”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com

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