There were no bombshells dropped Monday when the Sabres met the media for their end-of-season news conference. Injury updates were plentiful, so was talk about next season’s goals, the team’s wish list and some scenarios for when the draft hits First Niagara Center in June.
But the best part was easily when the layers got peeled back a little, when General Manager Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma shared a few laughs. You might just think it was idle banter but it was a glimpse at how a relationship has formed, a critical one for the future of this franchise going forward.
The coach-GM dynamic is naturally volatile and when it falls apart, your organization can be cooked pretty quickly. Don Maloney got fired as GM in Arizona on Monday but coach Dave Tippett stayed behind in his spot. We await word on the status of coaches Claude Julien in Boston and Dave Cameron in Ottawa. At times you wonder what the heck Marc Bergevin is doing in the GM’s chair in Montreal and how he’s going to keep Michel Therrien. There are others.
Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff were here together for nearly 17 years, which was certainly too long. But the Sabres were still winning divisions in year 13, making the playoffs in year 14 and the duo had an unspoken trust and an ability to communicate at the toughest of times.
Bylsma is Murray’s first head coach hire as a GM. Remember, the GM inherited Ted Nolan and essentially had no choice but to offer him a new deal or face the same PR disaster Regier dealt with in ’97 when he jettisoned the then-NHL coach of the year and hired Ruff.
Bylsma has won a Stanley Cup and had several other good teams while Murray has won exactly nothing in the GM chair just yet, not even draft lotteries. The coach has some cachet, was used to his relationship with Ray Shero in Pittsburgh and Murray knows it.
The laughs started Monday when Murray was asked how he would characterize things with Bylsma after going through their first year. Reporters who cover the Sabres routinely see Murray entering the dressing room after home games or riding the press box elevator downstairs when the team is on the road. When it’s a loss, you can pretty much see the steam flying out of the GM’s ears.
Murray is known to march into the room and give his coaches a piece of his mind. He expects them to give it back. In fact, he said he demands their feedback. We know from his draft announcements (remember six words for Sam Reinhart, four for Jack Eichel?) that Murray is thrifty with his words. Bylsma apparently is not.
“He’s a little long-winded for me and I’ve told him that too,” Murray said Monday as he and his coach couldn’t conceal their laughter. “I go down after every game now. I go down, I go in, I bark, they listen and when I leave they giggle or snort or something. But at least I go in. If you want to be good, you have to be able to talk to people in your organization.”
Murray said he’s grown to like Bylsma’s feedback and really likes the staff of assistant coaches the former Pittsburgh boss has put together. Murray felt Nolan’s crew was simply overmatched in the NHL, even though they admittedly didn’t have much of a chance either with the tanky roster the GM gave them.
Remember, Murray traded Tyler Myers last year and Nolan said he found out about the deal at the same time the media did. Can you imagine Murray making that kind of deal and not keeping Byslma in the loop? No chance.
“The conversations we have that he referred to as ‘barking’ after the game, those are passionate, emotional talks about our team and our players and how we play,” Bylsma said, his smirk foreshadowing an approaching punchline. “If he’s not doing that, I probably have a bigger problem than if he is coming down and doing those things.
“Sometimes they make sense, sometimes they make no sense. Do I give my own opinion back? I don’t bark quite as loud. But we have those discussions. I’d rather have it that way than hearing nothing and saying nothing.”
That’s for sure. When the GM stops coming around, the coach is usually in trouble. And when the coach can say publicly there’s times the GM makes no sense and gets a big laugh out of him, that’s a very good thing.
Murray freely admitted he’s still trying to figure out Bylsma & Co. at times. He seems aware the staff thinks of him as a little eccentric and that’s fine. Everybody in hockey does too, and that’s what makes him an endearing figure.
“They have all their little games that they play which I really don’t appreciate when I’m having a beer with them but that’s their scene, it’s not my scene,” said Murray. “I sit there with my arms crossed. They’re singing jingles and stuff like that but it’s OK. At least we’re in the same room together, right? It’s all good.”
We didn’t get around to asking if Bylsma and his coaches were singing “If I Were an Oscar Mayer Wiener” or mimicking Murray with the Meow Mix song. But you get the point.
Murray said on the radio last week he wasn’t happy with his team’s forecheck patterns in the first half of the season nor with its gap control. He said those got better as the season went on. No doubt they were part of the late-night discussions as the Sabres forged a 27-point improvement.
There’s a lot more talking to be done. Now comes the tough part. It will be more difficult to get from 81 to 95 points than it was go to from 54 to 81. Whether they’re agreeing or whether they’re banging heads, it seems like Murray and Bylsma are off to a good start together fixing this mess Murray inherited. After a late rush in 2011, it’s now five years and counting with no playoffs under Terry Pegula’s ownership for starters.
You get the sense from the coach and GM it won’t be a mess much longer.