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Bucky Gleason: Pegulas should check mirror for source of Sabres' biggest problem

Terry Pegula has little choice now given the current state of affairs. This entire mess began when he purchased the team, when he was nothing more than a filthy-rich Sabres fan with enough money to fulfill a childhood dream. He has since found out money can't buy expertise and credibility, and it certainly doesn't buy championships.

The transition from successful businessman to sports owner is tricky, but nothing is more damaging than newbies believing they have the answers when they're completely out of their element. Imagine the disaster if a teacher or plumber or sportswriter assumed control over a natural gas and oil company. Half the country would be blown to bits.

Terry and Kim Pegula need to come clean. They need to acknowledge that they were over their heads when they purchased the Sabres, that their abundance of misguided confidence came with a shortage of know-how, that their ownership is the primary reason for overall dysfunction, that they desperately need help.

Admitting as much to Buffalo sports fans, and themselves, would go a long way in restoring faith that has dwindled in recent years with the failures of their professional franchises. It would be a start. The other option is continuing business as usual and further discouraging a community that has supported them through six long years of growing pains.

Buffalo is a warm and friendly city with loyal and absurdly patient sports fans, but everybody has a breaking point. The biggest shocker in Tim Murray and Dan Bylsma's unceremonious kick to the curb Thursday was that the Pegulas managed to beat fans to the punch. It was a good sign considering how long it took them to fire Darcy Regier.

Still, the purge Thursday doesn't solve the underlying dilemma.

Pegula showed up with grandiose goals when he arrived and started talking about winning Stanley Cups, but he never really had a plan. He can fire people all he wants, but it does little good unless he hires the right people to replace them. His inability to identify quality people has been a persistent flaw for years and a trademark of his teams.

Owning the franchise isn’t the issue. The problem all along has been them running the franchise or, more accurately, running the Sabres into the ground with the Bills standing over the hole. You never would have guessed six years ago, after purchasing his beloved team and suggesting happy days were here again, that Terry Pegula would be holding the shovel.

In retrospect, signs of trouble come into focus. Like some smitten fan, Pegula was moved to tears because he was in the presence of the French Connection. While the community fawned over the new owners and their bold promises, Pegula fawned over Regier and Lindy Ruff and, oh look, there's Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek. These are the same people who were enamored with Rex Ryan, for heaven's sake, before realizing the error of their ways.

If he was some devout fan, Pegula should have known Regier needed to be fired. He could have walked into any bar in town and learned a change was in order. He didn't need a critical eye, although it would have been nice. He could have read the newspaper. Or he could have asked someone in the organization that had the spine to give him an honest answer.

Pegula listened to the wrong message from the wrong people who were more concerned about preserving their own jobs than winning. And because he failed in the months immediately before and after the sale was final, he set the organization on the road to ruin. The firings of Murray and Bylsma were merely an extension of an existing path to nowhere.

By now, Pegula should know that the problems begin at the top. He would be praised for admitting that he didn't know what he was doing and compounded previous mistakes. Even when they made sound decisions, such as hiring Pat LaFontaine to oversee the hockey department, the Pegulas and their small-time inner circle flubbed the execution.

To review, LaFontaine was caught up in front-office politics that might as well have started in a middle-school bathroom. Pegula's cronies worried about losing power within the organization and concocted tall tales about LaFontaine talking behind Kim Pegula's back. It ultimately led to his forced departure. If you knew LaFontaine, it was hard to fathom.

For starters, he's slow to say a negative word about anybody in any situation.

Making matters worse for the collection of amateurs, they bungled his exit. Ted Black held a news conference saying LaFontaine resigned to be near his family. It was completely false. LaFontaine loved Buffalo. His family was looking forward to moving back and watching his son, Daniel, play hockey for Canisius College.

LaFontaine's plan for the hockey department was creating a three-legged system that mimicked Detroit's front office. LaFontaine, who had experience and was comfortable in the public eye, would be the front man. Craig Oster, an agent from Toronto-based Newport Sports, would handle contracts. Tim Murray would work to his strength, which was scouting.

Murray was given the title of general manager because it was the only way he could have left Ottawa while under contract. But he wasn't going to be a general manager in a traditional sense. The plan called for him to have one-third say, not full power, over trades, prospects and all other personnel matters.

LaFontaine never completed his plan because he was shown the door. The NHL apparently didn't have any issues with him because he was immediately returned to his post.

The whole thing was, in a word, sleazy.

What would have happened if LaFontaine stayed? He likely would have kept Ted Nolan to develop young players. Both knew Nolan was hired to replace Ron Rolston and not a long-term answer. He would have tried hiring Mike Babcock, who took the job in Toronto in part because working under Brendan Shanahan and Lou Lamoriello was more attractive than working with Murray in Buffalo.

Murray didn't do anything out of the ordinary. Anybody could have torn down a roster, picked second overall two years in a row and made a few trades to improve the roster. The Sabres couldn't get any worse. Given their assets and salary-cap room when he took over, half the people in your neighborhood could have accomplished the same.

And then there was the ridiculous tank.

Ownership embraced Regier's quick-fix strategy for winning, as if one player who was on the bench for two-thirds of the game could turn things around. It was devised after Regier proved he couldn't handle an open checkbook. He also didn't have the temerity or common sense to tell ownership they were overpaying players and enabling mediocrity. Regier, of course, had run out of excuses and was trying to save his job.

The Pegulas swallowed the tank plan whole, like delusional fans, as it was carried out by Murray. They climbed aboard the losing-is-winning campaign driven by their rights holders on radio. While it gained momentum, the pro-tank crowd failed to understand long-term ramifications within the organization or the message it sent across the league.

Not only did the Sabres finish in last place in consecutive years, Buffalo became the last place prospective free agents wanted to play if they planned to win. Recruiting suffered, giving Murray less leverage when it came to making deals. It led to him overpaying for trades with draft picks and prospects.

Murray trumped expensive trades by overpaying players when he arrived. He traded for Ryan O'Reilly with the idea he would be a rebuilding block. In order for O'Reilly to stick around rather than exercise his right to free agency, he immediately signed the center to a seven-year contract worth $52 million.

O'Reilly's production hasn't been commensurate with his salary, so the Sabres likely will be forced to keep him for the foreseeable future. He's one of their best players, but his hefty deal is among many putting pressure on the salary cap. Murray's failure to understand value was one reason he was fired Thursday. He generated temporary excitement but not much else.

Now nearly all the draft picks are gone, the cupboards are practically bare in Rochester, and the Sabres had a worse record this year than last.

It was a trickle-down effect of the tank, not to mention the difficulty it created when hiring coaches. The Sabres actually were fortunate to have Bylsma, who won in Pittsburgh, happened to be the best available and believed he could restore order in Buffalo. He became a victim of collateral damage.

All along, I've maintained that the tank was unfair to Jack Eichel more than anyone else. At 19, he arrived as a savior and was forced to carry the weight of the organization. The Pegulas grossly underestimated the pressure the tank placed upon any young player, in this case Eichel, in a desperate hockey town that was tired of losing.

Early in his career, Sidney Crosby was surrounded by a consummate leader in Mario Lemieux. He played with polished veterans such as Mark Recchi, John LeClair and Sergei Gonchar. They had been around the NHL and knew how to win. It allowed Crosby to concentrate on hockey and grow into a leader.

Eichel was greeted by the likes of Evander Kane, who had a bad reputation in Winnipeg and found trouble in Buffalo. Eichel lived with Matt Moulson, an intelligent guy who struggled on the ice. O'Reilly was arrested for driving while intoxicated before he played a shift. Throwing that many expectations on Eichel might have been the most shameful act of all.

It started with weak leadership at the top, and it best explained why the Sabres have been near the bottom.

Now what?

Ownership isn't any better now than it was six years ago. Terry and Kim Pegula know more about running daily operations than they did in 2011, but they still haven't a clue about winning or how to build a winner. There are no shortcuts, particularly in hockey.

Now, the Pegulas get another fresh start with a new regime.

You know the names out there. Dean Lombardi is an experienced personnel man with a solid reputation. Pierre McGuire has been around the game for decades, knows players on all levels and has a thick backbone. Neil Smith, who presided over the New York Rangers' last title, has been trying for years to get back in the game. Chris Drury is an assistant GM with the Rangers, a true professional and proven winner. Rick Dudley played a role in building several successful teams.

The Sabres need to find someone who knows how to run a successful operation. It begins with the Pegulas acknowledging that they cannot.

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