Friday, November 15, 2013

The Hockey News' Ken Campbell is misguided

Two days ago Sabres owner Terry Pegula dropped a bomb on the hockey world by firing long-time GM Darcy Regier and his head coach Ron Rolston. Pegula hired Sabre-legend Pat LaFontaine as Director of Hockey Operations and LaFontaine dropped his own bomb by hiring former Sabres coach, and 1997 Jack Adams Award winner, Ted Nolan to straighten things out on the ice.

Everyone has an opinion on the matter. Hell, even ESPN gave some airtime to the firing.

The troublesome part about everyone's opinion is that some of them can be asinine and/or seriously misguided.

The basic facts were in place:  Regier served as GM in Buffalo for over 16 years, the team was rebuilding, the team was a mess, etc.

Pegula, an owner with the financial wherewithal to spend money like the Toronto Maple Leaves, Philadelphia Flyers and NY Rangers, had freed Regier of the financial shackles from the previous regime and was rewarded with a $27m Ville Leino contract.

Those are the facts, and anyone from posters on rumor sites to the best hockey writers in North America have those facts out front of them. But it's the surrounding grey areas where the writer uses their knowledge to grasp the situation and consequently offer their opinion on it.

In the case of the Buffalo Sabres and their short history under Pegula, probably the most egregious misinterpretation of what's going on, and what has been going on in Buffalo, comes from The Hockey News' Ken Campbell.

Being Canada's "hockey publication," The Hockey News is required to opine on everything hockey related. The writers for the publication, of course, are looked upon for their "expert" analysis of every hockey situation, no matter how far removed from the matter they might be.

Toronto is only a stone's throw away from Buffalo, but Campbell may as well be in Edmonton when he says that Pegula has done more harm on the ice than good.

On the surface, Campbell has a point and his overall premise is sound:  Pegula took over a team that made the playoffs as a 7th seed and took the Flyers to seven games in the first round before bowing out. Since then, the team has taken a nose-dive to the bottom of the standings.

Those are simple facts.

He's also correct in pointing out that throwing money around doesn't necessarily equate to a Stanley Cup.

Pegula allowed Regier to waste a ton of money on the aforementioned contract of Leino as well as toss some serious cash to Christian Ehrhoff and Tyler Myers. Campbell would be correct to varying degrees concerning those contracts. But for Buffalo fans who were accustomed to tight spending ever since the Rigas' were busted for embezzlement, it was a lot of fun watching the Sabres trade for the rights to Ehrhoff then signing him long-term without financial worry.

It was also refreshing to see them sign Myers to a long-term contract early-on instead of wondering whether or not the former Calder-winner would be headed out the door as soon as he became unrestricted. It was unusual for Buffalo to target a player that early and dub him a core player.

Those were two clear-cut departures from the previous regime and regardless of outcome, both were seemed like pretty solid moves at the time. They just haven't worked out as planned. Yet.

As for the Leino contract? That was just plain bad.

But, for Campbell to say that "those moves have crippled the Sabres" to the point where they needed to trade Jason Pominville because of future cap problems is far removed from the truth.

Those contracts have nothing to do with the trading away of Pominville or (eventually) Thomas Vanek for that matter. Nor will they affect the future of impending UFA Ryan Miller.

Those moves have nothing to do with a "downward spiral that has resulted in the Sabres having to tear down and rebuild" either.

The tear-down and rebuild was already in motion prior to the Pominville trade. Piece by piece, Regier's core was being dismantled and a full-fledged rebuild was necessary not because of financial considerations, but because the core that Regier built was stuck in the middle--an average team that as constructed, was too good to finish at the bottom of the league but not good enough to even sniff the Stanley Cup.

They did have individual talent, but on the whole were a vanilla team that lacked an identity.

Regier's core did not have the talent to skate with the likes of Pittsburgh and Chicago, nor did they have the grit and toughness to overcome Philly and Boston, nor did they have the defensive prowess to be able to handle a puck-possession team like Detroit.

They lacked intestinal fortitude, clutch scoring and an internal fire and desire to compete on a regular basis.

It needed to be dismantled, not because they couldn't afford the key players, but because those key players just weren't getting the job done, nor did it look like they'd be able to get it done in the future.

Pegula's spending really didn't hurt the team on the ice, rather the Sabres were done in lagely by poor drafting for a big chunk of the years surrounding the 2004 lockout.

Take out the easy pick, Vanek, from one of the greatest draft classes of all time, 2003, and you have mostly bad to slightly above-average first round picks from 2000 to 2006--picks that would be in various stages of their prime right now had they worked out.

For a small market team, having that many misses in the first round was the kiss of death.

There has been plenty of talk at the foot of Washington St. concerning building through the draft. Pegula and his charges are now fully committed to building a foundation homegrown players.

All the free-spending, including the locker room, is merely cosmetic stuff.

What was lost in Pegula's first presser and his free-spending summer of 2011, was when he said that "there's no NHL salary cap on scouting budgets and player development budgets" and how he planned on increasing both.

Underneath the surface is a dedication to rebuilding their scouting staff and a commitment to player development. The years of the "Video-scout 3000" scouting department are gone. According to Sabres President Ted Black, they have over 25 scouts out there now including an increased presence overseas.

"Mr. Moneybags" has also allowed AGM/Director of Amateur Scouting Kevin Devine to hold their own Sabres Combine to get an up-close look at draft prospects. And he is also footing the bill for an annual trip to the Traverse City Tournament.

The buzzphrase at the LaFontaine/Nolan presser two days ago was "changing the culture."

LaFontaine will be heading a hockey department and building a team based upon another Pegula directive, "I want not only statistically good players, but winners, gritty players," he said. It's another nugget from Pegula's initial press conference got lost amidst the talk of drilling oil wells and "the reason for the existence of the Sabres," etc.

And for Sabres fans who have been watching Regier's core game-in, game-out, that statement meant "anti-core."

One must remember that Pegula's introduction to hockey was back in the mid-70's, first with the Broad Street Bullies, going as far to say that it was their style that got him into hockey in the first place. He then fell in love with "The French Connection."

The core that Regier built was neither, yet somehow he convinced Pegula that with a little tweaking and some free agents, the team he built could compete for the Stanley Cup.

Regier failed, and his team is being dismantled right down to the very foundations of the organization.

This is a true and complete rebuild that had very little to do with finances, Mr. Campbell, and more to do with culture, more specifically the changing of a culture that has been instilled for 16 yrs.

Once the Sabres have built a foundation through the draft it will be time to start spending Pegula's money on players again.

Can't wait.

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