Friday, October 30, 2015

The seeds of Buffalo's rebuild were sewn in Pittsburgh.

Reprinted with permission from

When Terry Pegula took over ownership of the Buffalo Sabres in February, 2011, he immediately took off the financial chains that had been binding then GM, Darcy Regier. The team, which had a mandate of "just break even" from the previous ownership group, was now free to pursue any and all free agents available. Which they did.

In the 2011 off-season Regier proceeded to trade for defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and extend him to a long-term contract extension for $40m over 10 seasons. Next on the list was forward Ville Leino who Regier signed to a six-year, $27m contract after their failed effort to land free agent center Brad Richards. Although it was fun seeing the Sabres throw money around like their big city counterparts, these two signings were disastrous as both were bought out using the two compliance buyouts the league offered teams.

As we would find out in the fall of 2011, it wasn't a missing piece or two that had been keeping the Sabres from the playoffs and a possible extended run, it was Regier's team-building concept.

Still stuck with a post-2004-05 lockout/"new-NHL" mentality, Regier continued to rely upon, and add to, a team that was universally known to be "soft-but-skilled," and when Boston's Milan Lucic bowled over goaltender Ryan Miller on November 12, 2011, the team that Regier built, "the core" as it will be forever known by this writer, was exposed.

It was a hit that rocked the very foundations of that team and from then on cracks would begin to surface and on December 17, 2011, the honeymoon between Pegula and Regier, with regards to the team that was iced at the time, was over.

Two key players in Pegula's inner-circle, team president Ted Black and senior advisor Ken Sawyer, both played key roles in the revitalization of the Pittsburgh Penguins with Sawyer guiding the team as an executive officer during their bankruptcy to CEO when they won the Stanley Cup in 2009. Pegula himself had often been seen in Pittsburgh at games prior to his purchase of the Sabres, so despite being from Eastern Pennsylvania and rooting for the Philadelphia Flyers (and Buffalo Sabres) in the 70's, he was a big fan of what transpired in Pittsburgh.

So when Pegula and his circle entered the owners box at Consol Energy Center for their first game in Pittsburgh as owner of the Buffalo Sabres on December 17th, it was a pretty big deal. He had placed all of his chips on Regier and it came up snake-eyes.

The Pens scored three goals in under 10 minutes and headed into the third period with a 6-1 lead. Before all was said and done, Pittsburgh had humiliated the Sabres, and their proud owner, 8-3. Not only that, the Penguins were without Sidney Crosby, top defenseman Kris Letang, Jordan Staal, Paul Martin and a host of others.

Although goalie Ryan Miller admitted the blatantly obvious in his post-game remarks to the media, "I don't think that was anywhere close to good hockey on my part," this was a complete disaster from the team's standpoint as none played "good hockey."

Frustrated at what had transpired since the Lucic hit on Miller- which included wins against non-contenders and a 3-5-3 home record amidst a mounting chorus of boos, the man who wanted simply to be liked as an owner, sarcastically chimed after the Penguins game, "We saw some great goaltending tonight, didn't we?"

Pegula insisted that the media print that quote and even though Miller (and Jhonas Enroth, to an extent) took the brunt of that remark, it would seem as if he was indirectly pointing at Regier and the team he built. The Sabres owner would follow up by saying, "If they [as a team] think they played well, we've got more problems."

Turns out they did have problems. Big time.

Beginning with that loss to Pittsburgh, the Sabres proceeded to lose a franchise-record 12 games on the road and by the end of January, 2012 the season was cooked. In mid-February, prior to the NHL trade-deadline Regier had a $75m payroll, a 27-27-7 record and was left to discuss what defined a .500 team with radio hosts instead of how they were going to augment the team for a playoff run.

At the trade deadline the first of Regier's "core" was traded. Paul Gaustad, who was on the ice when Lucic leveled Miller and did nothing about it, was traded to Nashville with a fourth-round pick for the Predators first round pick. It was the trade that helped allow Regier to stay on board until November, 2013. Although Regier would also make a "hockey trade" that day, the Gaustad move was the first indication that the team was about to start on a new venture.

In the 2012 off-season "core" piece Derek Roy was traded, a year later at the 2013 trade deadline captain Jason Pominville was moved and by the time Regier was fired, the only remaining member of "the core" was Miller, who was traded in 2014.

So when the Sabres hit the Consol Energy ice in Pittsburgh tonight, Dan Bylsma returning to the city where he coached the Penguins to a Stanley Cup is a real story filled with emotions. “I was a part of this organization for eight years and here [in Pittsburgh] for 5½ of them," said Bylsma to the media gathered at Consol Energy Center yesterday, "and there’s a lot of familiarity walking into this building. There will be emotions. I’m not going to be moved to tears but it’s going to be emotional. Even right now, I look at the empty seats and I’m gonna know 50 faces in the stands tomorrow where they sit. I know where my family sat when they were here. There’s certainly going to be emotions.”

Although he may not be considering it at this time, where Bylsma sat as head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins on December 17, 2011 probably changed the course of the Buffalo Sabres franchise. And as he takes his spot on the visitors bench tonight, Bylsma is at the helm as he tries to change the course of the franchise once again, this time as a possible heir to the Penguins teams that were at or near the top of the eastern conference under his leadership.

When Pegula spoke those sarcastic words about goaltending and the team back in 2011, it was certainly a frustration with his team and what had just transpired in Pittsburgh that night. That said, it's also highly possible that he was really directing his ire and frustration at himself for believing in the product that he allowed Regier to ice that season.

Thanks to that smack-down by the Penguins, the Sabres did the right thing and are now on their way up.

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