Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Dear Uncle Terry, please keep Russ Brandon away from hockey ops

Buffalo Bills fans are having yet another Groundhog Day Monday morning today. It's December, their beloved football team is effectively out of the playoffs and their hitting the various draft sites seeing who the Bills should pick with yet another middle-round draft pick. It's like clockwork. The season begins with hope, somewhere within the first handful of games a Jekyll and Hyde Bills team shows extreme promise and laughable ineptitude, things fall apart, they're "In the hunt" for a playoff spot in November and then the inevitable hits.

It's been going on for 17 years.

At the conclusion of this season, probably as soon as next week, the Buffalo Bills for the 17th consecutive season will miss the playoffs. It's the longest playoff drought in the four major North American sport.

The Bills have tried everything since 1999 to try and get it right. They're on their sixth GM, eighth head coach and have had a total of 16 quarterbacks play in a game since they last made the playoffs. They've tried it all and nothing has worked and throughout it all there have been only two constants--nearly unwavering support from Bills Nation, and Team President Russ Brandon.

"Russ Brandon, the team's managing partner and president, has been with the Bills 20 years and has been involved in football decisions the past nine years," writes Tim Graham of the Buffalo News this morning. "Since he became general manager in 2008, although his official bio in the Bills' media guide suspiciously omits any reference to him being GM, the Bills' record is 58-83."

Brandon "was appointed Chief Operating Officer of the Buffalo Bills on January 8, 2008 with the responsibility of overseeing the day-to-day operations of the organization, which includes Football and Business Operations" according to Buffalo Bills.com. Although he hired Buddy Nix as GM in 2010 then promoted the Bills present GM Doug Whaley to that spot in 2013. According to Graham "Brandon supposedly stopped having input on 'football decisions' after [Kim and Terry] Pegula bought the Bills. There are, however, myriad references to the contrary."

Graham quotes Terry Pegula as saying Brandon advised after interviewing Rex Ryan for the head coaching spot, "Don't let him out of the building," points to a Sports Illustrated story where Brandon gave Ryan tips on schmoozing Pegula and also states that Brandon is in on every Monday morning football call.

Since Brandon took the reigns in 2008 the Bills have finished with a record above .500 once at 9-7 and only because the New England Patriots were resting in the final game of the season to prepare for an eventual Super Bowl run.

Yet on July 27, 2015 Pegula Sports and Entertainment, the umbrella organization for the Pegulas, named Brandon Team President and Alternate Governor of the Buffalo Sabres. The statement from the Pegulas read like this:

"Since we purchased the Buffalo Bills last October, we have been highly impressed with the business acumen that Russ has shown with the Bills.

"Now is an appropriate time to give him additional responsibilities with the Sabres. Russ will work with Pegula Sports & Entertainment to create strong synergies between the Sabres and Bills. With Russ' strong ties to the area business community and sponsorship partners, he will effectively position both organizations for future growth."

Brandon's business acumen with the Bills rivals that of baseball's Chicago Cubs who filled the stands annually despite being the most lovable losers of the four major North American sports. For years Brandon worked his business magic selling hope at the beginning of the season and a promise of a better future at the end to keep Buffalo's Orchard Park stadium filled. And that's all well and good from the business side of the equation but his average at best track record as the head of the football department reveals a glaring hole in the football operations.

NFL owners have a veritable ATM when it comes to their team. Revenue streams are such that  spending to the cap ceiling won't even come close to putting a team in the red. It's pretty easy to throw money around but the difficult parts are finding the right players to pay big money to and finding the right GM and coaches to get the most out of the team. Brandon has proven incapable of getting the football operations past mediocrity.

The NHL is a much different game. Outside of the big television markets, much of team's revenue comes from ticket sales and merchandising (although a recent 10-year, $2 billion television contract.) The Sabres and their fans have witnessed the small-market conundrum for years.

From 2003, when the league was running the team until 2011 when Terry Pegula bought them, the Sabres had only two seasons where they could hang with the big boys on an leveled playing field. After the 2004-05 lockout the NHL imposed a salary cap and brought about revenue sharing that allowed teams like the Buffalo to make a competitive run. Three of the final four teams that first season were the small-market Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes and Edmonton Oilers. The fourth Anaheim, a team in a big market with little attention paid to them.

The NHL's salary cap kept things in check for the 2006-07 season but after that the big boys started taking over again as the salary cap increased. The owner at the time was Tom Golisano (along with managing partner Larry Quinn) and he was said to be ready to sell as early as 2007. From 2007 to 2011 the Sabres were on a strict budget with the mandate of "just break even" as Golisano looked for an owner that would keep the team in Buffalo. Mediocrity followed as the Sabres made the playoffs twice in four seasons but were bounced in the first round both times.

February 2011 brought about ownership change as Pegula bought the team. The presser was full of warm feelings and a sense of relief. Pegula teared up at the sight of his hockey hero, Sabres legend Gilbert Perreault, then famously stated what everyone in Sabreland wanted to hear, "Starting today, there will be no financial mandates on the Buffalo Sabres hockey department." There was one goal that the billionaire had for his team, "Starting today," Pegula said, "the Buffalo Sabres' reason for existence will be to win a Stanley Cup."

Cost was not an issue for the founder of an energy company he sold for over $4 billion. "If I want to make some money, I'll go drill a gas well."

He proved that by going on a drunken sailor, free agent frenzy in the summer of 2011, but when it all went south Pegula and his charges went with a scorched-earth rebuild plan culminating with consecutive last place finishes and consecutive second-overall picks due to the NHL's Draft Lottery. The architect of that rebuild was team president Ted Black, the man Brandon replaced.

The Sabres are into year-two of the build portion of the program and they're struggling because of a rash of injuries. Franchise cornerstone Jack Eichel missed the first 21 games of the season due to injury and other key components like forwards Ryan O'Reilly and Evander Kane also missed chunks of time due to injury. On the back-end the Sabres were elected to call up junior player Brendan Guhle on an emergency basis due injuries on the back end to Zach Bogosian, Dmitiry Kulikov, Josh Gorges and previous call-up Taylor Fedun.

Buffalo managed to stay afloat going 10-11-6 but they still find themselves at the bottom of the Atlantic Division, last in the Eastern Conference and 27th in the league with team butting up against the salary cap. It put management in a difficult situation.

Throughout the injuries the Sabres were calling players up and sending them down as quickly as possible to save what pennies they could on cap-space. According to CapFriendly the Sabres have only $1.7 million in cap-space right now making things really tight. However, they could have gotten $1.5 million in cap relief by placing Cody McCormick on long-term injured reserve. McCormick has been dealing with blood clots and wasn't expected to play this season at all.

That would be a February, 2011 Pegula-driven move. Instead of giving his hockey department $1.5 million to add to the salary cap, he had his management team yo-yoing players between the Rochester Americans and Buffalo on an almost daily basis to save money.

It's a practice that has compromised both clubs.

As the Sabres pull talent from Rochester, their AHL affiliate takes the hit. The Amerks right now are 9-15-0-1 after coming off of a 1-3-0-0 road trip where their goalies were pummeled by the opposition.

And here's the rub.

While the Sabres are pulling talent from Rochester, the Amerks are left to sign players to tryout contracts and maybe an AHL contract or two. Teams are allowed 50 professional contracts to fill their NHL and AHL rosters. According to CapFriendly the Buffalo Sabres have 43. Most times teams leave themselves some wiggle room at 48 or so meaning the Sabres have five openings but have yet to fill them.

"There's no NHL salary cap on scouting budgets and player development budgets," is another line from Pegula's presser and to his word, he's done that. But in a difficult year when adding only one NHL-level defenseman could have helped both Buffalo and Rochester, management stood pat. Why?
The prevailing reason is the salary cap yet as we've seen from a team like the Philadelphia Flyers, you can walk a tightrope if there's a commitment to do so.

The Flyers always seem to be against the cap and they always seem to find a way around it, most notably through LTIR. Their an organization willing to spend whatever it takes to ice the best hockey team they can year-in, year-out no matter what the circumstances.

That commitment doesn't seem to be there right now in Buffalo and questions should be raised as to where the weak link is on that chain. As far as we know, the Sabres are Terry Pegula's baby and if his words from the first presser ring true, he'll spend what's necessary and there's no reason to think otherwise, especially the virtual ATM they have with the Bills to balance things out.

We also know that GM Tim Murray isn't afraid to pull the trigger on a trade to try and improve his club. He and AGM Mark Jakubowski haven't been shy about dishing out contracts, with many of them as of late being very solid, team-friendly ones.

The man between Pegula and Murray is Russ Brandon.

Not being inside KeyBank Center it's hard to know just much say Brandon has in the hockey operations department and hopefully, based upon his recent record with the Bills, it won't be much.

It looks as if the Buffalo Bills will miss the playoffs for the 17th consecutive season with Russ Brandon at the helm for nine of those. It seems pretty obvious that his business acumen hasn't transferred to the operations side of the equation and maybe the Pegulas should consider hiring a respected football guy like Bill Polian or Tom Coughlin to take over for him.

As for the Sabres, they need to nip this in the bud before it reaches Bills-level ineptitiude by keeping Brandon out of the hockey operations. If it takes hiring a vice president of hockey operations to be the go-between, so be it, because according to Terry Pegula, money is no object and in the end, etched in the Sabres dressing room is this quote from him:

"From this point forward, the Buffalo Sabres' reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup."

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