Published by hockeybuzz.com, 1-18-2017
The headline could be, "Bylsma's team can't win the big one," as in Buffalo head coach Dan Bylsma's Buffalo Sabres dropped another big divisional game last night when it counted. Or it could've read something like "The team Tim Murray built is severely flawed despite high-stakes efforts to speed up the rebuild process." Or it could read "Eichel was yet again bottled up by another divisional foe while a superstar counterpart shines."
Simple fact is, Dan Bylsma is a good head coach, GM Tim Murray's scouting background gives him a keen eye for talent, and Eichel has what it takes to be amongst the elite in the sport. So why are the Sabres floundering? And why did a Toronto Maple Leafs team that spent only one year at the bottom of the league defeat a Sabres team last night that was supposedly two years ahead of the Leafs in the rebuilding process? It keeps coming back to how the organization is built and a tale of two ownership groups.
Bylsma and Murray are good hockey people but between the two they only have one Stanley Cup to their credit while in their present positions. Toronto head coach Mike Babcock has one Cup to his name while GM Lou Lamoriello has three and prior to coming to Toronto the two combined for 33 playoff appearances in 36 years plus another three Cup Finals' appearances with their respective teams. Babcock and Lamoriello have almost as many Cup Finals appearances as Bylsma and Murray have had years in their respective roles. Add in that Leafs team president Brendan Shanahan was a three-time Cup Champion as a player while his counterpart in Buffalo, Russ Brandon, is a marketing guy who's never tasted the playoffs in a high-ranking front office role with the Buffalo Bills and Sabres and the gulf between the two hockey operations is rather large.
Sabres' owner Terry Pegula might want to take a look at the Leafs structure and seriously reconsider his front office approach. Pegula has been asked about bringing in football and hockey czars before, but every time the question is raised he balks saying that he's fine with the present structure as is. Flying in the face of the Pegula wisdom is that every hockey team worth it's salt has a hockey guy in charge of hockey operations, yet he and those at Pegula Sports and Entertainment seem to feel that they can buck the trend and have marketing guy as team president.
It doesn't matter that the official word out of PSE is that Brandon has nothing to do with hockey ops, true or not, Brandon's title of Team President /Alternate Governor puts him in a position of power and influence and until he's replaced by a real hockey guy at the head of the hockey department, this team could very well be spinning it's wheels for a long time as evidenced by Pegula's other franchise--the Buffalo Bills. Brandon has been in the organization for every year of the team's 17-year playoff drought, the last 10 of which had him in a position of power directly under the owner. As two-time Superbowl winner Bill Parcells once famously stated, "You are what your record says you are" and the Bills record over the last 10 years with Brandon in that spot is 66-94.
Pegula had an opportunity to bring in a football czar last year but he balked again and the team went 7-9 to once again finish below .500 for the eighth time in the last 10 years with Brandon in his position.
We're not reinventing the wheel here. It's a simple truism in any business that the best owners hire the best people and it usually leads to success. Great owners know how to find (or are lucky enough to find) these men. Terry Pegula was obviously adept at doing so in the oil and gas industry as he built his East Resources company from scratch into a multi-billion dollar operation. Pegula knew the oil and gas industry and that knowledge lead to competent hires for top spots which lead to comptent hire in important positions throughout his company. Running a sports team is different than other running other organizations but at the heart of it they're all the same as it's a matter of entrusting the business to qualified, competent individuals at the top.
Trust is tough to come by, especially for someone like Pegula who has deep pockets but little knowledge of the business he sunk a fortune into. Like all multi-billion dollar industries, professional sports is filled with pariahs, incompetents and snake oil salesmen who smooth-talk their way into positions of power and influence. It happened in Toronto for years with the Leafs and in Buffalo we need to look no further that the last couple of decades. Larry Quinn was fired by one Buffalo Sabres ownership group but nuzzled his way back into the organization and eventually became managing partner of new Sabres owner Tom Golisano. Long-time Buffalo GM Darcy Regier smooth-talked his way into a lucrative extension with new owner Pegula which turned into a golden parachute. Neither are involved with professional hockey at this juncture.
And most recently, Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan not only flim-flammed his way into a five-year, $25 million contract from Pegula and Brandon, but he also had enough pizzazz to bring along his brother and 27 other assistants last year for the ride. The Ryan circus was a bombastic display worthy of the Brian Burke Award for ostentatious rhetoric and supreme snake oil salesmanship.
The gate-keeper in all of this is the owner's right-hand man or team president. Golisano's right-hand man was businessman Quinn and the Pegula's right-hand man is Brandon. Since 1999 both teams have combined for six playoff appearances, all from the Sabres. Yet, incredulously, the Pegulas refuse to hire czars to head both operations and instead are entrusting both organizations to a marketer who supposedly is giving full authority to first-time GM's Doug Whaley of the Bills and Murray of the Sabres. And it hasn't been working.
If the Pegulas ever needed an example of just how fruitless their approach is, last night provided a clear-cut example of two different paths taken by two organizations who are both coming out of a rebuild. The Leafs who've been trying for years to get it right put together an envious power structure at the top of the organization with the some of the best minds in hockey while the Sabres are trying to reinvent the wheel. Toronto is in a playoff spot seven points ahead of the Sabres with eight rookies on the roster and it's only been one season since they bottomed out. The Sabres spent two years at the bottom, last year in limbo and their on their way to a sixth consecutive season outside the playoffs.
This was supposed to be a blog about Buffalo's 4-3 loss last night and how the Sabres once again blew a two-goal lead against a team they were chasing in the division. It was supposed to be about how they're 0-4 when it truly mattered recently with a coach who can't seem to get this team moving in the same direction for any pronounced length of time. It was supposed to be about a GM who's hand-picked goalie got pulled in the second period after stopping only 13 of 16 shots and looks anything but a franchise-type goalie. And it was supposed to be about a star player in Buffalo who once again was outshone by his contemporary.
However, it just kept coming back to organizational structure and how hubris seems to be blocking the synapses of ownership's collective head. You can eventually overcome players, coaches and gm's who aren't up to snuff, but you cannot overcome ineptitude by ownership or high-ranking front office personnel. Sure, the Sabres or Bills may buck the trend and win a championship with a marketer in charge, but history has shown that it doesn't really work that way.
If it all comes to fruition for Pegula and the Sabres (or Bills) are able to reach the promised land with this front office as constructed, this piece will constitute nothing more than senseless drivel from a two-bit blogger. But as the old saying goes, "it starts at the top," and those at the top in Buffalo have teams that are middle of the road while young teams like the Leafs are blowing past them. Until some definitive changes are made they'll amble along saying, "we know better," while the Bills/Sabres playoff drought hits 23 years and counting between the two.
That constitutes organizational failure and it's wrong to place the weight of the blame on coaches, GM's or players.