Published by hockeybuzz.com, 4-20-2017
It's been a rather contentious off-season for fans of the Buffalo Sabres as a very disappointing season turned to question marks in April as the NHL playoffs march on. Fans took sides when it came to who was most responsible for the step backwards the Sabres had taken this season with one side saying GM Tim Murray put together a poor roster and the other side saying the head coach Dan Bylsma couldn't figure out how to make things work on the ice.
Well, the owners of the Buffalo Sabres made it pretty clear today that they weren't happy at all with what transpired and fired both Murray and Bylsma. Here's the statement from the Pegulas:
"After reviewing the past season and looking at the future of our organization, Kim and I have decided to relieve General Manager Tim Murray and Head Coach Dan Bylsma of their duties. We want to thank Tim and Dan for their hard work and efforts that they have put in during their tenures with the club. We wish them luck. We have begun the process to fill these positions immediately."
Word of the firing came when in the early part of an interview I was having with long-time Rochester Americans announcer, Don Stevens, and to show just how split Sabreland was on responsibility for the Sabres poor season, he mentioned one, yet I was thinking the other. Neither of us, however, thought that both Murray and Bylsma would be shown the door as I assume most in Sabreland didn't think this bombshell was coming.
The national media has already begun jumping on the move . Pierre LeBrun tweeted, "Constant turmoil with the Bills and Sabres. The passionate fans of Western New York deserve so much better."
It's a shot at ownership and I'm sure there will be plenty more. Some of the things that will be pointed our are the Bills 17-year playoff drought, even though the Pegula's have owned the team for only two of those seasons as well as the Sabres six-year playoff drought, all of them under the Pegulas with two of those seasons being devoted to emptying the roster for a scorched-earth rebuild. We'll also hear a lot about how they fired the Bills Rex Ryan after two seasons with three years left on his contract and that of Bylsma, who has the exact same scenario.
And while talking about paying former coaches not to coach for them, we can add in Murray who just signed a three year contract extension which kicks in this off-season.
That being said, the Pegulas should be questioned as to how they structured the Sabres post-tank years especially in light of what the Toronto Maple Leafs were able to accomplish this season.
The Leafs went into their rebuild and began by hiring Hall of Fame player Brendan Shanahan as President and Alternate governor. According to the Sabres Media guide Buffalo's President and Alternate governor is Russ Brandon, a marketing guru who's spent the last 20 years with the Buffalo Bills, becoming Chief Operating Officer in 2008 when he took charge of day-to-day football operations. The Bills have had seven coaches during that time and had a record above .500 only once.
Sabres legend and Hall-of-Famer Pat LaFontaine was with the organization in the role of Vice President but parted ways with the Sabres not long after Murray was hired as general manager. No reason has ever been given for the split and it left a first time GM in charge of the entire hockey department.
The Leafs also have another Hall-of-Famer in GM Lou Lamoriello and an almost sure-fire Hall-of-Famer in head coach Mike Babcock, whom the Sabres courted but missed out upon. The Sabres had a head coach with one Stanley Cup but plenty of question marks as to how he got that Cup.
That the structure problem that probably lead to dysfunction and a season of disconnects.
There were a lot of reasons why the season went off the tracks and lack of depth certainly contributed to it. Murray built a roster that was pretty solid up front but when injuries hit, the replacements weren't quite ready. Lack of depth was a problem that stretched down to the AHL. And Murray's defense was in shambles all season, mainly because of injury but also in large part because they didn't have enough quality.
From the coaching ranks we had a coach that apparently wasn't on the same page as the team's star player--Jack Eichel. That disconnect also lead to reported discord between the veteran players and the younger ones.
It's not surprising that Bylsma was fired as coaches are usually first to go, especially when there's reported friction between him and the face of the franchise. But Murray was a real surprise.
Murray came into Buffalo with a ton of picks and potential in his arsenal and proceeded to come out with guns ablazin' as blockbuster trades became the norm. He took a lot of heat for the Tyler Myers/Evander Kane trade even though Kane looks to be the best player in the deal. That said, he also was the one that had off-ice issues which assuredly didn't go unnoticed by the Pegulas.
The Ryan O'Reilly trade was another big one with the Sabres getting one of the top two-way players in the league. Unfortunately Murray had to give up some prime prospects including a player in J.T. Compher, who may end up being O'Reilly 2.0, and defenseman Nikita Zadorov, a young player who had some off-ice problems but one who also played in a top-four role this past season.
Then there was the trade for goalie Robin Lehner. Murray gave up a 2015 first round pick for Lehner, a source of consternation from many in Sabreland as you don't usually give up a first-rounder for a goalie unless he's had some time to establish himself. Lehner was injured his first season in Buffalo and compiled a strong 2016-17, but even with solid numbers, many are not convinced he's a top-flight No. 1 goalie.
Put it all together and the Pegulas put an end to the dysfunction with in the hockey department. The process now is all about building a proper one although we're unsure of where they want to begin. Hopefully it's with a Vice President of Hockey Operations who will define what it means to be a Buffalo Sabre as throughout the Pegula's ownership, we're not really sure what they want to be.
The Sabres have a future superstar in Jack Eichel at center and have a strong No. 2 in O'Reilly. They have a top-pairing d-man in Rasmus Ristolainen and a good number of role players spread throughout the lineup. If Lehner isn't the No. 1 goalie of the future, Linus Ullmark is in the hopper having made great strides in Rochester this past season after playing real strong as a rookie during Lehners injury.
However, the Sabres also have a lot of dead weight to move and will need to make decisions on 20 free agents this off-season and should also be looking to extend Eichel beyond next season. The draft is coming up and the Las Vegas Knights expansion draft is before that meaning they'll need to formulate their protected list.
Today's news is a bombshell, but with all that said, it's an opportunity for the Pegulas to get it right beginning with the front office. If they don't, we'll just be going through this again.