Friday, April 28, 2017

Pegula's getting busy? More help for the defense. Plus...

Published by, 4-27-2017

Rumor has it that the Buffalo Bills scouting department is in for a house-cleaning after the NFL Draft which begins today. Terry and Kim Pegula own both the Bills and the NHL's Buffalo Sabres through Pegula Sports and Entertainment.

If true, the Pegula's will have done a lot of spring cleaning this year after poor results from their franchises. They started their purge of undesirables this past winter when they jettisoned Bills head coach Rex Ryan with three years and one game left on his contract. Later they hired Sean McDermott has the new head coach and he's wielding enormous clout for a head coach, and a first-timer to boot. McDermott has been dubbed the "one voice" of the Bills, according to the media, and has complete control over the draft., pushing GM Doug Whaley to the side and, it would seem, out the door.

Over at the foot of Washington St., the Pegula's dumped Sabres GM Tim Murray and head coach Dan Bylsma last week after what Terry Pegula described as a very disappointing 2016-17 season. Murray had just received a three-year extension in October and Bylsma also had three years on his contract. In the process, Pegula also said he was disappointed in himself for not being more involved in the hires of both Murray and Bylsma.

Apparently, PSE is liking what McDermott is doing with the Bills so far. Terry has been joining his head coach and "one voice" on scouting visits for quarterbacks and seems to have a liking to the way McDermott is approaching things and the entire scouting department is on alert. ProFootball Talk cited an unnamed Bills scout as saying, "We are all getting fired next week," which would be after the draft.

It's not really surprising. The scouting department has done a fair job, but nowhere near where they need to be for the franchise to rise above mediocrity. This is a team that spent the last three seasons within a game of .500 after going three consecutive seasons at 6-10. GM Whaley has been either around or in charge during this stretch and why he's still around is still somewhat of a mystery.

The timing is right, but to do so when they have a hockey department that's been laid to waste means a lot of work for the Pegula's and whatever helpers they've employed to guide them.

Pegula's hockey club didn't have a deep hockey department to begin with on the operations side. They went from having a couple of advisors when he first bought the team to Terry and Kim up top with President and Alternate Governor Russ Brandon just below the owners. After that it was Murray. At one point, for a very brief four-month stint, the Pegulas hires Pat LaFontaine to head the hockey ops, but he left in a cloud of mystery which placed a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of Murray, whom they fired because it didn't work out.

If the rumors are true, the Pegulas, and presumably Brandon, are biting off a huge chunk as they'll be looking to build a scouting department for the Bills while looking to fill an empty hockey department for their Sabres who have a number of big-time things to deal with including the expansion draft, NHL Entry Draft, decisions on the 20 or so free agents they have, decisions on players in the system as well as free agency.

It's a huge undertaking the results of which won't be known for another couple of years, when they may be cleaning house again?


Right now the Pegulas still have assistant general manager Mark Jakubowski his handling contract negotiations, which was his main focus with the club anyway. And yesterday Jakubowski got on th board as the club announced that junior defenseman Devante Stephens (2015, 122nd-overall) to a three-year, entry-level contract.

The 6'1" 172 lb. mobile rear-guard made huge strides in his third season with the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League scoring 13 goals and adding 22 assists in 67 regular season games while adding seven assists in 15 playoff games. In addition to adding some bulk to deal with the rigors of the pro game, Stephens will probably spend at least a year or two in Rochester honing his defense against men, which is a huge jump for most junior players.

Buffalo's defense-corps had a rough go of it last season meaning change is on the horizon and opportunity for NHL-ready defensemen. Stephens isn't there yet but KHL d-man Viktor Antipin certainly is.

The 24 yr. old Antipin has spent his entire hockey career in Mother Russia, most recently with the Kontinental Hockey League, and was rumored to be signing with Buffalo weeks ago. There were questions as to what would happen after Murray was fired but according to a tweet from KHL insider/scout Aivis Kalnins, "Antipin and Buffalo Sabres have talked recently, feeling is that they will indeed get a deal done, most likely after World Champs."

The IIHF World Championships conclude May 21 and are being held in Cologne, Germany.

The question arises as to why Antipin would want to make his foray into the NHL amidst the tumult that is the Buffalo Sabres right now, but the 5'11" 174 lb. Antipin has an opportunity to jump right into the Sabres lineup, and if rumors about a no-AHL clause are true, then he'll spend his one-year deal playing in the NHL.

It's a nice fit for both player and team.


Kris Baker of Sabresprospects/ tweeted that "the Stephens pick was made with info provided by Bylsma, who loved his athleticism when spending time with [Dan] Lambert in Kelowna."

Lambert was with the Rockets from 2009-15 before Bylsma brought him on board as an assistant. After one year as a Sabres assistant the organization moved Lambert behind the bench in Rochester. He was not part of the purge that happened last week.


Last week I did a piece on Murray and how I'd be missing his media personality and demeanor. In a results-based business, things like that matter very little, in fact candor can often reveal too much and eventually work against you.

There were a lot of things wrong with the Sabres this past season and Murray took the hit for a roster that wasn't as talented as they could/should have been, especially on defense. However, I do feel that coaching had a lot to do with a sad Sabres season.

In watching the playoffs, most recently the Captials/Leafs series as well as Game-1 of the Oilers/Ducks series, the skating and aggressiveness with which played was something we'd see out of the Sabres, but very rarely. The big knock was Bylsma's system and the disconnect it caused with the players, especially the younger, more talented ones who could get up and down the ice.

Bylsma's system did nothing for this team in terms of speed and aggressiveness. Sure it was predicated upon his defense getting the puck to the forwards, which was an extremely difficult task for that corps, but to not deviate from a system that clearly wasn't working doesn't make sense.

I don't know how many times I wrote in my notes that teams seemed to know what the Sabres were about to do before they did it and simply broke things up before they got started. And it's been documented that often times players were more focused upon getting to a spot on the ice instead of playing the game. This insistence upon a rigid adherence to system throttled a team that had enough speed and skill to at least surpass last year's point-total.

In looking back, one can point to the 5-4 win in Ottawa the first game Jack Eichel returned from his injury. It was a game that Bylsma said was fun for the fans to watch but gave him and his staff indigestion. What a concept, a fun game for the fans to watch and to be on the winning end of a nine-goal game.

The skating and aggressiveness we saw in that Ottawa game rarely came to the fore again, unless it was when the team was behind and they needed to hit the go-switch.

It began with a game against the Los Angeles Kings in December after they found themselves down 2-0. Buffalo would storm back with four unanswered goals in just over six minutes en route to a 6-3 win in front of the home crowd. And in January the Sabres stormed back three consecutive games and won in overtime scoring 11 goals in the process.

Yet, it wasn't "The System."

Mike Harrington of the Buffalo News tweeted on the eve of the second round of the playoffs that the Sabres, "went 12-6-4 (.636) against 8 remaining teams -- and 9-0-3 vs. OTT, NYR, NSH, EDM. Can't finish with 78 points when you can do that."

A lot of things weren't right with the Sabres last year, but I'm of the opinion, and will always be of the opinion, "The System" played a huge role in the crappy season we in Sabreland witnessed.

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