Monday, April 24, 2017

Trying to read the Pegula's tea leaves

Published by, 4-23-2017

Perhaps it's best we not try and figure out what owner Terry Pegula was trying to say about the franchise at his 15 minute presser on Thursday, but then again, it can make for some interesting speculation. In this instance we're going to attempt to figure out the hierarchal plans he has for his hockey team, the Buffalo Sabres, and whom they might be inclined to hire as general manager.

When Pegula bought the team back in 2011 he kept on his GM, gave him a open checkbook and direct access to the big guy himself. It's been that way ever since save for a period of sanity when Pegula brought in former Sabres great and NHL Hall of Famer, Pat LaFontaine to head the hockey ops. At the time the team was going through transitional period where they were moving on from Darcy Regier and everything he built and were dead set upon a scorched earth rebuild. LaFontaine admittedly was not the GM-type so he was in charge of finding one, which turned out to be the recently fired, Tim Murray.

The plan, according to Bucky Gleason of the Buffalo News, was to have a three pronged-approach to the front office. LaFontaine, a well-liked and well-respected hockey man would head the hockey department and be the face of the front office as president. The roster and the mechanisms involved in that would fall on Murray, who would handle the personnel side of the equation from scouting to roster decisions, and a numbers-guy would work contracts and the salary cap.

It was a brilliant idea until LaFontaine reportedly had a distaste for the "rebuilding" approach favored by the organization. There may have been other things involved in his departure but his reign as President of Hockey Operations lasted all of four months, throwing that structure completely out the window.

Instead of replacing LaFontaine the Pegula's heaped the entire hockey operations on the shoulders of first-time GM Murray who was probably hired under the auspices of working the hockey aspects of the operation. We see how that turned out with Murray even saying that he wished he'd been able to scout a little more instead of being around the team day-in, day-out.

At Pegula's presser he was asked about the structure of the front office, which is devoid of any leadership right now, and he danced around the question. When a media member pressed the issue and asked Pegula if he intended to go back to the LaFontaine structure the answer was a quick and definitive "no."

Which seems about right. The Pegulas own both the Sabres and the NFL's Buffalo Bills under the umbrella of Pegula Sports and Entertainment. The only voice other than the Pegulas over both organizations is PSE President Russ Brandon who was CEO of the Bills under the late Ralph Wilson then was named President and Managing Partner of the team by the Pegulas and who also wears the hat of President and Alternate Governor for the Buffalo Sabres.

The Buffalo Bills structure the last two seasons under PSE had their GM and coach answering directly to Big Papa Pegula while Brandon continued to be involved in football related decisions. That plan was altered a bit as head coach Rex Ryan was fired and replaced by new head coach Sean McDermott who is making all the football decisions with GM Doug Whaley curiously remaining on as a figurehead. With the Bills effectively eliminating GM Whaley, McDermott is the lone voice in the new PSE "one-voice" mandate.

That's unlikely to happen with the Sabres and the Pegulas have started an ardent search for both coach and GM as they're looking to "build a stronger organization from top to bottom," according to Pegula. He mentioned that experience being important which lead us to believe that the GM position would be filled byu someone like Dean Lombardi or former Sabre Rick Dudley, both of whom have a long administrative resume.

That's what the tea leaves were reading post-presser, yet Sportsnet's John Shannon tweeted out yesterday that, "[the] Sabres have started building their list of candidates for GM. Sounds like they are looking for "new blood" as opposed to veteran manager."

Which leads us in another direction. Or maybe he does want to bring in an experienced VP of Hockey Ops to guide a newbie through his first GM position. Or maybe not.

Who the hell knows?

On the newbie front, the Sabres will have plenty of "new blood" to choose from for the GM position. The big name is Chicago AGM Norm MacIver who's been with the club for the duration of a Blackhawks dynasty that saw them win three Stanley Cups in five years.

In a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune, GM Stan Bowman was quoted as saying MacIver was "a stabilizing force" for the Hawks and much attention has been paid to his personnel skills with Bowman calling him a "co-architect" of the last two Cup-winning teams. When asked about his strengths MacIver talked about "just having a good feel for our team and ... (gauging) the pulse of the team and trying to help [Bowman] put this thing together. My biggest strength is recognizing the needs and strengths and weaknesses of our team."

MacIver seems like the type who won't rock the boat or rub ownership the wrong way. And from what I've gathered also sounds like a character-type guy which is huge buzzword ownership is throwing around right.

Based upon what they just went through with Murray, it would seem as if they'd like a little less personality and more suit. Murray was said to have rubbed Kim Pegula the wrong way and some of his moves, most notably that of the trade for noted off-ice "character" Evander Kane, probably didn't sit well with an ownership that seems to want a rigid adherence of their ideals. "New blood" certainly would allow them to mold a GM in the way they'd like.

Which probably rules out possibilities like Lombardi and Dudley, who would be coming in with their own ideals, and even a "new blood" like former Sabre Chris Drury who seems to have a self-confidence that would far surpass the Pegulas needs.

Jason Botterill is another candidate that would probably fit in with what the Pegulas are looking for. He started his management career with Pittsburgh in 2007 and is now associate GM for the Penguins. Botterill is a highly regarded up-and-comer and the Pegulas have a deep affinity for those from the Penguins organization. New Jersey AGM Tom Fitzgerald is also a candidate.

Other than MacIver, the only other button-down who seems to have the necessary experience and success to take on what the Pegulas are throwing their way (minus a VP of Hockey Ops) is Nashville Predators Assistant General Manager, Paul Fenton.

Fenton has been in his AGM position since 2006 and prior to that he was the Preds Director of Player Personnel beginning in 1998. He's a former undrafted NHL player who worked his way up from lower levels of pro hockey to a 400+ game NHL career and is highly regarded for his scouting and player development, especially on the blue line.

Back when the Edmonton Oilers were looking for a GM, Jonathan Willis of the Edmonton Journal picked a number of candidates to opine upon and here's some of what he wrote about Fenton, "While Nashville’s development record in all departments is one of the best in the league, they’ve really built a reputation for churning out NHL-calibre defensemen.  Meanwhile, the team hasn’t sacrificed winning while producing these prospects; Nashville’s AHL (Milwaukee Admirals) is one of the most consistently successful at a minor-league level.  Combine Fenton’s work in Milwaukee (as GM) with the Predators’ successes drafting and developing, and of course the team’s own ability to stay competitive with limited financial resources, and there’s good reason to think that Fenton would do well with his own franchise."

Sounds like a prime candidate, especially when defense is the weakest position in the organization.

Then again, who knows what the Pegula's will do.

No doubt Terry and Kim are well-meaning people who desperately want to bring a championship to the city of Buffalo, but what they've been finding out is that building said winner is quite different than running their previous energy business. Many are of the belief that they're in over their heads and simply winging it. It certainly looks that way with how their teams have performed the last few years and with the number of former coaches, along with a GM, whom they're paying not to be in the organization.

There will be plenty to speculate, write and opine about as the Pegulas search for their next coach and GM, which is fine. When all's said and done, we'll find out just who came closest to reading the tea leaves.

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