Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What to do?

Think it's easy to be a sports executive these days? Think again.

Ponder the situation surrounding the Buffalo Sabres. You remember the Sabres, the guys who are sitting home while 16 other teams are starting down the road to the Stanley Cup.

General manager Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff have been together since 1997. That's a very impressive combination; many marriages don't last that long. They've had some success over the years, including three trips to the conference finals and one visit to the Stanley Cup finals. No Stanley Cups, though, and only two visits to the postseason in the past five years.

New owner Terry Pegula came in more than a year ago with a full wallet, ready to do whatever it took to win. He certainly fulfilled his end of the bargain, as Buffalo went after a couple of free agents -- unusual behavior by recent Sabre standards. The signings raised expectations greatly ... which made the disappointment of the just-concluded season that much more dramatic and crushing.

If you had been a Sabre executive, what would have been running through your mind as you pondered the future of Regier and Ruff? It's a mixed bag, with no obvious right answer.

The Sabres have had some success at times, but perhaps not enough. Buffalo has missed the playoffs six times since Regier and Ruff came in during the summer of '97. That's not terrible in a 15-year span, but not glittering either. Some of Regier's transactions have worked out (Paul Gaustad for a number one pick), some (the Brad Boyes deal) haven't. Meanwhile, Regier has never been one to reveal much of himself to the fan base, perhaps because he's on the shy side (a rare trait for a pro sports executive).

Players often start to tune out a coach after a while, and Ruff's coaching tactics started to show some signs of staleness this season if the comments on locker room cleanout day are any indication. But, how much of this past season was really his fault, and how much blame should the players get?

Throw in one other factor: Pegula went very public in supporting Ruff when he bought the team. If he dumps Regier now, any new general manager probably would want his own coach if possible. So he'd have to move both.

There's always a segment of fans who want to change coaches and executives without much thought. They're impatient, and that's understandable. Sports teams in Buffalo haven't been good in a while. But are many of them cancelling their season tickets? I don't sense a rebellion coming, although we'd obviously have to see what happens in the next couple of months.

Team President Ted Black announced today that Regier and Ruff would be back in the fall. All things considered, that's not a bad move. I might have had a couple of "where do we go from here?" meetings, but I'm usually not a big fan of the "let's blow things up" school of management. Bad franchises seem to do that constantly.

Still, a situation can change in a minute. Ask the Red Sox, who had the most successful general manager/manager combination in their history both leave a short time after last year's conclusion to the baseball season.

There will be pressure for next season on both Regier and Ruff. The reservoir of good will is a bit low on water now, but I could see it getting empty really quickly with a slow start in the fall. But ... the management team will have a full chance to reboot the roster this offseason. Let's see how it does.

Darcy and Lindy know how it works. They've lasted 15 years, an almost unimaginable time period, and they've been well paid during that time. It sounds a little wishy-washy now, but it's true: Year 16 will be the big one.

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