Monday, April 15, 2013

Unpopular premise

Want to see a blogger become unpopular in no time?

Here's one method - suggest that Darcy Regier is not the source of all of the Buffalo Sabres' problems, and that firing him at the end of the current season is no sure cure.

Here goes.

The Sabres have been a major disappointment again this season. Hopes were high when Terry Pegula bought the team, but so far the franchise hasn't been able to capitalize on the new approach and turn it into wins - or more to the point, playoff wins. A few players have been sent packing recently for various reasons, so the roster is more or less out of scapegoats there. Coach Lindy Ruff was sacrificed to the hockey gods earlier this season. That has helped a little in terms of won-loss record, but a playoff berth seems unlikely.

Housecleanings of the front office are always popular. They are a sign of action, and people like action in such circumstances. The media members like it, because it creates news. Fans like it, because everyone likes to play general manager ... although I don't think actually being one would be the least amount of fun.

Appropriate here? Much harder to say. Let's ask some questions.

What's the easiest way to get fired as a general manager? Not get along with the people above you, naturally. Ask John Muckler. Heck, ask Scotty Bowman, who drastically changed the team's front office culture and is still hated for it. We've had a variety of people involved in Sabres' ownership since Regier arrived in 1997. They all seem to think that Regier has done a good enough job to hang on to his position, and done it in a variety of circumstances - from bankruptcy to unlimited riches. A lot of people who see him work on a daily basis, up close, have been impressed. He's been a good soldier, taking the blame for organizational faults at times. Stability is also a virtue, and he's certainly provided that over the years. That's all worth something.

How is his record? The answer is mixed. It looks as if the team is about to go two straight seasons without making the playoffs, and six straight seasons without winning a playoff series. That's not a good sign, and some may want to stop here and show Regier the door. But the team was in the conference finals in two seasons before that, and probably was one healthy defenseman away in 2006 from winning the Stanley Cup. Before that, there were three years of sitting home in late April, and nothing but playoff appearances before that. It's not consistent excellence like the Detroit Red Wings' ledger, but it's not the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Are there extenuating circumstances? Absolutely. Bankruptcy is never a good sign, and we'll never know what working conditions were like in that era. We do know that a few years later under actual owners, the Sabres cut way back on their scouting budget and watched prospects through video. While the technique was rationalized at the time, it's tough to believe it didn't play a part in the team's problems for the past few years. In other words, the Sabres could be paying for it now.

How have Regier's transactions gone? Stay long enough, and you'll have some successes and failures. This month's housecleaning brought in several high draft choices that could turn out to be helpful in a few years. Know anyone who didn't like Cody Hodgson and Alexander Sulzer for Zack Kassian and Marc-Andre Gragnani? A first-round pick for Paul Gaustad? The original Robyn Regehr traded was helpful. Then again, deals for Brad Boyes and Raffi Torres didn't work out. And so on down through the years. Rarely, though, has a trade been announced and fans thought, "Just what was Darcy thinking there?" Regier supposedly is rather cautious in his negotiations and can be difficult to deal with, but it's hard to know just how true that is unless you are on the phone talking trade or contract with him.

How about free agent signings? Swings and misses. Christian Ehrhoff wasn't a bad pick-up. Ville Leino hasn't worked out so far. You get the idea. Hockey players peak at 25 or 26 for the most part, and free agents become available at 27. You never know how fast they'll slide, and teams often pay for past production that isn't duplicated.

And the ones that got away? I'm not willing to blame Regier for the loss of Chris Drury and Danny Briere once upon a time. Ownership didn't take a pro-active approach to those moves and let them get away. To be fair, Drury and Briere probably didn't earn their inflated salaries elsewhere. Buffalo did match the contract offers for Zach Parise and Ryan Suter last year, but they opted to go to Minnesota for the same money. Hard to complain too much about that.

The draft choices? Ups and downs, as could be expected. Tyler Myers was a fine choice, Marek Zagrapan was not. It's very, very difficult to try to look at an 18-year-old and figure out how he'll be at 23. It's a little easier if you have a top 10 pick. Care to guess how many top ten picks the Sabres had between 1997 and 2011? One, and it was Thomas Vanek. In other words, the Sabres usually haven't been bad enough to get great picks. 

See any slam-dunk reasons there, objectively speaking? I don't.

One of my pet theories about pro sports is that people in leadership positions help their own cause by being available and polished to the public. My Exhibit A was Dick Jauron of the Bills, who everyone said was a nice, brilliant man but who never spoke much and when he did, chose his words so carefully that it was hard to get a read on his personality. Jauron didn't get the benefit of the doubt when things turned bad.

Same here. Regier has always come across as shy to me. The internal drawback is that some people internally have complained about a lack of communication from the GM, which is not good. But more to our point is how Regier has dealt with the public, which is most obvious through the media. The fun in the job for him comes from working with people he likes and trusts, which is why Ruff certainly got the benefits of a few doubts over the years. Lindy had more chances to build up good will with the public since he was on television after every game and practice, but that area isn't Regier's strong suit.

So ... what do we have here? Certainly Regier's departure would be taken by many fans that ownership is willing to try new approaches to win. It's an ideal time to do that in the sense that a new GM could bring in his own coach in the offseason, as well as make other front-office moves.

But would it help? Is there someone obviously better equipped waiting at the door? That's a tough call. Sports teams win or lose for a reason, and usually the reason isn't obvious. When I worked for the Sabres from 1986 to 1992, I saw first-hand that the team's biggest problem was what I called "a commitment to mediocrity." In other words, ownership wasn't prepared to go the extra mile to win a championship; it was relatively content to have a competitive team. This may remind you of the Golisano years with the Sabres, when breaking even was a major goal.

You never know how any architect of a sports team will do in a particular set of circumstances. Glen Sather won a bunch of Cups in Edmonton, but has been blanked in New York while spending lots of money. Harry Sinden never won a Cup as a GM in Boston, although his teams won plenty of games. There are just too many variables to predict future results.

I guess I'd have to see have some good evidence from the inside that shoving Regier out the door would be helpful before pulling the trigger. That's mostly because change for the sake of change isn't necessarily a good idea.

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