Thursday, May 09, 2013

New boss, old boss

My coworker Miguel made the crucial comment on Tuesday night when it came crystallizing an opinion about Ron Rolston's return as the coach of the Buffalo Sabres for the 2013-14 season. Miguel said that Rolston sounds just like Darcy Regier when he talked in public. I later saw a clip of the news conference and realized that Miguel was on to something here.

All of a sudden, the hiring made good sense, at least from Regier's standpoint.

As I've written before, Regier got his hockey training under Bill Torrey with the Islanders. He picked a head coach in Al Arbour, one he was comfortable with, and stuck with him for years and years. It worked out pretty well, especially in the dynasty days of the early 1980's. Regier got the GM job in Buffalo in 1997, and stayed with Lindy Ruff through last winter for mostly the same reasons.

Put yourself in Regier's shoes at the end of the season. He knows the fans aren't happy with how things have gone lately, and he certainly might have been fired had he been associated with a different set of upper management types. The rebuilding process started with the trading of veterans leading up to the deadline. Regier needs someone as a coach that he had confidence will serve as a good teacher and partner in the process.

Rolston is right down the hallway, figuratively speaking. They'd worked together for two years, and apparently gotten along fine. Rolston did oversee an uptick in the team's play during his tenure this past season, even with some talent leaving along the way, so there's no pressure there to switch coaches for that reason. They talked alike, which can be translated into having similar philosophies about the game.

Regier is known for playing it cautious on player transactions, and we'll assume that reputation extends into other areas of his work philosophy. If this is a situation where Regier knows he had better be right, well, he's not going to be throwing any long passes. Picking Rolston might not be an simple handoff on third-and-16, but it might be a low-risk flare pass that might turn into something better.

The result? To quote the Who, "Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss."

If I can understand the hiring, I have to ask a follow-up question. Was the process done properly a good idea? I'm not so sold on that part.

We have a fan base that is disillusioned after the past couple of seasons. The team has watched the playoffs lately, and has already traded some veterans. There is talk of trading Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek, who probably are the two best players on the roster. The bundle of draft choices involved in the spring trades aren't going to be ready to help for a while. And the hockey management team will have the same leaders.

Think there will be some empty seats at the start of the season next fall? Me too - even if a couple of high-priced free agents are signed, which would seem to go against the current plan.

I would have been tempted to at least talk to some other possible candidates. To use an historical example, John Muckler needed a new coach in the summer of 1995 after moving upstairs full-time. He picked Ted Nolan, which certainly didn't work in terms of front-office harmony. But in terms of changing the hockey culture dramatically, Nolan did that job successfully. Promoting assistant coach Don Lever probably wouldn't have had the same effect on the organization.

The fans became relatively excited about a rebuilding roster, one which thanks to Muckler's moves and Nolan's coaching went on to win a division title well ahead of schedule in 1996-97. Note: I am not saying Nolan should have gotten an interview here. But could it have hurt to interview somebody, anybody? It might have been a good opportunity to talk with outsiders about the state of the Sabres' franchise, if nothing else, as well as a bit of a public relations technique.

It's fair to say, then, that Regier didn't act like he was under pressure from the boys and girls in the marketing department to do something. He went with an option that featured the fewest unknowns, one that was obviously approved by team ownership. That sort of faith is relatively rare in professional sports, a results-oriented, high-pressure business. Now we get to see how the near future plays out to determine if the team's faith is justified.

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