Thursday, November 14, 2013

It was time

Absolute shockers are few and far between in sports, at least off the playing field, but Wednesday's developments involving the Buffalo Sabres certainly qualified. When I saw on Twitter this morning that a news conference had been called by the team, my first thought was that coach Ron Rolston was going to be sacrificed to the hockey gods. The replacement might have been current assistant coach Joe Sacco or former Canadiens coach and current Sabres employee Randy Cunneyworth. In fact, when Cunneyworth was hired a short time ago, I wondered if he was given time to study the organization while serving as an insurance policy in case Rolston had to go.

Wrong. Word leaked out only minutes before the news conference that general manager Darcy Regier and Rolston were gone, and that joining the organization would be president of hockey operations Pat LaFontaine and interim coach Ted Nolan.

I've written about Regier a lot in this space - I'm the guy who didn't think sending him to a Siberian training camp was a good idea. (Good thing this isn't well read.) He was always a good soldier, who put together a couple of good squads that could have won Stanley Cups over the course of 16-plus years. Regier also had some unusual circumstances over his tenure, with drastic changes in ownership philosophy.

What went wrong? A couple of points come to mind. The Sabres got caught in the middle of the standings for many of the past several years. That meant they didn't get many top 10 draft choices, where the good players are. It's tough to get off that treadmill of mediocrity.

It's also easy to second-guess some of the roster moves, such as the signing of free agent Ville Leino and a big contract to Tyler Myers, whose game went straight downhill. When the Sabres didn't improve, some of the veterans (and the front office) saw the writing on the wall and they headed for the exit one way or another. The last playoff team for the Sabres came in 2011, and names such as Vanek, Roy, Pominville, Gaustad, and Leopold were on that roster but are gone now. I looked at the line combinations the other day and said to someone, "They don't have anything left, do they?"

I heard conflicting stories about Regier personally. Some people I trust said he was a first-class person whose attributes didn't really come across in public well. Others I trust said he kept an unnecessary distance and was a reason why players didn't want to come to Buffalo. What's the truth? Maybe a little of both, and probably I'll never know.

But rather clearly the fan base had had enough, and certainly was ready to start voting with their wallets about the situation. A dreary start definitely looked like it was going to be a dreary season, and it was time for a move.

Was this the right move? It certainly was in terms of public relations, a grand-slam homer with that same fan base. LaFontaine is almost as popular in Buffalo as David Ortiz is in Boston, meaning that LaFontaine probably could have finished third in the mayor's race here like Ortiz did last week in Boston. Nolan isn't far behind. The move may not produce many wins, but it buys the team time with the fans. The Sabres have bought themselves a honeymoon period with the two newcomers, and Nolan certainly will motivate the players the rest of the way so that the product ought to be more entertaining.

Still, there's so much that we don't know right now. Starting at the top, is this a sign that owner Terry Pegula is learning about the hockey business, or that he made this precise move for the wrong reasons? Regier wasn't the only one in the Sabres' hockey department, and LaFontaine will have to figure out what sort of moves will be needed. His first action probably will be to hire a general manager, which should be revealing, They both will have to figure out how to deal with Ryan Miller's situation, the last big piece left on the roster. Plus, that general manager no doubt will wonder how much authority he has to switch coaches - either in the summer or later - under this set of unique circumstances.

And, somewhat ironically, the Sabres won't have much choice but to follow Regier's plan for rebuilding. It's tough to picture Buffalo shipping all of those draft choices from the next couple of years for veterans who can help now, although some minor deals for fringe players who can help a little now probably might not be a bad idea. Remember when Nolan asked general manager John Muckler to give up a pick for an unknown defenseman named Bob Boughner, who proved helpful for a few years? The current teens on the roster will have to grow up and improve, and the ones who enter the organization in the near future must come through.

But the Sabres now can afford to stay the course. Before Wednesday morning, the team was bad and boring. After Wednesday morning, it became bad and fascinating. That's not a bad day's work before lunch.

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