Sunday, March 02, 2014

Scratching my head again

It's been two memorable nights at the workplace this week - back-to-back, no less.

On Friday, my Twitter feed suddenly was filled at 6:30 p.m. with the news that Ryan Miller and Steve Ott were not on the ice for the Buffalo Sabres, even though they were in the original lineup for that night's game. Kremlin-watchers correctly figured out that some sort of trade had happened. Miller and Ott had been told to pack for St. Louis shortly before that.

Then on Saturday, stories about problems in the Sabres' front office started to circulate on Twitter. At first, we guessed that something might be up with team president Ted Black. Then the scuttlebutt started to spread in social media that it was Pat LaFontaine who might be in the middle of it. Sure enough, a news release was emailed to us later in the night that LaFontaine had resigned his position as president of hockey operations, and would be returning to a position with the National Hockey League.

As you could imagine, we "tore apart" a few planned pages for the sports section as the night went on. Our layout editor for the two nights has applied for combat pay.

There was only one thing that could be certain about all this: We couldn't blame Darcy Regier for any of it.

The name of the Sabres' former general manager did come up in one out of town story I saw, at least. Someone said the Miller/Ott deal was another example of the Sabres getting maximum value for their assets, following in the footsteps of trades for players like Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek. In other words, new general manager Tim Murray is following the same plan as Regier did.

The biggest drawback with this is that the Sabres aren't going to have many gate attractions on the team next season. I'm not sure who will be on the cover of the calendar, either. There aren't many players of note left who will be able to drink adult beverages in commercial establishments.

When the Sabres realized that their planned nucleus wasn't going to be nearly good enough to get the job done, they opted for a complete rebuild. The question that will haunt the near-term future of the team is - was that completely necessary? Is the team now unneccesarily bad because of a lack of good NHL veterans in an effort to reach better days? Time will decide that one, but pretty obviously, once the course had been set there was no turning back. That's why trading Miller made sense, no matter that he had become the face of the franchise.

However ... if you are looking for a logical explanation for events surrounding LaFontaine's departure, look elsewhere. I got nothing. News columnist Bucky Gleason was right on target Sunday morning when he said there are only unanswered questions by the somewhat mysterious resignation. Statements in the news conference on Sunday only added to the lack of clarity. You can play all sorts of word games in these situations without telling what happened; heck, I used to do that for a living.

The initial restructuring of the team was always a little odd. LaFontaine and Black both had the title of president, leaving open the question of what happened when they disagreed on something. Black is said to be something less than a beloved boss around the office. We don't know much about LaFontaine's management style, but we do know that he quit a position after a brief stay with the Islanders over a dispute with ownership.

Plus, we've had a top executive immediately hire a new coach, take his time to hire a new general manager, and then leave. What could Murray be thinking about now, especially with the news that a replacement for LaFontaine isn't coming? Heck, he just got a promotion out of all of this.

And then there's Nolan, who apparently was about set to sign a long-term contract with the team. Now his friend and his boss - same guy - are gone. Is he having 1997 flashbacks? And just to add to the story, Nolan certainly knows this is his last shot at an NHL coaching job. Fold now, fold forever - as we say at the poker table.

There's more intrigue to come here in the coming weeks, and probably more head-scratching to come. But I'll throw in my usual point about professional sports teams. They usually lose for a reason, and that reason isn't so obvious from the outside. But there are a great many players in the story at the First Niagara Center, and it would be nice to see them row in the same direction and at the same time. It sure doesn't sound like that's been happening lately.

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