With the Sabres, things can always get worse

Buffalo

Buffalo Sabres coach Ralph Krueger watches during the first period of the team’s NHL hockey game against the San Jose Sharks, Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

(WIVB)–Over the years, I’ve often been moved to declare that one of our Buffalo sports teams had finally hit rock bottom. But time and experience have taught me that things can always get worse.

Things could get bleaker for the Sabres. They could fail to make the playoffs for the 10th consecutive time next season, breaking the Carolina Hurricanes’ record of futility from 2010 through 2018. 

Still, we’ve come a long way from late February of 2011, when Terry Pegula arrived in Buffalo as the Sabres’ new owner and assured fans that “From this point forward, the Buffalo Sabres’ reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup.”

Pegula also said there would be no “financial mandates” on his hockey department. At one point, he noticed Gilbert Perreault at the press conference and started crying. It was that kind of day for Buffalo hockey fans, a moment of nostalgic joy and promise. 

On Tuesday, Terry and Kim Pegula fired general manager Jason Botterill. They swung a bludgeon through the organization. They whacked assistant GMs Randy Sexton and Steve Greeley, the entire Rochester coaching staff, and much of the scouting and development departments. 

Nowadays, the team’s mission isn’t so singularly noble. Terry trotted out the Sabres’ new organizational credo. “Effective, Efficient and Economic.”

Note the alliteration! These people truly are public relations geniuses. Three years ago, when Terry gave his first Sabres presser in more than three years after firing Tim Murray and Dan Bylsma, his buzz words were “discipline, structure, communication and character.”

The keyword, of course, is “economic.” Pegula Sports and Entertainment is struggling in the midst of the pandemic. Their hockey team is losing millions. The oil business is tanking. Pegula won’t be making any jokes about how he can “drill another oil well” if he needs a cash infusion for the hockey team.

Whether it was justified or not, the Pegulas lost a lot of goodwill in the community when they laid off virtually their entire hospital division in late March, before a subsequent rash of firings and furloughs across the various PSE enterprises. 

In January, the Pegulas had a teleconference in which they informed PSE employees that the company would have to get leaner. The Athletic got its hands on a document that delineated three key organizational goals: “win championships, sustainability, return on investment.”

You had to be naive to think the Pegulas bought the teams for purely altruistic reasons, to be heroes for Buffalo. They’re like all sports owners, in it for the money, and when things get tight, it’s no sentimental tableau. The only people crying are hard-core fans, if they’re not screaming mad.

Among the Pegulas’ many flaws as owners is their boundless capacity for insulting their own fans. They once announced they were raising ticket prices on Fan Appreciation Night, then sent the team president out to pick up a fight with reporters at the press conference. 

Botterill was a disaster, of course, a resounding failure as a GM. In most NHL towns, he would have been fired long before now. Local media were near-unanimous in calling it the right move, though I don’t recall anyone actually calling for it beforehand.

Of course, Kim Pegula had come out three weeks ago and given Botterill a vote of confidence. Typically, she couldn’t resist the urge to talk down to fans in the process.

“I realize, maybe it’s not popular with the fans, but we have to do the things that we feel are right,” she said in late May. “We have a little bit more information than maybe a fan does, some inner workings that we see some positives in.”

Uh, OK. Three weeks later, after a “full review,” the Pegulas realized they had “philosophical” differences with Botterill on how to compete for the Stanley Cup and “weren’t being heard.”

That would suggest, of course, that Terry and Kim have a philosophy. What they’ve demonstrated over their nine years is an inconsistent, fumbling approach. They have the operating philosophy of a slot machine addict. Put in your money, pull the handle and hope. 

They wanted a Bills czar, then thought better of it. They wanted proven winners in Rex Ryan and Bylsma, then went with first-time head coaches when that failed. They wisely opted for the modern NHL front-office model when they brought in Pat LaFontaine, then trashed that idea months later, reportedly because he could deal with all the meddling cronies.

They got lucky with Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane, and have been smart to get out of the way and let them run a modern NFL operation. Great. But owning two teams has put a strain on the Sabres.

Pegula has a penchant for giving too much power to his general managers. He went back to the overpowered GM model with Murray and it backfired. He stuck with it with Botterill, who made his name caddying for more capable personnel men in Pittsburgh. It blew up on them again. 

Their answer? Kevyn Adams, who had been working on the business side and had little to recommend him as an NHL general manager. Adams might be a genius in waiting, but this sure looks like they’re doing it on the cheap, with an unproven guy who will be grateful for the gig and unlikely to challenge the bosses. Once again, they’re thinking small.

Adams has been in the organization for nine years in one capacity or another. Nine years. Yeah, the nine years in which the Sabres haven’t made the playoffs. Sure, he hasn’t been lacing up the skates, but what the heck did Adams do to warrant this sort of promotion?

How does a franchise that’s on the verge of a historic, 10-year playoff drought hand over the keys to a novice GM? No search? Really? Chris Drury is an assistant GM with the Rangers. That’s only one name of a more qualified candidate. It’s hard to imagine any self-respecting young personnel man wanting to work for Pegula at this point, but don’t you survey the field?

Maybe Jack Eichel approved of Adams. Eichel spoke publicly, remember, after Kim Pegula’s regrettable defense of Botterill. The captain said he was “fed up with losing.” There was much speculation that he helped get Bylsma fired. It stands to reason that his clout in the organization would be larger by now.

Eichel ought to be fed up. He has now played five NHL seasons and has yet to appear in a playoff game. He’s into the top 10 of most games played by current NHL players who haven’t made the playoffs.

It’s hard to blame Eichel, who had a career year this season. But the Sabres tanked to get him, and at some point, their failures land at his feet. It must burn him to think he could be branded as a star who wasn’t dynamic enough to lead a team to the playoffs — never mind a Stanley Cup.

They’re bound to break through at some point. The Sabres had the most top 10 draft picks on the roster of any NHL team the last two years. It’s confounding that they can’t find a way to get into the postseason. They did make progress under new coach Ralph Krueger, who seems to have the faith of Eichel and the players.

But the big risk here is that Eichel will decide he can no longer abide a reputation as a chronic loser. He’s on a 10-year contract, but any highly empowered athlete has the wherewithal to force a change, if he feels it’s the only way to get a chance at a title. 

That would truly represent rock bottom for the Sabres and the Pegulas. But for all I know, they might already be scheming to get out from under Jack’s money.

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning digital reporter who joined the News 4 team in 2020. See more of his work here.

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