It’s easy to laugh at the Buffalo Sabres record over the last several years. The owner, Terry Pegula, has come under fire repeatedly as well since his purchase of Hockey Western New York LLC. Let’s start with him. Or more accurately, them.
Bad Owners, Good Intentions
The thing about billionaires is that they tend to think that making money means they’re good at everything. This, obviously, isn’t the case. Still, when someone owns something it’s theirs. They can play with it however they want. And don’t doubt that Terry and Kim Pegula love their Buffalo Sabres! He was a season ticket holder for almost two decades when he lived nearby. This is also a bit of a problem: the Pegulas live in Florida. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but given how often they involve themselves with the team you’d prefer them to be in town. And they do love to be involved.
Kim Pegula has had increasing influence over both the Buffalo Bills and Sabres. Kim is the wife of, and shares ownership of both teams with, Terry Pegula, who bought the Sabres in 2010. In 2018, then-Bills and Sabres President Russ Brandon stepped down from his role. In his place, the ownership duo of Kim and Terry decided that Kim should fill the void for both teams. But before criticizing them, remember where the team was: teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. The Pegulas were the third owners that general manager Darcy Regier had seen in his then-14 seasons. Turnover was a constant, trying to work developing players into a restrictive budget. Regier had managed some success, but now the money would be there to back him up.
Which doesn’t help as much as you’d think when the team is heading for a rebuild. Regier was fired early in the 2013-14 season, and the accidental popularizer of Corsi had his 16-year tenure end. Three first-time NHL-general managers followed in Tim Murray, Jason Botterill, and Kevyn Adams. Five coaches have likewise been hired in the past seven years, the most enduring of whom were Dan Bylsma and Phil Housley, each lasting 164 games. They also traded away three captains – Jason Pominville, Tomas Vanek, and Steve Ott – before the start of the 2014-15 season. Eventually, they gave newcomer Brian Gionta the title until he left the team three years later. They had no captain at all for 2017-18, then handed it to sophomore Jack Eichel the next year.
Stability has not been a strength, is what we’re saying.
Big Deals, Big Deal
As much as we want to pretend otherwise, general managers don’t really have carte blanche to sign whoever they want for however long they want. The people whose money is being spent get a say. And when you look at the biggest contracts on the Buffalo Sabres record, they have the Pegulas’ fingerprints all over. Christian Ehrhoff getting a 10-year deal with $13 million in bonus money up-front? That’s not a GM move. Either is Jeff Skinner‘s eight-year, $72 million. Or bringing in Taylor Hall for his single-season, $8 million bite. Kyle Okposo‘s seven years at six million per. Or, for that matter, having three rookie general managers in a row.
Last year, the team fired over two dozen members of their organization, including the general manager, some of whom had been extended just the year before. Jason Botterill had been publicly backed by now-president Kim Pegula less than a month earlier, which is a recurring theme. Regier and Murray were both fired less than a year after signing extensions, too. Adams had best be wary of any apparent generosity from above…
On The Ice
We’re going to limit this part to what happened to the team between this year and last. After all, we’ve gone over the general instability of the management, the rotation of coaches – good luck, Don Granato – and captains. Hard to grow anything in shifting sand. Still, this is where the blades meet the ice, to coin a term. How on Earth has a team that got 30 wins in 69 games last year looked so miserable this one? Fourteen losses in a row is an astounding feat. Only the single year of the Philadelphia Quakers, the second-year San Jose Sharks, the expansion Washington Capitals, and the 2003-04 Pittsburgh Penguins have had more enduring streaks of futility.
There is a big difference between the Penguins and the Sabres: the lack of ties. As of 2005-06, the only way to break a losing streak is to win. Were ties still happening, the streak would have ended at seven games. Hardly something to celebrate, but without the ongoing cloud of losses. “Winless” isn’t great, but it is a bit easier to take. So is there something else to the winless streak going on here? Glad you asked, because yep!
Choose Your Fighter
We’ve written before about how the teams in Western Canada should be angry about trading California for Eastern and Central Canada. But the Vancouver Canucks have nothing on the Sabres. Here’s who they “lost” in the division realignment with the Buffalo Sabres record against them last season:
Here’s who they “gained” in the same move, also with their record from last season:
To top it off, the Boston Bruins (0-3-0) joined them in the new East division. It was an obviously truncated season last year, but that’s still going from teams the Sabres were 10-9-1 against to ones they had a 6-9-1 record against. And with teams reduced to playing only within their own divisions, what might have been opportunities to play worse teams are far more limited. Add to that the scheduling “streaks” of playing six games but only two or three teams. Being even slightly worse than other teams in your division can leave a team buried. Plus, Buffalo took three games from Florida last season. Does anyone want to bet how a rematch would go this year?
In any normal year, six of the Sabres’ competitors are challenging for the playoffs. That’s a hard swim upstream for a team trying to build off the slow improvements of the previous two seasons. They wouldn’t have made the playoffs, but certainly could have caught the Canadiens. Going by the Buffalo Sabres record in regulation time, they did! Unfortunately for them, they weren’t included in the league’s play-in cut off, and another streak continued.