Wednesday, November 13, 2013
This could be turning point for Sabres
By Scott Burnside
It's a strange business, this carnival that is hockey.
The Buffalo Sabres manage to win their first home game of the season, edging a good Los Angeles team in a shootout, and the general manager and the coach get the heave-ho afterward.
Many people imagined the day owner Terry Pegula took over would be the seminal moment for the hard-scrabble franchise, when it became a player in the Stanley Cup process, not just a cardboard cutout of a franchise to fill in the gaps around the Chicagos and Pittsburghs and Bostons. It didn't happen that way, but perhaps that seminal moment will be Wednesday, the day on which it was announced longtime GM Darcy Regier and coach Ron Rolston were relieved of their duties and two seminal Sabre figures returned to the fold.
Ted Nolan, who once won a Jack Adams Award as coach of the year with the Sabres, returns as the interim coach, and perhaps most significantly, the classy Pat LaFontaine returns to the team, this time as president of hockey operations.
But let's make no mistake: This team is a giant mess.
They are 4-15-1 and have the lowest point total in the NHL. They are tied with Edmonton for the worst goal differential at minus-27. That they have managed to be that far behind the competition with often stellar netminding from Ryan Miller tells you just what kind of train wreck the Sabres have been.
They have been an embarrassment from the moment the season started.
So, the task ahead of both Nolan and LaFontaine is monumental.
And yet there is something somehow comforting about this tandem.
Nolan, a guy who never seemed to quite get his due, has proved to be a coach who can get the most out of players. He guided an undermanned Islander team to the playoffs in 2006-07 and before that, he won a Jack Adams as coach of the year in 1997.
Has he ruffled feathers? Sure.
Is he the right guy to try to make sense of the disorder that dominated Rolston's brief tenure? We're guessing we'll see a Sabres team that will quickly look less confused than they have looked for most of this season.
Building a winning environment at practice, in games, around the rink, will fall to Nolan.
"Hopefully I can bring some credibility back into this organization," Nolan told reporters Wednesday in Buffalo. "I'm really looking forward to it."
Some immediately reacted with skepticism to the fact that Nolan was tabbed only as the interim coach. But after the disaster of replacing longtime coach Lindy Ruff (who actually took over from Nolan back in 1997) with Rolston and then keeping Rolston into this season, it's important to make sure Nolan is the right fit.
LaFontaine indicated whoever takes over as GM will have a say in the long-term coaching issue, which makes a lot of sense. As for who will be the next GM, one has to imagine LaFontaine will reach out to Rick Dudley, another top hockey mind with long ties to the team, as well as highly regarded Claude Loiselle of the Maple Leafs and Tom Kurvers of the Lightning.
The bigger challenge of how to reset this franchise on the right track will fall to LaFontaine. He told reporters at a news conference Wednesday morning he will begin a search for a GM, but it's LaFontaine, who arrives after a very brief stint with the league as a vice president of development and community affairs, who will ultimately set the tone and establish the identity of this team.
Hard to imagine a better fit for this team in this time, given LaFontaine's cachet within the game. A Hall of Fame player and a true gentleman, it's a wonder it has taken this long to bring him back to the fold.
"It's interesting how things come full circle," LaFontaine told reporters. "We need the patience, the hard work and the support of the fans. We’re in this for the long run."
In LaFontaine, we imagine the same kind of dynamic that exists under John Davidson in Columbus and, before that, in St. Louis, and what is taking place in Denver under Joe Sakic's watchful eye. Other teams, such as the Montreal Canadiens, have been able to use a makeover of this nature to return quickly to playoff contention under GM Marc Bergevin and head coach Michel Therrien.
Could the LaFontaine-Nolan tandem achieve something similar in Buffalo?
It's far too early to tell, but other teams' successes begin at the top with good, smart hockey people who are allowed to do their jobs, including surrounding themselves with other good, smart hockey people.
True, LaFontaine has no management experience at the NHL level, but neither have others who have relied more on a high hockey IQ to affect quick and positive change in their situations.
LaFontaine's first order of business, we suspect, will be in gauging how, if at all, this change of direction for the franchise alters plans for Miller. The face of the franchise for many years is in the final season of his contract, and the assumption has been that with the team veering from rebuild to chaos, he would have no interest in returning. LaFontaine will have to figure out how the Miller story is going to play out and how, if at all, he figures into the big picture, which is now his domain.
Regier has done a nice job of collecting prospects and draft picks as he has struggled to clean up the mess that he helped create. LaFontaine will need to assess those pieces and he will need to take a long, hard look at the players who are putting on the Sabre jersey every night.
Between now and the trade deadline, LaFontaine will have to see what other changes need to be made and then, in the offseason, if there are salaries that need to be purged through whatever means necessary to try to eradicate the rot that has seeped into the core of this franchise.
It won't be easy and it won't be quick.
But it's hard not to imagine that somewhere down the road, people will look back on this day as the day a corner was turned for the Buffalo Sabres.