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Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Daily Debate: Owner drama in Buffalo, N.J.

By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun weigh in on two ownership issues making the headlines this week:

Burnside: Well, my friend, the ownership sands continue to swirl around the NHL as we move into the post-All-Star portion of the schedule. There was Tuesday's news that Jeff Vanderbeek's partners in New Jersey want out. Guess they didn't like what they had seen from the Ilya Kovalchuk fiasco? A little ironic, given that the Devils continue to be the NHL's hottest team, beating Ottawa 2-1 on Tuesday night to go to 7-2-1 in their past 10 games. Can't imagine owners will be lining up to get a piece of a Devils team that faces many problems, the least of which is how to convince soon-to-be restricted free agent Zach Parise to re-sign with the Devils.

Then, the Sabres announced a press briefing for Thursday, when they will announce that a deal is in place to sell the team to deep-pocketed Pennsylvania businessman (and longtime Sabres fan) Terry Pegula (a story you reported over the weekend). It will be fascinating to see what tack Pegula takes with his management and coaching tandem of Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff, the longest-tenured duo in the NHL.

LeBrun: The Devils' ship was definitely rocked yesterday. From what I'm told, there has long been tension between Vanderbeek and his Brick City partners, which was evident in Vanderbeek's statement Tuesday. So what now?

Vanderbeek owns 50 percent of the club; the Brick City partners, Mike Gilfillan and his father-in-law, Ray Chambers, own a little less than that. So at least on paper, Vanderbeek remains in control no matter what happens here, even if Brick City sells all of its shares. Will Vanderbeek try to buy out those Brick City shares, as one source told us yesterday, or will Brick City simply sell out to the highest bidder and force Vanderbeek into an awkward marriage with new partners? Regardless of how anyone spins it, this is not good news for the Devils, and yes, the timing with Parise's RFA status is brutal, to say the least.

On the Sabres front, Pegula has agreed to buy the team for $189 million ($175 million in cash and $14 million in assumed liabilities). It's good news for Sabres fans because the dude has deep pockets (he's worth around $4.7 billion). But I was also told yesterday it doesn't mean he's going to spend to the cap every year. He's rich because he's made smart business decisions in his life. Buffalo remains a small market no matter who owns the team. Still, I think there will be less penny-pinching with him on board. That's not to throw Tom Golisano (current owner) and Larry Quinn (Quinn's managing partner and minority owner) under the bus, though. Without their painstaking efforts, there would be no hockey team in Buffalo today. They saved the franchise, and people in Western New York should not forget that.

Burnside: You are right on about Golisano et al. But let's be brutally frank here. The Sabres emerged from the lockout as one of the most dynamic teams in the new NHL. They lost to eventual Cup champ Carolina in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals in 2006 and to Ottawa in the conference finals in 2007, but have since fallen off the map. Was this drop-off a function of ownership refusing to pay players like Chris Drury and Danny Briere, both of whom wanted to stay in Buffalo but left via free agency? Or is this a function of poor personnel decisions?

I think you and I both believe GM Darcy Regier is among the classiest people in the NHL, but I find it a bit shocking that he was given a two-year extension even though it was clear the team might be sold. The Sabres are not a playoff team again this season, and if I'm Pegula, I'll want to have a good hard look at why this team has fallen back before I move forward with Regier and Ruff at the helm. Maybe all they need is a little bit more money to spend and they'll be contenders again? I don't think so. This team needs a clean slate, and not just at the ownership level.

LeBrun: I don't think it's a coincidence that the Sabres went to back-to-back conference finals when the salary cap was at its lowest coming out of the lockout. Once the cap skyrocketed, boosted mostly by the Canadian dollar, Buffalo struggled to keep up with the bigger-spending clubs. That's just fact. Having said that, Regier made some mistakes in trying to regenerate his core, and he may have said so himself if you read between the lines from my interview with him last week.

"We're getting a lot of pop out of our young kids," Regier told ESPN.com. "Older players that we all believed in when we signed them aren't performing at the levels that they're capable of, or maybe we misjudged it. In some part, I think we could be selling veterans if we can sell them because we like what we see in our youth. I think it's going to be really interesting."

I spoke with Regier again this morning and brought up that quote. He said what he meant was the systemic shift in how teams have had to make decisions around the league, specifically how teams have to spend on very young players. That's true. The second contract no longer exists in the NHL. You're being forced to sign your young core before you're 100 percent sure about them. The difference is that some teams can better hide mistakes than others, depending on how much financial leverage they have. In Buffalo's case, it was forced to lock up its young core early just like most teams in the league, and it turns out some of those players were the wrong ones to build your team around.

Regier, by the way, confirmed that he did indeed sign a two-year contract extension in October. What does it all mean for Pegula? From what I'm told, his intentions are not to come in once the sale is finalized and clean house right away. He has to integrate himself with the franchise and get to know his people. If he does decide to change management, I would think it would happen after the season is over.

Burnside: For me, the issue with the Sabres the past couple of years has been one of leadership. Briere, Drury, Brian Campbell, Mike Grier (before he came back), Jay McKee, Toni Lydman -- those are a lot of character guys who walked out the door, and it's up to management to find players to replace them. It hasn't happened. This is a team that has one of the best goalies in the game in Ryan Miller, and they didn't have enough players step forward last season against Boston in the first round to beat a team they had on the ropes.

Like Ottawa, the Sabres are seeing a Cup window close, a squandered opportunity. That said, we've seen teams like Tampa Bay turn things around quickly with new ownership. Maybe Pegula has the vision for Buffalo. Make no mistake, this is a great hockey market; it may be small, but it deserves better than what it's got over the past few years.

LeBrun: It's funny you mention Tampa Bay. An NHL source I spoke to yesterday compared Pegula to Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, both deep-pocketed men who bring stability to their respective franchises. You have to hand it to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman; in this time of economic chaos and with the mess in Phoenix still not cleaned up and trouble looming in Atlanta, he's still been able to pry two gems out of the blue in Pegula and Vinik. The league is better for it. Until tomorrow, my friend.