BUFFALO, N.Y. – You’re driving down Interstate-190 on the first day in the rest of the life of the Buffalo Sabres and the billboard comes into view: "Welcome Back Pat and Ted!"
Then you turn the radio dial to WGR-550 – usually the hyper-critical epicentre of Buffalo sports – and hear the host describe the Sabres decision to hire Pat LaFontaine as "a dream come true." The Thursday headline across A1 of the Buffalo News enthusiastically trumpets "Back to the Future" and as an outsider looking in on the NHL’s 30th-place team you can’t help but wonder:
What in the name of Dominik Hasek is going on here? Which version of history is being revised and celebrated? Who is actually running this organization?
The last question looms as an essential one for every GM candidate to get answered when LaFontaine comes calling. With the folks in Buffalo still buzzing about the Hockey Hall of Famer’s appointment as president of hockey operations, executives around the league were quietly chatting about the obvious complications that could arise from the Sabres new power structure.
Programming note: Watch the Toronto Maple Leafs battle the Buffalo Sabres on Sportsnet Ontario at 7 p.m. ET on Friday or listen live on Sportsnet 590 The Fan.
LaFontaine, himself, had been offered the GM job by owner Terry Pegula last week and wisely turned it down due to lack of experience. He mentioned during Wednesday’s introductory press conference that it might be the kind of role he can grow into – a statement that jumped out given that you wouldn’t expect someone to groom himself for a job while also overseeing it (not to mention hiring for it).
As popular as the return of LaFontaine and interim coach Ted Nolan seem to be from a public relations standpoint, it’s hard to ignore that this particular gambit seems ill-advised and more than a little desperate from an organizational one. The Sabres are in the midst of a full-on rebuild and the former GM, Darcy Regier, was doing a fine job of tearing down the wallpaper. Just look at the boatload of picks and prospects he received in the trades that sent Jason Pominville, Robyn Regehr, Jordan Leopold and Thomas Vanek out of town.
Sure, the on-ice performance this season has been among the worst seen in the NHL’s salary cap era, but what did people really expect? Regier was being completely forthright when he said earlier this year that there would be some "suffering" during the dismantling and yet somehow that comment offended a fanbase that has suffered through 42 seasons without a Stanley Cup.
The losses are sure to continue no matter who is in charge and that is by design.
Do you want to know about suffering? Look back at the Pittsburgh Penguins teams from 2001-05, a period where the franchise very nearly left town and was only saved by a slew of top-notch draft picks. Or what about the 2002-06 Chicago Blackhawks, who played to about half capacity at United Center and had become totally irrelevant in a good hockey market.
The price of getting good is being bad.
It has been a decade since Buffalo had a truly bad hockey team like the one they have now. Despite making only two playoff appearances in the last six seasons, the Sabres fell just short with 89, 90 and 91 points in three of those years and even finished at .500 during the 2013 lockout-shortened campaign.
Now that the rebuilding effort is in full swing, it won’t be long before an 89-point season looks awfully good. And rather than having an experienced executive like Regier at the helm to navigate the choppy waters ahead, the Sabres have been turned over to a man who spent six weeks in the New York Islanders front office and a couple months working for deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
LaFontaine seems like a bright guy and he may have a bright future, but he’s hardly been put in a position to succeed here. It almost certainly would have been more beneficial to first give him a chance to get comfortable in a lower-profile role like Joe Sakic, Steve Yzerman and a slew of other former players did.
The timing of the move is also hard to understand and Pegula didn’t offer up much in the way of an explanation when he made it this week. There is little doubt that he was at least somewhat influenced by the fans who had taken to chanting "Fire Darcy!" while watching the Sabres lose all but one of their opening 10 games at First Niagara Center this season.
The locals seem much happier now. Nolan has returned promising a much more entertaining brand of hockey than what was played under Ron Rolston and it won’t be hard to deliver immediate results with Toronto visiting for a raucous blue-collar Friday night matchup.
"It’s going to be fun," Nolan said.
Yes, the glory days are here again – although it seems there’s a collective bout of amnesia involved for those painting the Sabres shakeup in that light. Even though Nolan won a Jack Adams Trophy during his first stint in Buffalo and LaFontaine piled up all kinds of points during six seasons here as a player, neither man was part of a Sabres squad that got past the second round of the playoffs.
All Regier did during his tenure in Buffalo was put together four teams that made it as far as the conference final, including one that came within two wins of the Stanley Cup.