What comes next for Buffalo Sabres after major course change?

Sabres writer Mike Harrington joins Lead Off to discuss yesterday’s huge shakeup in the Sabres organization, and why new GM Kevyn Adams is walking into a very tough situation.

Each week, Justin Bourne’s column will cover three different topics in varying depths. Think of it as a three-course meal with an appetizer, main course, and dessert…

Appetizer: Making sense of Toronto as a Hub City

When discussing which two cities would be best for the NHL’s hub cities, I’ve had a blind spot. Because of that, the conversation never made sense to me. My thinking on what should be prioritized in making these choices was:

• Keep it in one country, likely the U.S. There’s no sense risking the complications that could come with involving two governments and a currently closed border. Rules and regulations will be different, you’re at the mercy of either country changing course on something, and the last thing you want is to get started and hit a snag because of some bureaucratic hiccup.

• Put it in the places with the fewest cases of COVID-19. That’s what we’re doing here with all this, right? Goal 1A: keep the players and the public safe?

• If it’s an interest that can be accommodated, have one hub city in the west and one in the east for television’s sake. But obviously, safety first?

So when I heard that Toronto was a front-runner to be paired with Vegas, I was left scratching my head. Now we’re talking about holding these games in two countries, and in a more populous place with higher per capita rates than other places in Canada?

My blind spot had been that the league would be looking for the safest place, not the best place where they’re allowed to operate.

Ultimately, if the health authorities and government say the league gets a green light to have their isolated hub in Toronto, and that’s where they’d prefer to be (even if it’s not one of the “safest” options), well then, the league can kinda have their cake and eat it, too.

Toronto would be viewed favourably for a variety of reasons: it has ample NHL-calibre ice sheets; major media companies (hi!) are located there (along with all their equipment, camera and tech people to make this all look good on TV); there’d be less travel for the biggest number of players and officials; there are quality hotels and entertainment options; hockey ops and the NHLPA are located there (and they’ll surely be meeting regularly through all this). And let’s face it: If half the league gets to go to Vegas for this re-start, a venue like Toronto is a relatively easy sell to the other half of players.

Toronto would represent a diversion from the safest path possible for the league, but there are experts who believe it could still be done safely. And at the end of the day, the safest path possible isn’t all that’s being evaluated here. That’s going to leave the NHL open to criticism, but my hunch is that with so many dollars hanging in the balance, that’s criticism they’ll be willing to take.


Main course: We just witnessed Buffalo’s version of the Red Wedding

I want the Buffalo Sabres to be good. I truly do. That sounds like I’m setting up to tear them to shreds, but that sentiment should be seen as a standalone truth, divorced from the below. The Sabres have great fans, Buffalo is an awesome hockey city, it would be great for rivalries, and I have a soft spot for fans of teams who’ve never been paid back what they’ve put in. Oh, and I really like their sweaters.

But! (You knew that was coming.)

But it’s tough to look at Tuesday’s organizational Red Wedding and believe that the forecast for the Sabres’ future has somehow gotten sunnier. That’s sure some kinda thing to say about a team nine years removed from the post-season (an absence more than twice as long as the next longest playoff drought around the NHL).

Team ownership just fired north of 20 people, including the staff of the Rochester Americans, their AHL team that was poised to make the playoffs for the third consecutive year. (That “development” has been cited as the priority there makes this like digging up your daisies because they’ve yet to yield any roses.) They fired their development staff, they fired scouts left and right … and you’ve got the picture.

So now the team is left with a skeleton crew of the Pegulas, new GM Kevyn Adams, head coach Ralph Kruger, and their head of analytics Jason Nightingale (who’s been there since 2013).

There’s a lot to parse through all this, so rather than give some overarching thesis on what’s going on in Buffalo I thought it’d be best to break down my thoughts in bites. As you’d expect, a lot of my thoughts are just questions about what comes next. So, those thoughts:

• I imagine you would like your GM to have experience navigating a normal NHL calendar, with all its critical dates and deadlines to prepare for, before asking them to navigate a pandemic-mangled schedule where things have the legitimate chance to fall through the cracks.

• Any time a person is installed in a role beyond their experience, their best chance to succeed comes when they’re surrounded by good, experienced people. People to lean on. Kevyn Adams seems to be left mostly flapping in the wind here, devoid of any transition team. I can’t imagine sitting in that office today, closing the door, and being like, “OK! First order of business: find out what the first order of business is. Then find out how many orders of business there really are to work through.” (Then presumably realize you need to hire a bunch of people to accomplish all those orders of business.)

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• Is Adams going to make the Sabres selections in the draft based on the work done by a scouting department the organization deemed unworthy of their employment? Does anybody fire their architect then build using that person’s blueprint?

• Did Jack Eichel just become hockey’s LeBron James? Could you imagine making a decision without Eichel’s approval at this point? They have to be one misstep away from him saying, “Y’know what? I gave you a half-decade. Long contract or not, I can’t accept donating my whole career to futility.” (When people say players “Shouldn’t sign that big deal if they don’t want to be there,” it’s willingly missing a lot of important details. People leave marriages if things don’t work out; they leave other positions if the job quality drops. It’s not unreasonable to commit to an employer for length, with the assumption the employer will hold up their end of the bargain.)

• The Pegulas made some comments about “hockey people” failing them (hence the embracing of a less-typical “hockey person” in Ralph Kruger), but my word. There are hundreds of thousands of “hockey people” out there — you have to take responsibility for the ones you chose. “Hockey people” aren’t just interchangeable entities.

• I understand that you need to give a GM some runway to see results, but I’m seeing an awful lot of “We won’t know what Jason Botterill built for a few years yet,” and that’s true. But you can make some educated guesses based on trajectory, and firing him was justifiable based on some big transactions that are almost certainly going to look bad (namely O’Reilly and Skinner). The Pegulas should’ve just made the call at the time they decided to give him their vote of confidence. (And if big deals like Skinner and Eichel weren’t deals that Botterill even wanted to do, as was hinted at on 31 Thoughts: The Podcast, Botterill should be pleased as punch to get the hell out of there.)

• Think what you may about specific individuals. Look at the GMs who’ve won Cups over the past couple of decades in the NHL. Doug Armstrong, Brian MacLellan, Jim Rutherford, Stan Bowman, Dean Lombardi, Peter Chiarelli, Ray Shero, Ken Holland, Brian Burke…. I don’t see a lot of people who were shy to make the big decisions. If I’m a Sabres fan, I don’t love wishy-washy quotes where the new GM needs okays all around to make them.

• The Sabres need good players to help Jack Eichel. But if I’m a UFA, I’m steering all the way clear of the tire fire in upstate New York right now.

I don’t think the Buffalo Sabres have a terrible roster, and I do think that a few quality plug-ins, some improvement from their young players, and a good season of goaltending could make them a playoff team. All that’s beside the point right now though. They’re an organization in disarray, and that trickle-down almost always finds its way onto the playing surface in one way or another.

Dessert: “Cole has resigned”

I’ll leave the final thought on the Sabres to Greg Wyshynski and Ryan Kennedy here, who sum up the state of affairs in Buffalo nicely:

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