Could former Penguins GM Craig Patrick be nearing an NHL return?

HSBC Arena in Buffalo (ScallopHolden/Flickr)

When the Pittsburgh Penguins decided not to extend General Manager Craig Patrick’s contract in 2006, all parties knew a fresh start was needed.

Patrick had positioned his team perfectly to take advantage of the salary-cap era following the lockout but the product on the ice failed miserably.

Veteran free agent acquisitions Sergei Gonchar, John Leclair, Zigmund Palffy and Mark Recchi didn’t live up to expectations and the team finished last in the Eastern Conference.  Palffy abruptly retired at midseason, head coach Ed Olczyk was canned in favor of Michel Therrien, and savior Mario Lemieux hung up the skates for good after developing an irregular heartbeat.

The tarnished reputation Patrick unfairly earned throughout the team’s financial struggles put a great deal of pressure on the 62-year-old GM.  Looking back, he knew the time had come to pass the reigns to a more energetic leader in Ray Shero.

After taking time to rest and recharge, Patrick told The Hockey News in 2008 that he was finally ready to get back in the NHL and interested in the Toronto GM position:

“I have to admit, I did take some time to think since I was let go by the Penguins,” Patrick said. “When I was let go, I was pretty bitter and I didn’t realize I needed a break. Five years of losing doesn’t sit well with anybody and it’s not part of my nature to be in (a losing) situation.

“It hurt to be let go, but I realized I needed a break, I needed time to get away and re-energize. Now I’m ready for a new challenge.”

The Toronto job was eventually filled by Brian Burke, but Patrick remained a part of other front office conversations around the league in recent years.

He expressed interest in the Minnesota Wild GM position that was ultimately awarded to Shero’s underling Chuck Fletcher.  Patrick was also reportedly offered an advisory position to former Tampa GM Brian Lawton but chose to turn it down.  Forced to dismantle the Penguins’ core as the team went into bankruptcy in 1998, Patrick knew the challenges a financially-inept franchise could face and wisely avoided a similar situation in Tampa.  Buried under enormous debt and reckless spending, the Lightning predictably collapsed under former co-owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie.

With almost a dozen NHL franchises currently facing financial uncertainty, Patrick’s name will inevitably creep back into the mix as new owner’s look for new faces in the front office.  Earlier this week CBC’s Elliott Friedman said the Buffalo Sabres might be a good fit:

Tom Golisano will announce Thursday he’s selling the Buffalo Sabres. New owner Terry Pegula plans to retain GM Darcy Regier and head coach Lindy Ruff. (There was at least one team eying Ruff for next season.) One of Pegula’s close advisors is former Penguins CEO Ken Sawyer, which is interesting, because there are rumblings Pittsburgh’s ex-GM, Craig Patrick, will be involved in some capacity.

Sawyer retired in March 2010 and aligning with the man responsible for orchestrating the Penguins’ turnaround is a smart move by Pegula.

After Shero replaced Patrick in 2006, Sawyer eliminated almost everyone associated with the dark days of the franchise and replaced them with a new energetic staff of true professionals.  Over the next twelve months Pegula will need to take a similar inventory and decide who deserves to stay as part of the new regime.

Friedman’s confidence in Regier’s job security makes sense considering the Sabres recently signed the GM to a two-year contract extension.  The only problem: the deal was reportedly signed in the fall of 2010…and never announced.

Columnist Bucky Gleason at The Buffalo News says that kind of secrecy is probably enough for Pegula, a man with a ‘nose for phonies’, to look elsewhere:

A new contract is usually perceived as good news, a sign of organizational stability and confirmation of a job well done. It’s something professional sports teams typically share with a loyal fan base willing to pay good money even when the product failed to justify the price.

But here we are, three months after the ink dried on the contract, and the Sabres still haven’t announced the extension. Why?

Well, they knew it would have led to another public-relations nightmare, another layer of status quo, another season of resentment. The irony, or hypocrisy, is that Regier signed a deal during the season. Remember, it was the Sabres who had refused to do the same for the players, a policy that led to their downfall in the first place.

Pegula’s first order of business isn’t buying a power forward or sweeping all the filth out of the building on his first day. It’s restoring credibility and class.

Patrick’s connections to Pegula probably make him a top GM candidate if Regier is forced to step down and hand over the reigns as Gleason predicts.  When Pegula donated $88m to Penn State University back in September to kick-start a NCAA hockey program, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported:

Mr. Pegula credited two men from Pittsburgh with arranging the donation to Penn State: Cliff Benson, who retired this year as a partner with Deloitte & Touche, and Joe Battista, a Penn Hills High School graduate and a former player and coach for Penn State’s club hockey team. He is director for major gifts in PSU’s Smeal College of Business.

Not only was Patrick in attendance for the Pegula-PSU announcement, his nephew and two sons played at the school under Battista and he admitted being actively involved for years in trying to recruit Pegula’s funding for the new Division 1 hockey program.

If Pegula does go with Patrick, he’ll probably look to match the experienced veteran up with a young rising star.  It’s not a stretch to wonder if current Penguins Assistant GM Jason Botterill might be another candidate Sawyer recommends.

Botterill played parts of three seasons in the Buffalo Sabres organization before concussion problems forced him into retirement during the 2004-05 campaign.

He’s recognized as one of the game’s finest young minds and was named to the ‘Top 40 under the age of 40′ listing of hockey’s most powerful people by The Hockey News in January.  Another successful playoff run by the Penguins could put Botterill on the GM radar, just as it did for Fletcher who left for Minnesota after Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup win in 2009.

The buzz around Buffalo that Pegula will ride in on a white horse and transform the Sabres overnight into a serious Stanley Cup contender isn’t realistic.  Pegula was patient and calculated at every stage of the process before committing funding to Penn State and he’ll no doubt take the same approach to retooling the Buffalo franchise.

Tonight he’ll sit in a suite and watch the Sabres play with an eye toward the future.  Who will stay?  Who will go?  Is Regier still the man for the job?  Should he bring in a recharged Craig Patrick instead?

By the way, the Sabres’ Friday night opponent: the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Mike Colligan

Mike Colligan

Managing Editor
Mike Colligan is an NHL analyst at Forbes SportsMoney and The Hockey Writers. Email: MJColligan@gmail.com
Mike Colligan
RT @ShawnTHW: In honor of his return to the lineup, I'm giving away a signed Olli Maatta puck at 2k followers. @PensInsideScoop @MikeCollig - 2 days ago
Mike Colligan
Mike Colligan

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