Sabres: The Pegulas Are the Problem in Buffalo

You can’t beat bad ownership. No matter how talented the front office or roster might be, bad ownership will consistently get in the way of winning. We’ve seen it in every sport; in James Dolan’s New York Knicks in the NBA, we’ve seen it with other NHL franchises, like the Ottawa Senators under Eugene Melnyk. Unfortunately, Buffalo Sabres fans are getting a painful, in-your-face example of how bad owners can keep a franchise from lifting off the ground.

Buffalo Sabres Terry and Kim Pegula
Buffalo Sabres and Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

Terry and Kim Pegula arrived in Buffalo almost a decade ago as the saviors of a bankrupt franchise, and fans could not have been more excited. With promises of spending and the statement that the Stanley Cup was the goal, it seemed brighter days were ahead for the blue and gold. Unfortunately, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. The organization has been kicking the tires on a rebuild for the better part of a decade. The Sabres have the longest active playoff drought in the league; they can’t keep a general manager for more than a few seasons, and their star captain, at only 23, is nearing the end of his patience.

Questionable Hires

When the Pegulas bought the Sabres in 2011, Darcy Regier was in his 14th season as general manager. Having guided the team to a Stanley Cup Final, a Presidents’ Trophy and 8 playoff appearances, he was initially retained by the new owners, but when the time came for the Pegulas to move on and appoint their own front office group, they hired Pat LaFontaine as president of hockey operations, despite that he had almost no managerial experience, and chose first-time GM Tim Murray.

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Murray, a longtime scout, ruffled feathers almost immediately. He pushed LaFontaine to resign after only a few months on the job and traded away a multitude of assets in a blatant attempt to tank for Connor McDavid in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. It didn’t quite work, but with Jack Eichel as a consolation prize, it seemed like the pieces were in place to patiently rebuild the Sabres to a contender once more.

Instead, Murray traded away more picks and prospects to rush the rebuild. The Sabres were in the basement of the NHL standings again, and Murray was fired in early 2017. It was, at the time, the shortest GM tenure in Sabres history. To replace him, the Pegulas hired another first-time GM in Jason Botterill. His tenure was marked by questionable trades and ill-advised contracts, although how much was really his fault is up for debate. After only three years on the job, he too was shown the door. His replacement Kevyn Adams is, you guessed it, a first-time NHL GM.  

It doesn’t stop there. The Athletic’s Tim Graham reported that friends and family members are in positions of influence at Pegula Sports and Entertainment. Kim Pegula defended this approach, stating, “I think it is understandable that we would want to put in place people we’ve known all our lives and who are part of our family…” (from ‘As Pegulas face business challenges, employees describe a ‘toxic culture’ at PSE’, The AthleticNHL — 5/20/20).

Furthermore, the Pegulas haven’t appointed any presidents to run their various PSE franchises. Instead, Kim is President of all of them, attempting to run multiple professional sports organizations part-time from Florida. Their most recent GM hire, Adams, was senior vice president of business administration and GM of the Harborcenter complex, working exclusively on the business side of PSE. Perhaps that’s an indication of where the Pegulas’ priorities lie. Their hires have been suspect at best, and they’ve nearly all been failures – including themselves.

Massive Turnover

The Pegulas have had six head coaches and three GMs thus far with the Sabres, not including Kevyn Adams. All three GMs were fired with at least one year remaining on their current contract. In fact, the Pegulas are STILL paying Tim Murray until July 1, three years after his termination. That means that currently the Sabres have 3 GMs on their payroll, two of which they’re paying to not manage. They gave Darcy Regier an extension in January 2013, and he was fired by November. Tim Murray, too, was fired less than a year after earning an extension.

Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill
Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes, File)

On Tuesday, May 26, Kim Pegula publicly backed Jason Botterill, saying he’d return for a fourth season, citing the fact that they had “a bit more information” than fans as the reason for his retention. Three weeks later to the day, the Pegulas announced that Botterill was fired, claiming they “needed to be heard”, and Botterill supplanted his predecessor Murray as the shortest-termed GM in team history.

By the end of the day, almost 30 members of the organization were out of a job, including the bulk of their amateur scouting department just a few months before the draft, and both assistant GMs, Randy Sexton and Steve Greeley. Sexton and Greeley received extensions in the middle of last season per Lance Lysowski, and, as is their way, the Pegulas will continue to pay them to not work in Buffalo. The Pegulas even fired their head of hockey department IT Kyle Kiebzak – evidently by mistake – and had to re-hire him hours later. Additionally, previous verbally agreed-to extensions for some coaches in the organization will not be honored by the Pegulas, per Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman.

Lack of Leadership

Except for extreme circumstances, owners should not be involved in hockey decisions. It never ends well, and rarely do they have the experience to rival the people they hire to run their teams. The Pegulas have made a habit of ensuring their voice is the loudest on hockey and player matters, and it would be tough for any GM to succeed under them. That was never more evident than with Botterill.

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Ryan O’Reilly never wanted to leave Buffalo, a few hours from his hometown, and he was a key member of a growing core who wanted to be a part of the solution. When the Sabres decided it was better to move him, Botterill had limited options – a strange problem for such an elite player. O’Reilly was due a $7.5 million bonus on July 1, and rumor has it the Pegulas did not want to pay it and instructed Botterill to take the best deal he could from a team willing to pay the bonus.

Ryan O'Reilly St. Louis Blues Frank J. Selke Stanley Cup Conn Smythe Clarence Campbell
Ryan O’Reilly of the St. Louis Blues poses with the Frank J. Selke Trophy, the Stanley Cup, the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Campbell Conference Trophy at the 2019 NHL Awards. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Botterill did, hours before the bonus was due, and the St. Louis Blues happily paid the All-Star forward. Less than a year later, O’Reilly and the Blues were Stanley Cup champions. How much more could Botterill have received in return had the bonus already been paid? Instead of mid-level prospect Tage Thompson, could they have landed one of the Blues’ prized youngsters like Robert Thomas, who played a key role in their Cup run, or Jordan Kyrou and his blazing speed?

Botterill, who made his reputation as a cap wizard with the Pittsburgh Penguins, apparently wasn’t wild about a max contract for Jack Eichel either, according to Elliotte Friedman. The Pegulas reportedly overruled him and insisted on locking the star center up long-term, a decision which seems like a no-brainer in hindsight. However, for every good call like Eichel, there’s been plenty of bad ones…like Jeff Skinner, where evidently the same thing happened. Botterill, correctly, wasn’t sold on Skinner’s all-too-familiar spike in production in a contract year and wanted to sign him short-term at a high AAV. The Pegulas insisted on a massive long-term deal which one year in, already looks like it will age poorly.

Jeff Skinner Buffalo Sabres
Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Pegulas have lacked leadership and direction throughout their tenure as owners of the Sabres. They hired LaFontaine only to let him walk months later due to friction with Murray. They overstepped their boundaries and pressured Botterill into poor decisions that will haunt the team for years to come. Most importantly, though, they’ve hurt themselves financially by repeatedly hiring the wrong people, handing out extensions frequently and firing people under contract on a whim.

Undoubtedly the COVID-19 situation has hit the Pegulas hard, but every franchise and ownership group has been impacted. According to Graham, the Pegulas quickly laid off massive numbers of PSE staff on the hospitality and business side without health benefits in the middle of a pandemic. They’re trying to run the franchise from Florida, and any position that needs to be filled seemingly either goes to a friend of the family or Kim Pegula herself.

Jack Eichel Buffalo Sabres
Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

While Botterill’s recent dismissal was deserved, he wasn’t the problem. You cannot beat bad ownership. Unfortunately, until the Pegulas sell the franchise or commit 100% to properly hiring, funding and removing themselves from the management side, the franchise will not be competitive.