The role of head coach of the Buffalo Sabres has become one of the most unenviable positions in professional sports since Terry Pegula purchased the franchise in February 2011.
In the 11 years since the Sabres have had six different men in charge behind the bench and none of them have lasted in that role longer than two full seasons before being dismissed. It’s been a seemingly never-ending carousel that has both prevented the team from achieving any sustained improvement and made it the laughing stock of the NHL.
As a result, to say that the deck was stacked against the seventh and current coach Don Granato when he took over midway through the shortened 2021 season would be an enormous understatement. In spite of this, the rookie bench boss guided the Sabres to a much-improved performance in his first full year and seems to have the team heading in the right direction.
However, the coach’s job is not guaranteed just yet. If Granato can’t keep the Sabres trending upward next season, he could become yet another casualty of the “Curse of the Pegulas”.
Terry Pegula Loves to Fire People
There’s no gentler way to put it. Since acquiring the Sabres from previous owner Tom Golisano midway through the 2010-11 season, Pegula has become perhaps hockey’s most meddlesome owner. Though he set out with the goal to make the team an immediate Stanley Cup challenger, his involvement in seemingly every aspect of his team’s operations, as well as his short patience with his front office personnel has made him a reviled figure in the city of Buffalo.
Golisano never made a coaching change in his eight years as the owner, but Pegula has been the polar opposite. After Lindy Ruff was the sacrificial first victim in March 2013, Ron Rolston, Ted Nolan, Dan Bylsma, Phil Housley and Ralph Krueger all tried their best to turn the Sabres back into a contender but none were able to succeed (thanks at least in part to Buffalo’s perpetual organizational incompetence and overhaul) and every man met the same fate. In addition to the six coaches, three general managers (GMs) have also been terminated since 2011, including Jason Botterill in June 2020 just three weeks after the organization publicly endorsed him.
Let’s also not forget that conflicts with former GM Tim Murray was reportedly what led to Pat LaFontaine voluntarily resigning as president of hockey operations in March 2014, a blow that the team in many ways still has not recovered from.
As good as his intentions may be, the Sabres organization as a whole has become a circus under the former oil magnate Pegula. As a result, every new coach that has stepped into the position has been faced with trying to make a winner out of an extremely dysfunctional franchise. And it’s proved to be an impossible task to this point.
Granato Exceeded Expectations This Season
The work that Granato did in his first full season with the Sabres was nothing short of remarkable given what he had to work with. Coming off what was without question the most disastrous season in team history and without superstar Jack Eichel at his disposal, they surprised just about everyone and finished just seven games below a .500 winning percentage for the 2021-22 season (no small feat seeing as they won just 15 of 58 games the prior season).
The team’s offense improved considerably, led by a breakout 38-goal season from Tage Thompson, strong bounce-backs from Jeff Skinner and Kyle Okposo and a near point-per-game second half from Alex Tuch. Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju also made big strides defensively and Craig Anderson posted a strong campaign despite being the NHL’s oldest goaltender. Granato was without question a reason for the turnaround and he deserves to be credited. The roster seemed to gravitate to his laid-back, soft-spoken style and it appears that the team has developed a true identity for the first time in years.
Despite this, Granato’s place behind the Sabres bench isn’t set in stone just yet as he enters his second full campaign. Of the aforementioned six men that came before him, only Bylsma and Housley managed to make it even as far as two full seasons before being dismissed. Even if some of those terminations were justified, the fact remains that he is approaching uncharted territory in the pantheon of Sabres head coaches under Pegula.
Can Granato Break the Curse?
Entering the 2022-23 season, the Sabres are expected to build off their foundation from the year prior and perhaps even hunt for a playoff spot. If that doesn’t happen, the law of averages would indicate that Pegula could see fit to do what he’s done better than any of his contemporaries and reach for the reset button once again.
After so many failures, the Sabres (at least to this point) seem to have finally found the right guy and it would be in the best interest of everyone if Granato was kept around. A team can never be expected to accomplish anything without organizational continuity and the Sabres have proven this time and time again over the past decade.
With how far he’s brought the Sabres in such a short amount of time, Granato deserves to be the one who finally breaks the hex on the team’s coaching. With him at the helm, the future appears bright for hockey in Buffalo. But it all hinges on Pegula’s ability to break himself of an old habit. For the sake of fans in Western New York and Southern Ontario that so desperately want their team to contend again, let’s hope that he can.