The Buffalo Sabres stunned the sporting world when they dismissed both head coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Tim Murray on Thursday, April 20 of 2017.
Clearly, owner Terry Pegula had expected more from his club than the 79-point team that finished last in the Atlantic Division:
We are not happy with our season this year, and there are no excuses. Six years ago I stood here and told the Buffalo Sabres’ fans that our reason for existence was to win the Stanley Cup. That is still the truth. One team wins the Cup. We expected more this season.
When the man paying the bills expected far better than he got, it’s time for people to be shown the door – but don’t believe the sensational reactions that paint the Sabres as a team in complete disarray. Yes, the current rebuild has a chance to be completely derailed if Pegula and company bring in the wrong people, but with the right moves and maybe a little luck, the Sabres should emerge from this upheaval in better shape than before.
Fans Still Optimistic About Playoffs
Only the most optimistic – some might say delusional – fans truly expected to see the Sabres qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2017.
You would be hard-pressed to find any professional writers who championed the team in their preseason predictions: the most optimistic preseason projection I came across was over at NHL.com, where both Dan Rosen and Matt Cubeta picked the Sabres to win the second wild card spot in the East, but for the most part, the team was mostly picked to finished between 6th through 8th in the Atlantic Division.
Even so, there was no doubt that the Sabres boasted an improved roster, thanks mainly to the acquisition of Kyle Okposo during the offseason, so it’s easy to see why some fans were able to overlook the team’s weaknesses and dream of playoff hockey in the 716. The team WAS a step or two closer to earning a playoff spot, and despite the dismissal of the head coach and general manager, the roster is actually primed to improve even more this summer.
Perhaps that is why the majority of fans who voted in my poll on Twitter this past week still appear to be optimistic about the Sabres’ chances of qualifying for the playoffs sooner than later.
Question: How many years away are the @Sabres from making the playoffs now? I want to include this in a piece over @TheHockeyWriter so vote
— Richard Spalding (@theamazingMrS) April 25, 2017
Given how soon after the front office upheaval I posted this poll, it would not have been surprising to see fans express a greater dose of pessimism than the final results suggest – obviously, the sample size is small, so maybe I am just lucky enough to have really upbeat Sabres fans following me! Still, long-time fan Thomas Eric, who has been watching the Sabres since he was old enough to skate, had this to say via direct message on Twitter when asked how long it would take for the Sabres to make the playoffs:
I like GMTM’s moves to an extent (I will miss saying GMTM) I think he set us up minus a few changes now we need to execute. I would have given him another year myself.
It has been said before, but it bears repeating: whatever Murray’s failings as a general manager, it is clear he left the Sabres with a better roster than the one he inherited.
Now for the Tricky Part
Optimism from the fanbase is great, but as the 2016-17 season proved, it takes more than just a good roster on paper to qualify for the playoffs. The Sabres were not going to win with this roster with Bylsma behind the bench, simply because his coaching style did not fit the styles of his most skilled players.
Likewise, whereas Murray improved the Sabres’ roster on the offensive side of the ice, he failed to do much, if anything, to improve the team at the blue line, and clearly, communication between the coaches, GM, and the owner was an issue, to boot. Even the most talented roster in all of professional hockey would have a tough time achieving greatness if it spent just as much time fighting against a coach’s system and the team’s front office than it spent fighting the opposition.
Fans who wish to see the Sabres’ current rebuild pick up right where it left off need to have faith that Pegula will find the right men for the job, then, in order to avoid having all the progress that has been made the past few seasons collapse. News out of Buffalo shows that Pegula has learned from his mistakes, as he already spoke with experienced candidates from Columbus and Pittsburgh:
Blue Jackets AGM Bill Zito interviewed with the Sabres on Saturday. The Sabres are interviewing a lot of quality people. Zito a smart dude
— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) April 30, 2017
Hearing that Bill Guerin has interviewed for the Sabres GM job. Obviously several other candidates have as well or will. It's a process.
— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) April 26, 2017
Even if Pegula lands a quality GM and head coach, there are many who feel that the Sabres also need to expand the front office – the “Many hands make less work” approach. Phil Herzbrun, who has been splitting season tickets since 1988, DMed me on Twitter and shared that he thinks “an experienced President of Hockey Operations is a must.” And the afore-mentioned Thomas Eric would like to see the Sabres expand even more:
I think we need an organizational change in how we structure everything. We need a Pres of hockey ops that the GM reports to, 2 AGM’s (1 handles minor league team the other focuses heavily on scouting) and then a few advisors. The advisors and the AGMs bring all info on a certain topic to the GM but the GM makes the final decision. Accountability in management is key.
The Buffalo Sabres have a great chance to emerge from this temporary time of chaos a stronger organization, but there can be no doubt: a misstep or two by Pegula could set the Sabres’ rebuild back a few years. This is a critical time for hockey in the 716 – cross your fingers, and hold on tight.