The Buffalo Sabres said “Sayonara!” to head coach Dan Bylsma and general manager, Tim Murray, last Thursday morning.
You would be hard-pressed to find a Sabres fan who was surprised to hear that Bylsma was shown the door, but the firing of Murray sent shockwaves through the 716 area code. While it was debatable whether the Sabres were a better team with Bylsma behind the bench, there is no doubt that the roster was improving -at least on paper- under Murray’s guidance.
Still, professional hockey is a business that equates winning with success. Six-straight years without playoff hockey, four of which fell on Murray’s watch did not do him any favors. Now that he is gone, let’s try a quick look at what GMTM did well, what he botched, and what ultimately led to his demise.
The Good: Murray’s Three-pronged Plan of Attack
There are a lot of valid complaints that Sabres fans can throw Murray’s way, but saying that he did not improve the team’s roster is not one of them. In 2013-14, the season in which he replaced Darcy Regier, the Sabres only had two players on the roster that scored over 40 points: Cody Hodgson (44) and Tyler Ennis (43). That number held steady the following season, improved to four in 2015-16, and rose to six by the close of the 2016-17 campaign.
Obviously, the tank that landed Jack Eichel with the No.2 pick overall in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft provided the Sabres with its most lethal scorer. Murray also used the draft in order to acquire Sam Reinhart, Brendan Guhle, and Alexander Nylander, which shows everyone that he knew what he was talking about when he said in his introductory press conference the team must build through the draft.
Still, Murray proved he understood how to use a combination of savvy trades and smart free agent signings to improve his roster, too. No one can argue that GMTM fleeced the Colorado Avalanche when he sent underachievers Mikhail Grigorenko and Nikita Zadorov out West in exchange for Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn, the latter of whom was flipped to Anaheim for what wound up becoming the negotiating rights to Jimmy Vesey. While nothing ever came out of the Vesey saga, acquiring O’Reilly gave Buffalo its lone representative in the 2016 NHL All-Star Game, as well as solid leadership, and a workhouse who makes the Sabres better at both ends of the ice.
Murray’s masterful trade with Colorado could go down as the highlight of his stint in Buffalo but his signing of free agent Kyle Okposo ranks right up there too. (Sorry – as much as you love Eichel, ANY GM can hold a fire sale in order to tank that badly, so I refuse to call the tank Murray’s shining moment.) Once Steven Stamkos agreed to remain in Tampa Bay, Okposo immediately became the biggest fish in the free agency pool, and Murray moved swiftly to claim his prize.
Not only did he convince a 60-points-per-year player who could have signed with a contender to come to Buffalo, he also refrained from breaking the bank. Okposo’s seven-year deal will only cost the Sabres $6 million per season when it is all said and done, which is more than affordable given Okposo’s impact on Buffalo’s offense.
In the end, Murray did improve Buffalo’s roster using all of his resources, so give the man credit: at the very least, he will not go down in Sabres history as a one-trick pony whose only claim to fame was The Tank.
The Bad: Murray’s Failure to Strengthen the Back End
Heading into the 2016-17 season, the Sabres had set their sights on the Stanley Cup playoffs. Ultimately, the injury bug derailed those dreams, but even before the team lost Eichel, O’Reilly, Okposo, and newly-acquired Dmitry Kulikov to significant injuries, fans were not convinced the playoffs were a realistic goal.
For starters, very few fans had faith in Murray’s decision to anoint Robin Lehner the team’s No.1 goaltender. Granted, Lehner is not the worst starting goaltender in the NHL, but what about his 30-36-13 record in Ottawa ever made Murray believe that Lehner was destined to replace Ryan Miller as the Sabres’ goaltender of the future?
Lehner and backup netminder Anders Nilsson did an admirable job in 2016-17, but John Gibson and Jonathan Bernier they are not. Having two backup goaltenders was never going to get the team to the playoffs, much less allow them to steal a series win.
Amazingly, Murray’s failure to bring an established No.1 goalie to Buffalo is not his greatest failure; that would be the mess he called the “defense,” which was the main reason (outside of injuries) the Sabres took a step backwards in the standings this season.
Fans spent the early part of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft hearing that Murray was in talks with Anaheim GM Bob Murray to trade for Cam Fowler. Instead, Murray shipped Mark Pysyk to Florida in exchange for Kulikov, who is not exactly Fowler. Unfortunately, Kulikov’s injury made the trade look worse than it probably was, but even before Kulikov had his unfortunate run-in with an open bench door, fans were on the fence about how much trading Pysyk for Kulikov’s services would improve Buffalo’s blue line.
Not helping Murray’s cause was the fact that he decided to hold off on addressing the team’s defensive needs until the third round of the 2016 draft. Couple that with the trade deadline passing without any significant moves to improve the blue line, or at least shed a little dead weight in exchange for draft picks, and you have a collective, “What gives?”
Under Murray’s watch, Sabres fans saw Tyler Myers, Brayden McNabb, and Pysyk swapped out for Zach Bogosian, Cody Franson and Kulikov. No one misses Myers, and McNabb and Pysyk are not top-4 defensemen by any stretch of the imagination (although they have enjoyed career years since leaving the 716), but Bogosian, Franson and Kulikov were not upgrades. In the words of Master Yoda, improve Buffalo’s blue line Murray has not.
What Got Him Fired: Getting Passed by the Enemy
Sabres owner Terry Pegula can talk about needing “a disciplined, structured environment where everybody knows what everybody’s doing and everybody’s talking” all he wants, complete with the implication that the combination of Murray and Bylsma failed to provide such an environment, but the reason that Murray got fired is pretty simple:
The Toronto Maple Leafs made the playoffs, while the Buffalo Sabres did not.
Look: it’s bad enough seeing the Oilers and Connor McDavid, the original target of The Tank, reach the playoffs before the Sabres’ Eichel. Sabres fans can handle that indignity, though, since it took years of tanking and no less than four No.1 picks in the draft to get the Oilers where they are today.
But seeing Toronto go from tanking one season to making the playoffs in the next, and knowing that the Leafs have officially blown by the Sabres, who appear stalled in the rebuilding lane, is unforgivable.
Fans can only hope that Pegula was paying attention to what his rival to the north did in order to put the Leafs on the fast-track to success. In case he wasn’t, here is the plan that Toronto followed, according to Cathal Kelly of The Globe and Mail:
They laid the layers down in their proper order – first, assemble the management team, then get the right coach, then begin piecing together a roster that fits, rather than one that merely hits the salary cap, then put the results in the proper perspective.
Not only did Murray not get the right coach, he failed to assemble a roster that fits. Pairing Rasmus Ristolainen with Josh Gorges and putting Eichel on a line with Marcus Foligno is the definition of a team whose whole is less than the sum of its parts. That is why Tim Murray is unemployed today, and why Sabres fans everywhere are left to wonder, “How much longer will this rebuild last?”
A huge fan of hockey who currently has three kids playing the sport, Rich has been covering the Buffalo Sabres since 2011. He’s endured The Tank, and is now ready to cover the run to The Cup . . . whenever that happens!