Revising the blueprints

PC3_slideIt’s still weird.

It was weird when the press release came through around 9:30am on Wednesday. It’s weird early Friday morning when I’m finally putting words to it. Enough about the organization lately led everyone to be skeptical at the words “major press conference,” enough to the point I almost didn’t bother heading to First Niagara Center to witness it. And it had to be seen to be believed.

Even as the news that a new position had been created, and would be filled by one of the franchise’s hallmark talents (a feasible and exciting addition by the organization), the rest was almost unfathomable. It had to be seen to be believed. Despite the addition of Pat LaFontaine as President of Hockey Operations, that didn’t necessarily imply that Darcy Regier’s tenure in Buffalo was over. Nor that they’d cut ties with head coach Ron Rolston.

So when word started filtering out from sources that have remained questionable for many years, that Regier was gone, Rolston was gone, and Ted Nolan… Ted Nolan was back to coach the team on an interim basis, you realize that “major” isn’t quite strong enough to describe it. You don’t see that come through your twitter feed and believe it. Not when you’re sitting at work trying to figure out what’s going on. Not when you’re sitting on a blue chair in the Pavilion at First Niagara Center, staring at four empty chairs and a podium.

And then here comes Terry Pegula, Ted Black, Pat LaFontaine and Ted Nolan walking over from the elevator.

Then it all becomes real. And you don’t know what to think.

So I sat there, watching these faces from the past become faces of the present. And still, almost two days later, it’s hard to put together a concise thought about it all.

In honesty, when we’re sitting there at 9:30 on Wednesday, wondering what’s going on, and someone tweets out that Darcy and Ron Rolston are out and Ted Nolan is back as coach, we’re all laughing because there’s no fucking way that’s happening, right? Someone’s either saying that because it’s meant to be a joke or they’re the type of guy that’s been calling in to WGR’s postgame shows for the last decade.

Then it happens and you have to make the transition from “Yeah, right…” to “Ok then.”

And now Pat LaFontaine is running the hockey department and Ted Nolan is really behind the bench, on an interim basis.

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I could wax poetic on Darcy Regier alone here and get more than enough words together for post after post, because it’s not like you can sum up 16-plus seasons with the organization with few words. In the wake of his dismissal, there’s been more than enough dancing on the grave, but the fact is, he survived for so long because he was good at what he did.

regier2Regier came in back in 1997 and took a good team and made them better, better to the point they played for a Stanley Cup. When the team fell apart due to things he couldn’t control, call it Hasek wanting out, call it aging veterans, call it ownership not giving him enough funds… he broke it down, survived a bankruptcy and turned it into the best team in franchise history. With a new salary cap forcing his hand and meddling bosses letting two captains go, he was the one who said they’d be less competitive. He knew then what we learned through the next three years. And he took that less competitive team to a division title in 2010, where they were a slash to Thomas Vanek’s knee away from who knows what.

Then Terry Pegula bought the Sabres. And he told Darcy to go buy some new toys. Not all the new toys at the store wanted to get bought. Whether that was Brad Richards (whom the Sabres never visited because he wouldn’t sign here) or Ryan Suter and Zach Parise (who both got offered more money to come here and chose Minnesota) or Rick Nash (who wouldn’t waive his no-trade clause to come to Buffalo, even with a deal basically in place), Regier got put in a position where he had the tools and opportunity but not necessarily the right circumstances. So he bought the toys he could and watched them break. In the end, that was part of his failure here: he had to sell Buffalo as a place to play.

 

But throughout the years, there were always points he could’ve been fired. And he survived. He survived longer than the coach he came in with in 1997, if only a few months longer. He survived because whether or not the fans approved of any move, his bosses understood them. He was a good soldier in a lot of bad circumstances. If his crook owner didn’t have money to give him to keep his team together, he could do the best he could. If the commissioner who’s trying to save your team needs you to watch the budget, he could do that. If the new billionaire owner who doesn’t know hockey and the guy telling him what to do say to keep costs here and try to win, he could try to do that. If the newer billionaire owner who wants to win a Cup and says go buy free agents, he could try to do that.

In each situation that he was put in, he always did enough to buy him a few more years. And that never sat well with a lot of people who didn’t look at the situation but looked at the tenure. He was never going to win with the Buffalo fans, who claim they just want honest effort, unless he actually did win the ultimate prize. He won a lot of little prizes. Four conference final trips. A Presidents’ Trophy. Two division titles. And that got him a lot of second chances.

He was always measured in his approach, especially in the end.

When he had to pick a new coach, he looked at where he wanted to be and how he could get there, and he brought in a guy who wasn’t so much there to win, but to teach players to be good enough to win. The idea of getting a developmental coach to fix flaws in a young team when they aren’t good enough to compete is good in theory, but the execution proved to have its own flaws. As much as Ron Rolston could’ve improved any of the young players on the team, that gain was a net loss with his inability to motivate the veterans and the culture that was allowed to spawn throughout the building. That net loss was the point we were at Wednesday at around 9:30.

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In comes Ted Nolan. The martyr of the Whiner Line, the hero of Joe Six-Pack.

It was immediately apparent at the press conference as he was being introduced that this was LaFontaine’s call, which makes me feel much better about it. It sounded like LaFontaine knew they couldn’t make a decision on a coach until they get a GM, who’s going to want to have a say, and went to Terry like “Hey, I know we need a coach, and I know this guy who’d probably be good for these guys for the time being…” and here we are.

The fascination with Nolan has been beyond my comprehension. He took a team that wasn’t good enough and over-achieved with them, but not to the point where they’d win the things we’re after. He was one game over .500 as a coach here in two seasons (73-72-19) and won a division title (which seems to be something he gets credit for and doesn’t mean anything when talking about Lindy Ruff or Darcy Regier, oddly enough). He deservedly won the Jack Adams award in 1997 and got his GM fired. The new GM, obviously hesitant to commit to a guy that just got his predecessor fired and pissed off the best goalie in the league to the point he quit on the team, offers him a one year deal and he doesn’t take it. Since then, we’ve never heard the end of it.

The continued obsession with Nolan since his departure made the news of his return off-putting. We’ve called the guys who’ve wanted it for the last decade and a half idiots, a merited term. Call him blackballed, call him whatever. He’s a coach that hasn’t won anything anywhere. Why is it a good idea now?

The argument against him is fair. The type of team Nolan succeeds with isn’t the type of team that’s going to win us a Cup. And that’s what we’re after here, right? A Stanley Cup? But we’re not even close to that right now. We’re building towards that.

And that’s what might make having Ted Nolan… Ted Nolan behind the bench worth allowing. For a little while at least. The “interim” tag is key. The culture around the organization and in the locker room is so terrible that it’s not such a bad idea to light a fire under these guys, despite the fact that Nolan’s basically the complete opposite of what Ron Rolston was.

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Even as exciting as this change is, almost relieving for many who were that fed up with Regier’s presence for any number of reasons, the change is massive. Regier and Rolston are gone, and there’s a guy behind the bench who’s the polar opposite of what we had in Rolston. Maybe that’s what makes this so unsettling.

Since sometime during the 2011-2012 season, when everyone figured out that this team might not have “it” and things started swinging towards a rebuild, we’ve accepted the idea that it’s going to take a concerted effort to rebuild this team. Rebuild the franchise. And throughout last season’s trainwreck that led to the departure of Lindy Ruff and captain Jason Pominville, and the addition of Ron Rolston and prospects upon prospects, the losing was tolerated for the greater good. That there was a method to the madness. Rolston was a guy who was going to develop young talent at the expense of the veterans’ interest level. He was a developmental coach, who was good at X’s and O’s even if he didn’t get the hustle out of guys. Everyone knew he wasn’t the guy to win games here, but you weren’t trying to win.

We were told there was a blueprint.

PC5_slideNot in the sense of the marketing push, but that they had a plan and enough confidence in that plan to weather the storm of fan discontent and lack of results. The idea was that even the team’s 4-15-1 record, the dropping tv ratings, the empty seats… nothing was going to distract them from where they wanted to go. They want high draft picks, and they want many of them.

So at what point was this part of the plans? Less than nine months after Lindy Ruff was shown the door, Darcy Regier and his developmental coach are right behind him. When did the plans change?

As the story was told during the press conference, it was a matter of ten days from Terry Pegula approaching Pat LaFontaine and Wednesday’s announcement. It was clear to them that change was needed. You don’t make a move this drastic unless you feel you need to.

And now they have a coach who demands more out of players. Will results follow? They might. They just might start winning games here. Every team in the league has talent, so even the slightest psychological lift can push a team to a win any given night. If Nolan turns this team around and they charge out of the basement, where are you going to get your high picks?

It remains to be seen what happens. They haven’t played a game yet. I love the LaFontaine move. I really think that’s a step in the right direction, not only making the fans happy and the culture better, but making this organization look better to the outside. But they potentially could’ve made that move without canning Regier and Rolston just yet.

But they did. And the blueprint has changed, whether they say so or not. Their goals might be the same, but the path is now different. It’s different. Whether or not you liked Regier and/or Rolston, there was zero doubt in anyone’s minds that the team was getting to where they wanted: they were being bad to get those high picks.

Now, you see LaFontaine and Ted Nolan (Ted Nolan!) driving the bus and Pegula is still talking about getting high picks. I feel good about Pat being around, and can see some potential in Nolan’s short stay as interim coach, but now you wonder, if the top of the draft still on the itinerary, how they’re going to get there.

It’s a move that, irregardless of results, has jolted a jilted fanbase. It’s a massive paradigm shift that is going to change the foreseeable future of this franchise. Everything we knew about the Buffalo Sabres organization on Tuesday is now up in the air, and it’s two guys from the past who left with their heads between their legs that are leading the way into whatever’s next.

This is all real. And I still don’t know what to think.

Posted on November 15, 2013, in Sabres/NHL and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Really well done, and well written! Couldn’t have said it any better myself

  2. Love it!! Awesome job Eric!

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