Apparently, building a team that amasses 100 points and wins a division title doesn’t get you much slack or credibility in this town.
In the midst of a hot Buffalo summer that many Sabres fans were hoping would see some changes at the top of the forward lines and a touch-up on the power play unit, GM Darcy Regier has once again had his own feet put to the fire by Sabres Nation due to his trademark calculated and methodical management style.
In case you’re not keeping score at home, that’s the same infuriating management style that under his watch has produced four conference finals appearances.
One of those campaigns was ended in the ’99 Stanley Cup Finals with Brett Hull’s toe in the crease. Another was halted in the ’06 Eastern Conference Finals with four of Buffalo’s top defensemen out of the lineup against an otherwise evenly matched opponent in Carolina.
That’s what is really comical and contradictory about the many pundits that claim that Buffalo will never win a Stanley Cup with Regier in charge. These are the same people that screamed about No Goal and a Jay McKee staph infection as being the only reasons that the Sabres haven’t won two Cups already. Can’t have it both ways, folks.
The disconnect between Regier and the Buffalo fans and media is derived from his complete disregard for the public relations effect of his decisions (and non-decisions). Or, put another way, he manages with his head and not with his heart. That’s why this club is still stocked with promising young prospects and isn’t run like a fantasy team.
But lest we forget, as Regier bashers love to remind us, the Sabres are just a team of average forwards and defensemen with a world-class elite goaltender. How brilliant. You have to wonder if folks in Washington criticize management for having just a team of average defensemen and goaltenders with a world-class elite forward.
Admittedly, this has been a tough offseason for Sabres management. In an attempt to bring in some offense and leadership, they tabled offers for some quality veteran forwards. Insiders in the know say that two of those players were Saku Koivu and Matt Cullen. Unfortunately, the best fish that could be reeled in was Rob Niedermayer.
In an ideal world, Derek Roy and Tim Connolly aren’t your top two centers. But you don’t dump them for nothing just to appease the fan base and to avoid bad press. That’s why guys like Regier still run NHL teams while guys like Mike Milbury are television analysts.
On the blueline Regier was criticized for not retaining either Henrik Tallinder, who had no intention of staying, or Toni Lydman, who would only stay for a three-year deal. For that term it was decided that Jordan Leopold, three years younger than Lydman and having potential to help out a dismal Buffalo power play, would be a better fit.
Then last week, to top it all off, Regier did the unthinkable. He made his team bigger by waiving an undersized third-line 10-goal scorer to acquire a 6’4" 220 lb. proven veteran defenseman.
Forget the petty silliness about the penny-pinching negotiations and the $1M arbitration award, which Regier and all 29 of his peers didn’t want to pay Buffalo native Tim Kennedy. This is a situation that evolved into your basic hockey move. It was about roster size, the ability to make call-ups from Portland, and the impact of one-way vs. two-way contracts.
While the net effect of this move hockey-wise is likely to be minimal, Regier decided his team would be better by shifting an asset to the blueline - and he was willing to take a big PR hit to do it.
The anger of fans stemming from Kennedy’s exile was pure overkill. You would’ve thought Regier traded the other Buffalo guy - the one who just scored a goal to win the Stanley Cup. It’s all based on emotion and pride emanating from South Buffalo. Daniel Paille was in the same position last year - but when he was traded there was barely a whimper.
In a season following being out-muscled by the physical Boston Bruins in the playoffs, we’ll now only likely have to deal with having three pint-sized players (Derek Roy, Tyler Ennis, Nathan Gerbe), instead of four, on the top three forward lines. That means one less player to get jammed off the puck by 42 year-olds like Mark Recchi.
And bringing in a boring stay at home shot-blocker like Shaone Morrisonn is one of those deals that can fly under the radar - until you desperately need to hold a lead in a Game 6 or 7 in late April. Ask folks in Montreal how bringing in Hal Gill worked out for them.
Now, despite losing 2 of their top 4 defensemen to free agency, it can be argued that the Buffalo defense, with the additions of Leopold and Morrisonn, is as good or better than it was last season.
Even with having for a boss an absentee owner who would rather burn a few extra million dollars on the losing New York State political campaigns of his friends than on the budget of his NHL hockey team, Regier has pieced together a group that is competitive enough to challenge for the division again.
That isn’t a result of listening to fans and media, or worrying about PR or his image. And that’s just fine - Milbury is much more entertaining and emotional on television than Regier could ever be.