What's Wrong with the Sabres? My Open Letter to Terry Pegula and Ted Black

Dear Terry and Ted:

I've been a fan of the Buffalo Sabres since the team's inception. I was 13 years old back then; now I'm 55. I still watch nearly every Sabres game (now, living in Portland, Oregon, I do that through NHL Center Ice), and I try to get to a game or two every year or so when I'm in town. I won't waste your time reviewing the history of this franchise -- suffice to say, being a Sabres fan has been a tough go. We've had some incredible highs, for sure. But mostly, the Sabres' first 40-plus years of existence have been characterized by opportunities missed and hopes dashed.

When you gentlemen came on the scene, I, like all ardent Sabres fans, hoped that this moment represented a new beginning for the franchise, a chance to get out from under the weight of this history of mediocrity. It is with real sadness that I now realize that this is not the case. I've spent a great deal of time pondering why this is so. The Buffalo Sabres now have an owner with essentially unlimited financial resources and a clearly-stated desire to win a championship. Yet I (and, I suspect, a great many other Sabres fans) don't believe that's likely to happen at any time in the foreseeable future, if ever. I think I've figured out why that is, and I'd like to share my thoughts with you here.

For many years (beginning well before you took over), I've told my brother (also an ardent Sabres fan) that the Sabres are really best seen as a sort of rarefied farm team. That is to say, the Sabres develop young players, and then the really talented ones, the best and the brightest, leave when they have the opportunity to do so, and go elsewhere to win (or try to win) their Stanley Cups. Somehow, these top-calibre players don't feel that this franchise is the right venue for them to achieve their highest goals. Just taking recent history, this was obviously true of Hasek, Drury, Briere and Campbell. These players will shortly be followed out the door by Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek.

For me, this was the critical fact about the Sabres that I fervently hoped would change as a result of your arrival.

Why do players choose to leave the Sabres as they reach their prime? Is it the weather in Buffalo? Is it the supposedly unsightly drive into town on the Kensington from the airport? Is it a lack of fancy hotels? My brother believes that the answer lies in the sports culture of Buffalo: He feels that fans in Buffalo have a loser mentality, in which they deep-down expect their teams to fall short in key situations. This fear translates into heightened pressure on these teams to win a championship, and, thereby, overcome this loser identity once and for all. My brother believes that this pressure is, ultimately, felt by the players themselves, such that our teams don't believe in themselves deep-down, and as a result, tend to fold in critical situations.

I think there's a simpler explanation.

Before your arrival, the problem for the Buffalo Sabres was limited means. Especially in the pre-cap era, but even under the cap, the Sabres were unable to genuinely compete for a Stanley Cup because they simply could not afford to keep up with the large-market teams. Darcy Regier was hired to manage this franchise in the context of a limited-budget regime. His job was not to win a Cup, not really, anyway. His job was to put a good enough team on the ice to put enough fans in the stands, all the while resisting the constant competitive pressure to spend more than the franchise's limited budget would allow. His job was to keep costs down. Given this role, I would have to say that Darcy was an excellent hire. He is very good at managing costs, because it is in his nature to do so.

With your arrival, the limited-financial-means problem went away, but Regier did not. I took for granted that, as soon as you took over, Darcy Regier would be thanked for his service and sent on his way or reassigned to the scouting department. Your failure to do so gave me my first inkling that your tenure as owner of the Sabres might not be as happy as I'd hoped. Darcy Regier has no ability to manage the fortunes of a professional sports franchise with unlimited means. It's simply not in his nature. Unhappily, for Darcy, for you, and for the rest of us, your decision to keep this man in a position to which he is not suited, has solidified his identity as the bane of this franchise. Put simply, the Buffalo Sabres are highly unlikely to ever win a Stanley Cup so long as Darcy Regier is the team's general manager. Here, I think, is why:

The work of the best general managers, it seems to me, has a quality that I can only define as artistic. Take Brian Burke. Yes, I know that Burke has been fired and that he's not currently employed as a general manager. To me that's not relevant to this argument. It's pretty obvious that, his dismissal notwithstanding, Burke's work in Toronto has resulted in a significant improvement in the Maple Leafs, and we all know the success he had elsewhere. But what I want to focus on is Burke's artistic approach to his work. Brian Burke seems to me to have an innate sense of the types of players that, if successfully melded together into a team, can compete for a championship. His approach is akin to that of a composer, who combines a myriad of instruments into a symphony which, in the end, is greater than the sum of its parts. With this innate artistic sense, Burke goes out, assesses what players are available to him through draft, trade and free-agency, and builds his team (his symphony, if you will), piece by piece. He might "overpay" for particular pieces on occasion, but he's willing to do so if that's what it takes to get the player he feels he needs. This type of general manager can, of course, be criticized for particular moves ("Did Burke pay too much for Kessel?"), or for the whole package he ultimately assembles. There is, after all, no guarantee that such a general manager is a good artist.

Well, gentlemen, there are good artists and bad artists, and then there are those who simply lack the artistic temperament altogether. Darcy Regier has nothing of the artist in his nature. Where Burke is an artist, Regier is best understood as an accountant, or even better, perhaps, an actuary. In the new unlimited-resource regime you've brought to the Sabres, his job is no longer about controlling costs above all else, but he still approaches it as if it were. Regier sees his team as a portfolio of "assets". Each of these assets has an assigned value, relating to several factors such as length of contract term, salary level, production, and so forth. Regier now seems to believe that his key job is to increase the overall value of his portfolio of assets as much as he possibly can. Thus, he will keep players around who are not the type of players likely to help the Sabres win a championship, because, to him (based on his spreadsheets), they are classified as "valuable assets" (or, at least, more valuable than whatever assets can be gotten in return). This is why players like Roy and now Hecht, among many others, have remained on the team long after an artistic general manager would have likely seen them as useless to the team he was constructing, and moved them out.

When Darcy Regier-the-actuary makes player moves, his primary aim is to win the trade. To Regier, any trade that brings in a total package of assets that is greater than the assets going out the door is a good trade. And, by this measure, Regier seems to almost always make "good trades." But to believe that his consistently "winning" trades means that Regier is a successful general manager is to miss the forest for the trees. For, a Darcy Regier-built team is nearly always less than the sum of it's parts. It does not take a hockey genius to "win" trades in this fashion, and Regier, while a reasonably competent technician, is no genius. What takes genius, gentlemen, is to craft a champion.

That brings me to Jason Pomminville. My sadness over him being traded yesterday is what finally caused me to sit down and pen this missive. As is being noted everywhere, on paper, Darcy Regier "won" this trade. By all accounts, he took his usual stance: He waited until he got a call from an artistic general manager, who really wanted one of his players. In this case, it was Pomminville, but it could have been Vanek or Miller or anybody else, even recently-acquired Steve Ott. Then he said (not literally - - in effect), "You want Pomminville, huh? OK, but it'll cost you. You'll have to overpay for him." At which point the Minnesota GM, said to himself, "To get a player like Pomminville, I might have to overpay, but I need a guy like this to build a champion, so it'll be worth it." And so, the deal was done, unlike the case with Miller or Vanek, who remain Sabres for the moment, not because they fit into any long-term plan (they can't, they're leaving), but, rather, because Regier failed to find a counterpart hungry enough for either player to sufficiently overpay for him.

Do you not understand that Jason Pomminville is the sort of role player who is essential to a championship team? Do you realize what a blow your franchise took yesterday? Pomminville is a heart-and-soul type player. His absence will long be felt by this organization, much as the absence of Briere and Drury still casts a shadow over the Sabres organization five years on. And, just as the impending departures of Miller and Vanek will do.

The problem with Pomminville, and the reason why he had to be moved out, is that he was thrust into a role for which he was unsuited, by Lindy Ruff and, by extension, by Darcy Regier. When Drury and Briere were allowed to walk out the door, and were not replaced (because they couldn't be replaced in any transaction that Darcy could "win"), the word was put forth that a new "core" had inherited the team (Roy, Vanek, Miller, Pomminville and, perhaps, Stafford). These players, with the possible exception of Miller, were either unsuited for, or not ready for the expectations that came with this sort of role. At first, the leadership void was papered over, at least officially, by slapping the "C" on (then) brand new Sabre Craig Rivet. Rivet was a player who represents the quintessential kind of "asset" acquisition favored by Darcy Regier: Find a player who is, perhaps, in his declining years, a player you can acquire on the cheap, and hope he over-performs his salary-level. In any event, the Rivet-as-"C" effort failed miserably. So, with Rivet gone, they couldn't just find another over-the-hill asset to make the Captain again, so they slapped it on Jason Pomminville. This, despite the fact that, by temperament, Pomminville was pretty-clearly unsuited for the role. When this exercise in what was effectively continued damage control from the Drury-Briere fiasco slammed up against reality, in the form of Milan Lucic, Pomminville's days as a Sabre were numbered.

How would an artistic general manager have handled all of this? He would have slotted Pomminville into the role for which he is suited: second line wing, not a leader but a fierce competitor, who is good in his own end, can score you quite a few goals, and can, on occasion, score big goals in the playoffs. He would have retained (or acquired) the necessary first-line players and other roster elements to allow Pomminville to play this role. This is, of course, exactly what the Minnesota GM has done. In this role, Jason Pomminville will very possibly prove to be an essential element in his team's drive for a championship. As we know, that team is not the Buffalo Sabres.

So what'll happen going forward under a Darcy Regier-led Sabres franchise? Most likely, by the end of the summer both Miller and Vanek will be gone. To the extent that this is of concern to Darcy Regier, it is because he fears that trades involving these players that constitute an obvious win for him could fail to materialize. If this occurs, he knows that he'll be forced to move them anyway, as even he could not survive a Drury and Briere redux, in which they walk away for nothing, or even another Campbell situation, in which they are dispatched at next year's trade deadline for a relative pittance. I suspect that we'll soon be told that the Sabres have a new core, consisting of the likes of Christian Ehrhoff, Cody Hodgson, Tyler Myers, Tyler Ennis and, perhaps, a few others. And so, the cycle will begin again, until these players have the opportunity to depart, at which point they will (or will wish that they could if - - like Ehrhoff and Myers - - they can't).

I have to ask you gentlemen: How do you explain the fact that, despite all of your efforts since taking over, Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek have no more desire to remain with the Sabres than did Drury and Briere? If I were you, the first thing that I would do after you read this letter, is have a talk with Christian Ehrhoff. Ehrhoff, famously refused to sign with the Islanders, after they acquired his rights, because he didn't believe that they were a legitimate contender. He then signed with the Sabres, in large part due to your then-recent acquisition of the team. If I were you, I'd ask Ehrhoff to tell you the truth about how he now feels about that decision. Given the choice of the Islanders or the Sabres again, I strongly suspect that Ehrhoff would bolt for the door.

If I had to distill my message to you in this letter down to one thing, it's this: To be a good owner, with a real shot at bringing home the Stanley Cup, you do not by any means need to be a genius You just need to be willing to hire one. Terry and Ted, please hire a real genius as general manager.

Hire an artist.


Andrew Nimelman

This is a FanPost written by a member of the community. It does not necessarily express the views or opinions of Die By The Blade.

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