There has been a ton of speculation and many theories about what caused the split between Pat LaFontaine and the Pegulas, leading to his departure from the organization.
For the most part, the conventional wisdom has focused on the so called dysfunction inside the Sabres organization. LaFontaine was viewed as a savior by many in the media and among fans, and shortly after his arrival, the theory goes, he learned that he did not have the power he thought he had been given by the Pegulas. Some have focused on decisions surrounding the signing or trading of Ryan Miller.
Others have focused on deep rifts between Murray and LaFontaine after Murray took over as General Manager. In this view, the primary cause of the resignation of LaFontaine was a product of power plays inside Hockey Operations.
While it seems strange to think LaFontaine would come into deep conflict with the man he hired to lead the day to day hockey operations with LaFontaine above him as overseer and counsel and ultimate authority in decision making, it would not be the first time a hire betrays the confidence of the executive who hired him. Indeed, this is precisely what did happen with LaFontaine, but not in the way most people have speculated.
Bucky Gleason has made it clear that LaFontaine's departure was a product of too many Pegula cronies getting in the way of LaFontaine making the changes he felt were necessary to get the Sabres back on the winning track. But Gleason never seemed to get close to the real reasons for the departure of LaFontaine, instead focusing on criticizing the Sabres so called lack of transparency in telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth about why LaFontaine resigned. Indeed, Gleason has tended to mock the Pegulas in particular, along with Ted Black, for their failure to come clean, as if their coming clean would somehow be in the best interest of Pat LaFontaine or the Buffalo Sabres.
The Sabres fall in the standings and turnover within the hockey department from GM to Head Coach over the past few years has made it easy to criticize the Pegulas for creating an organizational dysfunction. But the counter factual has never been seriously considered: when mistakes are made a dysfunctional organization does nothing about them. When mistakes are made, a functional organization goes about correcting them. If the corrections do not succeed, more corrections are made until the organization gets it right.
If we reject the organizational dysfunction thesis of the Pegulas' Sabres, we can begin to rethink what has been going on the past few years, and in particular, we can open our minds to a new interpretation of what really went down most recently with the short tenure of Pat LaFontaine as President of Hockey Operations.
Some people have speculated that the real conflict was over the direction of the hockey operation. In this view, after LaFontaine hired Tim Murray (and Craig Patrick), he found himself being outgunned when it came to collective decision making. Since the owner is the ultimate decider, strong opinions from Murray and Patrick were overriding the views of LaFontaine. LaFontaine hired both Patrick and Murray, but soon found himself on the outside looking in when it came to the consensus view of how the Sabres hockey organization needed to proceed.
So, in order to protect the Sabres organization from further public relations disasters, once LaFontaine resigned from the position of President of Hockey Operations, the Sabres needed to exercise damage control by following through with a solid three year contract offer to LaFontaine's pick for Head Coach, Ted Nolan. Even if Murray was comfortable, in the end, with moving forward with Ted Nolan as Head Coach, the Sabres had no choice after the public relations fiasco of the LaFontaine departure.
But there is a more logical explanation which has yet to receive much if any attention in the media. In this view, the departure of LaFontaine actually had nothing to do with Hockey Operations at all. Indeed, there was never a problem within Hockey Operations, including between LaFontaine and Tim Murray (or Craig Patrick).
The conflict between the Pegulas and LaFontaine was nothing like what we have been led to believe by writers like Bucky Gleason of the Buffalo News. The problem was not that LaFontaine was losing battles within the world of Hockey Operations.
The problem was that LaFontaine wanted to replace Pegula's people in non hockey operations with his own people.
In brief, LaFontaine wanted the President of the Buffalo Sabres, Ted Black, removed.
LaFontaine wanted his people running the Sabres' business operations and media relations.
The Pegulas stood firmly behind Ted Black. LaFontaine wanted his people in charge of the business operations of the Sabres, which meant removing Ted Black. Once this was declared and pitched to Pegula, LaFontaine forced the Pegulas to make a difficult but necessary decision.
Whether Pegula first asked for LaFontaine's resignation, or LaFontaine first submitted his resignation I cannot say at this time. But what is clear is that LaFontaine wanted more power than he was originally granted, and that power play reach was firmly rejected.
Ted Black remains the President of the Buffalo Sabres. Craig Patrick, who worked with Ted Black in Pittsburgh and was brought into the Sabres organization at the urging of LaFontaine, remains on board. Tim Murray obviously remains on board, a recruit of LaFontaine. And this past week, Ted Nolan, also recruited to the Sabres by LaFontaine, agreed to a three year contract extension as Head Coach of the Buffalo Sabres.
LaFontaine knew he had put Ted Nolan in a difficult place. But LaFontaine encouraged Ted Nolan to sign the extension, knowing he would never get another opportunity in the NHL if he rejected the Sabres contract offer.
With time Ted Nolan learned the truth of what really happened inside the executive suites of Sabreland between LaFontaine, Black and the Pegulas.
Knowing the truth has helped set Nolan free emotionally. As much as he cares for and counts Pat LaFontaine as a close friend, he also knows that his close friend made a move that was reckless and ultimately deeply damaging to his professional reputation. Nolan knows he cannot afford to give up the coaching opportunity of his lifetime. His career was resurrected by LaFontaine, even if LaFontaine since profoundly damaged his own professional reputation.
Give LaFontaine credit for what he accomplished in a short time with the Sabres. But also give credit to the Pegulas for standing their ground when Pat LaFontaine overplayed his hand and sought to carry out a coup de etat in the executive suites at the First Niagara Center.