Sabres GM search taking shape

Pat LaFontaine’s search for the Sabres’ next General Manager has likely hit high gear now that he’s had time to get settled, take a look at his team an begin contacting candidates.

The moment news broke that LaFontaine wouldn’t just be coming in as Buffalo’s new President of Hockey Operations, but that he’d be conducting the search for a new GM, speculation began to run rampant over who hey may interview, and which candidate would serve the Sabres best.

The name many fans turned to first was Rick Dudley. He’s the guy that Bucky Gleason has floated a number of times in hopes of seeing him installed in the GM chair for the Sabres. Considering Bucky had also previously suggested the thought of LaFontaine in his new role, certainly some connected the dots to his train of thought.

That isn’t to say that Sabres management is consistently scouring The Buffalo News, WGR Whiner Line or other outlets for hockey theories for hiring and trade ideas – at least I hope they aren’t – but it shows that Gleason does indeed understand the direction that the NHL hiring practices can follow.

Dudley wouldn’t be a bad hire by any stretch. He has a solid resume that saw him begin to shape some of the stronger parts of the current Winnipeg Jets core (his time was spent in Atlanta). He also spent a season with Toronto before catching on as Montreal’s Assistant GM in a role providing guidance to the Canadiens’ new General Manager, Marc Bergevin. Considering Bergevin’s relative inexperience, Dudley could be considered a guiding force in many ways.

Dudley also happens to have strong connections to the Sabres organization. Given the wave of nostalgia that has swept through the team offices, there wouldn’t be much surprise if yet another individual with ties to the team was brought in. Dudley has hopped around a bit in recent seasons which may be motivated by a desire to hold a significant role with an organization.

He doesn’t slot in as my preferred candidate, however. Sure, he has a nice resume and certainly has shown a penchant for strong talent evaluation. For this hire I wouldn’t mind seeing the Sabres go with more of an up-and-coming hire. While the associated risks are obvious, and it should be noted that Dudley isn’t in any way a re-tread or tired candidate, it seems that allowing a rising star in the executive ranks to take over would serve the team well.

One other thing to consider would be someone who has spent a significant portion of his time with a team that has not only had success, but built themselves to that level of success. Here’s a handful of other rumored candidates and some information on where they may fall into place during this search:

Jason Botterill: Currently Pittsburgh’s assistant GM and the man in charge of managing the Baby Pens in Wilkes Barre-Scranton. His tenure in Pittsburgh began after a stint in the NHL office and preceded the team’s 2008-09 Cup run. While his role with the particular team was obviously limited, his time with the Pens has been primarily focused on salary cap management, something he’s received high praise for. In addition to the Cup ring, give him a bonus point for his stint with the Sabres and his ties to the Penguins organization link him to ownership’s penchant for using Penguins initiatives and ideas here in Buffalo.

I like Botterill as one of the leaders in the clubhouse, so to speak. He’s young and has shown obvious skill from a team management perspective.

Tom Fitzgerald: Another Penguins’ staffer with a lengthy NHL career. He won a Cup with the Penguins in an assistant coaching role in 08-09 and also played for a Cup during his time in Florida. He’s currently the assistant to the general manager in Pittsburgh which sort of makes him the Costanza to Botterill’s Mr. Wilhelm in a way. He’s most notably connected to Nick Kypreos’ Sportsnet report that first indicated that Darcy Regier was on the way out.

While there are reports that the Sabres have or will be granted permission to speak with Botterill, there hasn’t been an indication that they will follow suit with Fitzgerald. Given that he previously held a coaching role with the team, I have to think that his specialty is more along the lines of player development as oppose to roster and cap management. I’m not sure he ranks in as a favorite so much as a name to keep an eye on, however.

Paul Fenton: Perhaps the third favorite in the eyes of many behind Dudley and Botterill, Fenton was linked as a candidate almost immediately and has been listed as a candidate by a number of connected reporters. Like Botterill, Fenton’s role as Nashville’s assistant GM also sees him manage the team’s farm club in Milwaukee. It’s worth noting that Fenton has been part of a management team that has succeeded largely by building through the draft while operating under an internal cap. Coming into a situation where he would practically have a blank slate to build from due to Buffalo’s picks and prospects may very well suit his skillset well.

I have to think Fenton is a strong candidate based on what is obviously an impressive resume. Where he ranks on LaFontaine’s list – one that allegedly has an individual with Cups on his resume – is another story.

Jim Benning: Benning, the assistant GM in Boston, rounds out the list of four candidates noted by Elliotte Friedman in his most recent 30 Thoughts column. He also happens to be the second confirmed candidate who the Sabres have requested permission to talk to. His resume includes a 10-year stint in Buffalo’s amateur scouting department prior to his departure in 2004. He joined Boston’s staff in 2006 and served as the assistant GM straight through their Cup victory in 2011. The Cup resume alone makes him an equally strong candidate as Botterill and the additional fact that he spent a long period of time in Buffalo can’t be ignored.

Something to keep in mind is that he departed Buffalo when the team transferred to a video scouting strategy that saw a number of long tenured scouts move on to different jobs. He has the opportunity to return under much different circumstances – sort of like the coach and President of Hockey Ops – and aid in turning the team around. He may be my darkhorse favorite for the position as his name lacks the sexy Q-rating that many fans are looking for. However his resume may indicate that he’d be a good fit.

Neil Smith: A non-starter for me, but he has a strong bond with LaFontaine from when LaFontaine resigned after Smith was dispatched shortly after being hired by the Islanders. His resume is impressive despite most of his success coming in the 1990s and before. Winning a Cup as the architect of that Rangers team is his shining accomplishment and his continued presence in the league shows that he’s certainly a worthy candidate. His name likely comes up due to his relationship with LaFontaine. While I could see this as a possibility, I’d say he’s a long shot for sure.

Mark Messier: Not really sure where his name came from or why so many people have connected him to the job. Perhaps it’s because of the numerous Cups he won as a player and his continued presence around the game now that his career is over. He played with LaFontaine in New York and his name carries so much value that it wouldn’t be overly surprising to see the Sabres take a gamble with him.

He has a role with the Rangers front office and has expressed interest in serving as the Blueshirts’ GM. Whether that makes him a realistic candidate? I can’t quite say. I’d consider him a longshot for sure.

Brendan Shanahan: Another interesting name that has come up recently, Shanahan does indeed meet the requirements of holding multiple Cups as LaFontaine had previously mentioned. In addition, there is certainly a possibility that he and Lafontaine developed a relationship during the latter’s short stint in the league office earlier this year. Given that possibility it is safe to keep Shanahan in the back of your mind as a candidate.

Considering that a number of successful executives began their career, or at least spent some time in the League offices shows that a role such as Shanahan’s two previous jobs with the NHL could aid in him moving on to a more significant role with a team. Another darkhorse in my book. I’d put Shanahan just outside the top-five in terms of who I expect to see hired.

If I was to put a running list together of which candidates I think are most likely to be hired, it would start with Jason Botterill and end with Mark Messier – for those thinking Michael Peca I seriously doubt he wants to leave his current role with the Junior Sabres as it’s my understanding he really enjoys his current work. My preferred list is as follows: Botterill, Fenton, Benning, Dudley, Fitzgerald, Shanahan and lastly Messier.


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