Maybe we should have seen the writing on the wall when Tim Murray was given an extension in the fall. If there’s one harbinger for unemployment in the Pegula sports empire it seems as if contract extensions are it.
The Pegulas have given out quite a few golden parachutes in recent years and you don’t need to look far on Twitter to find a list of all the coaches and GMs still on their payroll. You can now add Tim Murray and Dan Bylsma to that list after both were relived for their duties today.
The decision comes in the wake of a disappointing season where rumors of turmoil in the locker room and poor performance on the ice fueled fan frustration in another year without playoffs. Jack Eichel’s ankle injury on the eve of the new season cast an early shadow on the year, but it was Buffalo’s poor performance coming out of the bye week – when they were sniffing a playoff position – that seemed to truly doom the season.
Losses to Arizona and Colorado set off one of the worst stretches of the year for the Sabres and they quickly went from playoff contender to lottery hopeful due to their post-bye week collapse. Questions over Bylsma’s effectiveness followed the team for most of the year, but they were particularly prevalent late in the year as complaints about the system and the team’s execution continued to mount.
Many of the complaints voiced over Bylsma’s work echoed that of Penguins fans and media as the coach ended his time in Pittsburgh. An over reliance on veterans who were short on skill, continued use of a stretch pass that was too easily scouted and countered and overall poor bench management. Additional rumors of Buffalo’s young core clashing with Bylsma’s system had most fans ready to pack his bags for him.
Given Buffalo’s struggles, especially at five-on-five, and their overall record, it made sense that Murray, the Pegulas or some combination of both would come to the conclusion to fire the coach. If nothing else it would give Murray some additional leeway to fix some of the problems he created.
It’s a pretty well used trope: the GM fires the coach as a way to provide cover for his own job. In many respects Murray did need to cover his ass. Look no further than the state of Buffalo’s blueline this season. Murray’s only addition was bringing in Dmitry Kulikov who, without the season defining injury, would have been little more than a lateral addition at best. As it turned out, the injury Kulikov suffered left him severely limited or out of the lineup altogether, something that left Buffalo’s blueline shorthanded. At one point the team had to dress four AHLers and another player on emergency recall from junior, clearly mistakes were made.
The complaint that followed Murray most – aside from tired calls about the tank – is that he sacrificed too much depth in an effort to speed up the rebuild. It’s a subject that came up a bit in my breakdown of what was an wasn’t working in Buffalo’s rebuild. Through the various moves Murray made going back to 2014, he shipped out two more young defensemen than he brought in. While the Sabres are probably better off with Ryan O’Reilly than without him, missing both Nikita Zadorov and Brayden McNabb with no legitimate replacements left the Sabres shorthanded.
I still side with Murray’s decisions to make most of the trades he made. If you gave me a choice of pressing fast forward with aggressive trades for the players he acquired, I would have done the same thing. The depth he lost, particularly in the O’Reilly and Kane trades wouldn’t have been as impactful on Buffalo’s depth issues as you may think. At least not this year. The most valuable assets moved in those trades are still a year or two away from really impacting the upper end of an NHL pipeline, so while the team’s depth was certainly an issue, I don’t think those deals played that big of a role in the problem. If there was anything that hurt the team’s depth this year, it was the lack of help from Buffalo’s drafts between 2010 and 2013. When you combine it with Murray’s quick trigger finger on blockbuster deals, it does lead to a thinned out pipeline. But that’s another debate for another time.
What’s clear is that mistakes were made by Murray. In my opinion, his failure to build the blueline while stocking his top six is the biggest one. Some will argue depth, some argue player evaluation, it’s a moving target. There have even been rumors that he was difficult to work with when it came to evaluating trade offers, perhaps that factored into Buffalo’s lack of action during the season and at the deadline. That very inaction was enough for some to find a new GM.
For me, needing two or possibly three new bodies on the blueline was easily his biggest failing over the past season. After a significant improvement in 2015-16, how Murray managed to bungle that piece of the puzzle will continue to perplex me. He probably wishes he had taken the trade of eight overall for Fowler at this point.
It’s not hard to get to the point where you’d fire both the coach and GM. There’s blood on both of their hands in all of this. Of course, in their never ending quest to make questionable choices, the owners made the firings official one day after a report that Eichel wanted Bylsma gone came to light. So even if Eichel had absolutely nothing to do with the decision, the Pegulas just made their budding superstar a coach and GM killer. Not a good look.
Furthermore, in firing Murray the Pegulas leave themselves at the head of a GM search just weeks from the Vegas Expansion and NHL Drafts. Not only will they be tossing a new GM into those fires, they even leave themselves out of any ongoing negotiations. For example, Minnesota-Duluth defenseman Neal Pionk. The Sabres were rumored to be in on him as he narrows down his NHL suitors, they’re probably out of the running for that extra bit of blueline depth. Viktor Antipin was going to be another piece in Murray’s restructuring of the blueline. Now he is a question mark as well. Remember that gentleman’s agreement with George McPhee? You can probably throw any hope of Vegas taking a hefty contract now. Not without the Sabres giving up a draft pick as a sweetener at least.
Any other offseason changes fall to a new GM regardless of when he was hired, so free agency and draft prep would be a challenge no matter what. But those extenuating circumstances from Murray’s tenure might just be off the table at this point.
My big question is what is your path forward? At the very least, if you hung on to Murray for the summer and into next season you could have seen how his process played out. You would have seen how he approached patching up the roster, how Antipin fit into the plans and how some of his draft picks have matured (something we haven’t really seen). Perhaps you hit next season with a defense corps that actually resembles that of a competitor. If not, you know definitively that it was time to move on from the GM.
The risk there is tossing away another season to see what you have. Similar to the idea keeping Bylsma to start the year, you risk a slow start leaving you to pick up the pieces of a lost year. At some point the Sabres need to move forward, so I understand their reasoning. It just seems a little too reactionary, something that has become par for the course for the Pegulas.
At this point the logical solution seems to be hiring a President of Hockey Operations and allowing them to run the hockey department. Put the owners a step away from the decision making process and find someone with the experience and vision to lead the team forward. Ironically, they probably had that guy back in 2014 before Pat LaFontaine’s unceremonious departure.
By no means should Russ Brandon have any say in what the Sabres are doing and at this point I’d prefer if the Pegulas had a limited role in picking the general manager as well. Select a President of Hockey Ops – exactly who, I don’t know – and let them run the show. It has to be a better way forward than what’s currently happening at One Seymour H Knox III Plaza.