Updated: Jul 16, 2020
For the past couple weeks, I’ve been working on an analysis of what’s gone wrong for the Buffalo Sabres since their impressive seasons coming out of the 2004-05 missed season. That analysis was going to focus on the hockey operations side – what moves and strategies in the building of the team had failed since those seasons. However, this week’s actions by the Pegula family to fire almost the entire hockey operations staff of the organization caused me to change focus for an initial article – blame for the current disarray has to start at the very top with the Pegulas. Full disclaimer: I have grown up a Sabres fan, but I’ve worked hard to separate my personal wish for them to succeed from the disarray that seems to be rampant.
To start, I think it’s important to recognize that Terry Pegula was initially seen as a savior when he bought the Sabres in 2011. That only increased after he stated the only reason for the Sabres to exist was to win the Stanley Cup. A billionaire buying a team in a hockey-crazed city and immediately stating the goal was a Stanley Cup was sure to garner a long leash from the fan base; a leash that if anything was made longer by the success that the Bills have had in recent years. The fact that he and his wife have managed to reach the end of that leash is a statement to the complete dysfunction within the organization in the decade since the purchase.
The Sabres finished 15th in the NHL and were eliminated in the first round in the playoffs the same year that Pegula completed his purchase of the team – they’ve yet to reach the playoffs since then. Perhaps most concerning has been the seeming lack of a consistent approach or strategy in that time. Darcy Regier’s directive immediately seemed to be to use the Pegula’s money to make the Sabres back into a contender immediately. The result of that? A disastrous Ville Leino contract and two consecutive years of falling further back.
By the beginning of the second full season under Pegula’s leadership, the consensus seemed to be that the Sabres core was never going to get over the hump (though in my opinion the real issue was the lack of strategy in building around them, an area I’ll explore in my future article on their hockey decisions). Regier was fired and replaced by a combination of Pat LaFontaine and Tim Murray. LaFontaine was first, being hired in November 2013 as President of Hockey Operations. Two months later, LaFontaine hired Murray as the General Manager. Looking back, the first signs of the lack of effective leadership by Terry Pegula is what happened next – LaFontaine resigned in March 2014 after disagreements with Murray and who would have final say in hockey decisions.
Murray promptly started the team on a full tank looking towards the Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel draft of 2015. Two additional signs of a lack of sound strategy and leadership came out of that – the Sabres managed to tank and still fail to build depth throughout the system, and they consistently hinted to their fans about the goal of Connor McDavid even though a successful tank came with a 75% chance of landing Eichel instead. These two failings resulted in a fan base that was disappointed in landing a star in Eichel, and would continue to be disappointed when there was a lack of talent around him to build a successful team. Even Murray’s successful moves seemed to come with a downside – he followed up a successful trade for Ryan O’Reilly with a huge extension that included signing bonuses that would make it difficult to move him in the future.
By 2017, the Sabres chose to move on to a new regime again, hiring Jason Botterill to replace Murray. The results since haven’t changed. Botterill was largely seen as a strong hiring for his management of the salary cap, but by this season the Sabres were spending above the cap to still finish outside of the playoffs. The most significant move of his tenure will likely be remembered as his trade of O’Reilly for three pieces that may never make a significant impact in Buffalo – a trade that was hampered by the O’Reilly contract given by Murray, but could have returned more if the Sabres had waited until they had paid O’Reilly’s bonus.
That all brings us to this week, when the Sabres made massive cuts to the Hockey Operations department and fired Botterill. This came three weeks after Kim Pegula had stated the Botterill’s job was safe; the Buffalo News reported that the firing came after he refused to make the massive cuts to the department while keeping his own job.
It’s important at this point to note another portion of Terry Pegula’s statement when he bought the Sabres – that there would be “no financial mandates on the hockey department.” For the most part that’s been true – the Sabres have often been spending up to or above the salary cap. However, it’s impossible to argue this week’s action is anything except a cost-cutting measure. It’s also worth mentioning that the Sabres hockey operations department may have been large, but was certainly not unreasonably so based on reporting from John Vogl.
The Pegula’s cost-cutting in other areas has justifiably come under scrutiny during the COVID-19 pandemic. This started almost as soon as the NHL season was suspended – falling out of sync with the majority of teams, the Pegula’s announced that their seasonal employees would not be paid during the suspension until games were officially cancelled. That was followed by additional furloughs and firings in April, which caused additional concern as they seemed to continue to centralize power within friends and family of the Pegulas.
The firings this week are the latest actions that seem to follow the same logic – billionaire owners firing employees who largely are not well paid in the middle of global pandemic. To add even more to the heartlessness of those actions, it’s been reported that some of the phone calls lasted as little as twenty seconds. It certainly doesn’t help that the earlier actions were accompanied by the leaking of a presentation given to staff that included a goal of the teams being to finance the Pegula’s lifestyle. The goal of winning a Stanley Cup has apparently also changed – Kim Pegula has now stated the goal was to become sustainable and stay in Buffalo.
All of this is taking a place during a time when other teams and leagues are showing us what sports is capable of meaning to society. Marcus Rashford successfully convinced the UK government to provide meals to needy families during the summer school break. Wilfried Zaha provided free housing to health care workers. Arthur Blank donated $5.4M to organizations fighting COVID-19. Teams throughout the Premier League have expressed the importance of unity and are taking the field supporting both NHS workers and the Black Lives Matter movement. All of those show the good that can come from the visibility of athletics, as well as what can be done with the money generated.
The Pegula’s seem to have instead decided to follow the trends of owners demonstrating the worst stereotypes of sports owners and uncaring billionaires who only want to make money. In fairness, many of these owners, including the Pegula’s, have donated to charitable causes during the pandemic. Unfortunately, those actions have too often seemed like the outliers.
Baseball owners have cut a large number of minor leaguers, despite the low pay to begin with. They’ve followed that by consistently leaking their proposals to the players union that attempt to take back even more of the prorated salaries that the players already agreed do. NFL owners are now expressing support for Black Lives Matter now that it presents a financial risk, after years of trying to blackball any player who protested. Too many owners, especially those in American sports, have acted in financial interest only while acting as though somehow owning a sports franchise should never represent even a temporary risk of losing money. They continue to do that while emphasizing the importance they have in society and working with the government to get any special treatment they could possibly be given.
It’s unfortunate that the Pegula family seems to have chosen this trend with the Sabres and are now prioritizing profit over anything else. That’s even more disappointing after the promises Terry Pegula made after buying the team, and the fact that the mindset seems to have only changed because of the lack of leadership and sound strategy driving the organization. The Bills have chosen what can happen if the Pegula’s get out of the way and allow those they hire to develop a sound process and strategy.
At this point, it’s hard to imagine the family stepping back enough to allow the Sabres and any management they hire the same freedom. Instead, they seem focused on cutting costs and surrounding themselves with those that will only agree with their directives. If that doesn’t change dramatically, I can’t imagine the Sabres being successful with the Pegula family still in charge.
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