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Sunday Hockey Notes

New GM Tim Murray can elevate the Sabres

As Tim Murray noted during his introductory news conference at the First Niagara Center, Buffalo is the worst team in the league.

AP Photo/The Buffalo News/Harry Scull Jr.

As Tim Murray noted during his introductory news conference at the First Niagara Center, Buffalo is the worst team in the league.

That a 71-year-old NHL general manager is envious of his nephew could qualify as inappropriate.

But on Thursday, Bryan Murray watched 50-year-old nephew Tim Murray accept a position with many more benefits than the one he holds in Ottawa.

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Bryan Murray works for an organization that must monitor its budget. The team plays in an isolated rink west of downtown Ottawa. The fans are quick to stay home when the Senators don’t play well. The Senators are without a 2014 first-round pick, which they ceded to Anaheim in the offseason trade for Bobby Ryan.

Tim Murray has none of these problems.

As Murray noted during his introductory news conference at the First Niagara Center, Buffalo is the worst team in the league. The Sabres might have to say goodbye to Ryan Miller, their franchise goalie, who will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. They have two millstone contracts in Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff that could pull down an aircraft carrier.

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The Sabres have been wretched in this punchline of a season. Lowlights include the preseason sideshow against Toronto involving ex-coach Ron Rolston and John Scott, the sacking of Rolston and GM Darcy Regier, and a spitball offense that couldn’t find the net with Google Maps.

But there is plenty of promise in Buffalo. Owner Terry Pegula can spend to the ceiling. The arena is a central piece in the HarborCenter project, a parcel of real estate that could reenergize downtown Buffalo. The Sabres have a beaten-down but exuberant fan base that spreads east toward Rochester and west into southern Ontario. Buffalo has two first-round picks: its own, plus the one it nabbed from the Islanders in the Thomas Vanek-Matt Moulson swap. There’s a good chance the Sabres could hold two of the top five picks in 2014.

“The cupboard is not bare,” Murray said.

Murray now has less than two months to determine whether that cupboard should retain its most important piece.

Miller is in a position of power. Like he was in the last Olympic year, Miller has been one of the world’s best goalies. He has a no-trade clause. Miller is two years older than Henrik Lundqvist. But Miller’s next contract will be in Lundqvist’s range: seven years, $59.5 million.

The lifelong Sabre — Buffalo picked Miller in the fifth round in 1999 — can retire in the only town he’s known if he chooses to return. Like any smart GM, Murray knows the most important player wears a mask. Jhonas Enroth, Miller’s backup, is not an ace. Murray would have to part with his best assets (picks and prospects) to acquire a goalie comparable to Miller. Miller could ask for the Anchor Bar’s secret wing recipe, and Murray would make it happen.

It is up to Miller, though, to evaluate how long it will take for Murray to rebuild the roster. If Miller believes his other potential landing spots are closer to winning (St. Louis, New York Islanders, Florida, Calgary, Edmonton need aces) and can fatten his bank account even more, it is his right to walk and test the market. This is Miller’s last crack at improving his Stanley Cup chances and landing a major score. Once Murray determines Miller’s wishes, he must act rapidly to sign or trade the goalie. The Sabres cannot allow Miller to walk for nothing. Either way, it will be a franchise-defining transaction.

“I believe I’m a fairly aggressive guy,” Murray said. “I’m not afraid to make a mistake. I think that’s the key thing.”

There is no rush for Murray to make his other important decision. When Pat LaFontaine became president of hockey operations, he hired Ted Nolan as interim coach. At the time, LaFontaine said that Nolan and his assistants would finish out the 2013-14 season. Pledges can be broken, but there is no urgency for that to happen. Entering the weekend, the Sabres were 8-11-4 under Nolan.

“I’m going to come in here, try to establish a relationship with Ted and the coaching staff, and get to know him,” Murray said. “He’s the coach right now. Whatever happens going forward will determine everything else. There are no preconceived notions.”

It’s a good bet, though, that Nolan will not be Murray’s permanent man. Hiring the right coach is Murray’s most significant move, even more than determining how to proceed with Miller. Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli, also a former Ottawa assistant, classified hiring coach Claude Julien — and dismissing Dave Lewis one season into a four-year deal — as the best move he’s made.

Other GMs have made tough calls on coaches. Pittsburgh’s Ray Shero replaced Michel Therrien with Dan Bylsma. Los Angeles’s Dean Lombardi fired Terry Murray and replaced him with Darryl Sutter. Both teams won the Stanley Cup. The Penguins and Kings are chasing rings again this season. Anaheim, St. Louis, and Tampa Bay are other Cup hopefuls. Their respective GMs (Bob Murray, Doug Armstrong, Steve Yzerman) fired coaches (Randy Carlyle, Davis Payne, Guy Boucher) and replaced them with better fits (Bruce Boudreau, Ken Hitchcock, Jon Cooper).

If Murray lets Nolan go, he could tab Luke Richardson, currently coaching Binghamton, Ottawa’s AHL affiliate. Peter Laviolette could get a look. More coaches could become available by the end of the season.

Murray has a pedigree of good decisions in player personnel. He was part of the team that drafted Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in Anaheim. He helped pick Erik Karlsson in Ottawa. Murray is a scouting junkie, one who’s traveled thousands of miles in his car and probably slept in his back seat, too. But Murray has to get his two biggest decisions right. They’ll determine the trajectory of Buffalo’s rebuild.

SOFT LANDING

For opponents, Jets are path of least resistance

Any team that sees the logo of a gray jet atop a red maple leaf on its upcoming calendar can be very happy. There is no easier team to play against than Winnipeg.

The Jets entered the weekend on a four-game losing streak. They most likely will not make the playoffs for the third straight year since their relocation from Atlanta. There is no doubting the Jets’ skill, from their first line of Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little, and Blake Wheeler, to their stacked defense that includes Dustin Byfuglien, Zach Bogosian, and Jacob Trouba. But none of Winnipeg’s best players offers anything in terms of resistance when opponents flex their muscles.

It is GM’s Kevin Cheveldayoff’s mandate to improve Winnipeg’s goaltending. Ondrej Pavelec is under contract for three more seasons, but the 26-year-old Pavelec is showing no signs of changing who he is: an up-and-down goalie who undermines the three saves he shouldn’t make with the one stop he should. Winnipeg’s identity is high-tempo, offense-first skill. Mistakes will happen in those types of systems. Pavelec isn’t good enough to negate them. There are goaltending options. The Ducks have four between Anaheim and Norfolk: Jonas Hiller, Viktor Fasth, Frederik Anderssen, and John Gibson. Jonathan Quick isn’t going anywhere, but the Kings also have Ben Scrivens, Martin Jones, and Jean-Francois Berube. Those are two trade partners that Winnipeg must target to improve its goaltending. If it requires parting with a core player, whether it’s Wheeler, or Byfuglien or Evander Kane, so be it. Because so far, it’s not working in Winnipeg.

ETC.

Big-time attendance, ratings at Big House

Everything went right for the NHL on Jan. 1. After the Winter Classic was lost in 2013 because of the lockout, the outdoor game roared back in Ann Arbor at Michigan Stadium: Maple Leafs-Red Wings, snow, shootout.

Attendance was a record-setting 105,491 fans. Even with only one American team, the game drew an average of 4.4 million viewers on NBC. Combining Canadian viewers on CBC and RDS, the average North American viewership was 8.234 million. The previous North American high was 6.6 million for the 2011 Winter Classic at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, which was held in primetime because of a weather delay.

The NHL will try to claim some more outdoor buzz with its upcoming games at Dodger Stadium (Ducks-Kings), Yankee Stadium (Devils-Rangers), Soldier Field (Penguins-Blackhawks), and BC Place (Senators-Canucks). They will not have the appeal of the New Year’s Day game, which is, and should remain, the centerpiece.

Washington will host next year’s Winter Classic. It might be a letdown after this season’s hit.

But future Classics could rebound with the right locations and matchups. For example, Canadiens-Bruins at Gillette Stadium, Kings-Canucks at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, Wild-Stars at Arlington’s AT&T Stadium. This year’s Classic proved the NHL can do big when it thinks big.

Clear signal from television

Like most other federations, USA Hockey could have waited until Tuesday to announce its Olympic team. Instead, the Americans released theirs Jan. 1 following the Winter Classic. USA Hockey and NBC had committed to that date. The network did not want to lose its postgame draw. USA Hockey also elected not to inform its players — the lucky ones who made it and the unfortunate ones who didn’t — prior to the announcement. Like everyone else, the players found out via television, which underscores NBC’s influence. Given how much control USA Hockey ceded to NBC, expect major quid pro quo in Sochi next month. NBC always emphasizes red, white, and blue in its Olympic coverage, regardless of whether it’s on the ski jumps or bobsled track. It will be no different at the rink.

Lidstrom had an effect in Sweden

Victor Hedman is Tampa Bay’s leading blue-line scorer and second in ice time per game to Matt Carle. Carl Gunnarsson is Dion Phaneuf’s top-pairing partner in Toronto. In Minnesota, only Ryan Suter is ahead of Jonas Brodin in playing time per game. Yet all three defensemen failed to make Sweden’s Olympic roster on Tuesday. The eight that earned the nod (Alexander Edler, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jonathan Ericsson, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Erik Karlsson, Niklas Kronwall, Johnny Oduya, and Henrik Tallinder) make up arguably the best blue line in Sochi. The Swedes will be without four-time Olympian Nicklas Lidstrom, who helped his country win gold in 2006 in Turin. But the Lidstrom Effect is touching Sweden’s roster as indicated by the blue-line depth. Like Patrick Roy did for French-Canadian goalies, Lidstrom, one of the best defensemen in NHL history, made it cool to play defense in Sweden. That will continue. Hampus Lindholm, Adam Larsson, and Oscar Klefbom are the next young Swedish defensemen in line to follow Lidstrom’s lead.

Doan back leading the way

Shane Doan, unavailable for a month because of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, returned to the Coyotes Jan. 4. Doan was a most welcome presence for the Coyotes, who went 4-3-5 without their captain. Despite his illness, Doan has 13 goals, one of six Phoenix players with 10 or more strikes. In his first game back against the Flyers, Doan’s public approval of a teammate’s actions showed why he’s among the league’s most well-respected captains. In the second period, Paul Bissonnette tangled with Jay Rosehill in front of the Phoenix bench. As the fight concluded, Doan reached over the boards and pounded Bissonnette’s back with a flurry of attaboys.

Blues have been built the right way

It was no surprise that Hockey Canada tabbed St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong to join counterparts Steve Yzerman, Peter Chiarelli, Ken Holland, Kevin Lowe, and Dave Nonis to assemble its Olympic team. Since July 1, 2010, when Armstrong assumed the wheel in St. Louis, the Blues have developed into one of the NHL’s most fearsome teams. Armstrong hit on two major deals. First, he acquired Kevin Shattenkirk, Chris Stewart, and a 2011 second-round pick (Ty Rattie) from Colorado for Erik Johnson, Jay McClement, and a 2011 first-rounder (Duncan Siemens). Shattenkirk made the US Olympic team over Johnson. Second, Armstrong stole Jay Bouwmeester from Calgary for Mark Cundari, Reto Berra, and a 2013 first-round pick (Emile Poirier). Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo are among the league’s best defensive pairings. But St. Louis built its core (Pietrangelo, David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Jaden Schwartz) through the draft, when former GM Larry Pleau was at the helm. Good drafting and smart trades (the Blues acquired Alexander Steen, Jaroslav Halak, and Vladimir Sobotka under Pleau’s watch) were more important than complementary signings (Derek Roy, Brenden Morrow, Maxim Lapierre).

Glavine may have had what it takes

The book on the Billerica High forward was that he was highly skilled but not a very good skater. In hindsight, Tom Glavine’s subpar skating did not hurt him in the profession he ultimately chose. Glavine, named to baseball’s Hall of Fame on Wednesday, was picked 69th overall by Los Angeles in the 1984 NHL draft. That year, future hockey Hall of Famers Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille had to wait longer than Glavine to be selected. “Tom might have had a reasonable chance despite some perceived skating issues,” former NHL scout Gary Eggleston wrote in an e-mail. “He was very smart, had excellent hands, anticipated and competed very well, and had very good vision.” Eggleston recalled that in his draft year, Glavine’s Billerica team played several memorable games against Lowell and future NHLer Jon Morris. One round after LA picked Glavine, New Jersey drafted Morris, who played four seasons at UMass-Lowell. Morris played in 103 NHL games, including four with the Bruins in 1993-94. So it’s possible Glavine could have made the NHL. But it’s doubtful Glavine could have been one of the best at his position like he became with the Atlanta Braves.

Loose pucks

Mathieu Perreault scored two of Anaheim’s five goals in the Ducks’ 5-2 win over the Bruins on Tuesday. Between Anaheim and Washington, Perreault has six career goals in eight games against the Bruins. Perreault is the kind of player — small, shifty, clever — who has always given the Bruins problems . . . Bowling Green defenseman Ralfs Freibergs will play for Latvia in the Olympics. The sophomore will be the first NCAA player to compete in the Winter Games since 2002, when Thomas Pock (UMass), Yorick Treille (UMass-Lowell), Laurent Meunier (UMass-Lowell), and Baptiste Amar (UMass-Lowell) played in Salt Lake City . . . Bruins assistant GM Jim Benning is not in the running to replace Jay Feaster in Calgary . . . Congratulations to former linemate Kevin Paul Dupont and Bruins radio voice Dave Goucher for winning Massachusetts Sportswriter and Sportscaster of the Year awards. Their talent and good charm make their work online, in print, and on the air the best in the business.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.
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