The Sabres played their first NHL game in October 1970, and this past week, nearly a half-century later, they were rendered NHL expansion fodder, albeit with Jack Eichel in residence as a proven five-year stud.
Eichel, the former Boston University standout from North Chelmsford, is Buffalo’s 23-year-old franchise centerpiece, an exceptional place to begin a reboot. So, yes, things could be worse.
Truth is, Eichel’s experience (354 games/337 points) is more than the Sabres could boast a half-century ago when they took flight with newbie 19-year-old Gil Perreault, just weeks removed from being the first pick in the ’70 draft, tagged with the “franchise” label and backed up by the expansion-refuse likes of Phil Goyette and Don Marshall.
But beyond the legitimate like about Eichel, Tuesday’s abrupt purge by owners Terry and Kim Pegula has left their newly anointed general manager, Kevyn Adams, scrambling to cobble together a hockey operations and scouting department. Adams’s first-day assignment was to fire just about everyone other than the Zamboni driver and backup stickboy.
The makeover would be a tall enough order for a proven GM with, say, 5-8 years of experience as the man calling the shots. Adams, 45, is engaging and bright, two of the qualities that led team president Kim Pegula to put him on the job, only three weeks after she told the AP’s John Wawrow that Jason Botterill would be back for a fourth season as GM.
Seems like a capricious bounce of the puck, doesn’t it? What we don’t know about Adams is whether he truly can assess NHL talent. That’s the key to the job. Everything else is second to knowing who can play the game. If that sounds simplistic, it is, and simply too many GMs and scouting staffs get it wrong over and over and over again.
Adams was the Bruins’ first-round pick in 1993 (25th overall). He is, again, first and foremost a rookie, yet even to know what he doesn’t know about identifying legit NHL talent and composing and running a franchise with an $80-something million salary cap. To say nothing of all the baggage that comes with a franchise that now has posted a DNQ for nine consecutive playoff seasons — and 11 of the last 13 seasons. Brutal.
Expansion franchises, all sports, begin play with the luxury of a ready-made fan base with zero expectations. Everyone is just happy to be there, with a team to have and to hold. Sure, it may take years to reach the playoffs (witness: the first eight years of the sad-sack Washington Capitals), but that’s all future pain, and there’s often a community bonding among the loyal souls who can say they were there from the start when/if the good days arrive. It’s almost romantic for some. They bought into the penny stock that paid off.
That’s not the case in 2020 Buffalo. Loyal followers of the dulled Sword are fed up, their love and wallets beaten thin, and left to deride Terry Pegula’s February 2011 pronouncement: “Starting today, the Buffalo Sabres’ reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup.”
The Sabres were bounced in Round 1 of the postseason that spring and have not returned. They are 0 for 9 seasons in Pegulaville, leading to the most recent urge to purge.
Adams is the third GM hire since the Pegulas took ownership (team and arena cost: a reported $189 million) in February 2011. Holdover GM Darcy Regier was bounced in November 2013. Then came Tim Murray (three years). Then came Botterill (three years). Adams, previously the VP of business operations, was promoted, no other candidates vetted.
Common denominator: All three hires came with zero GM experience. Sure, everyone seeks consistency, but c’mon . . .
As for coaching, Lindy Ruff was behind the bench (with Adams a first-year assistant) when the Pegulas bought the franchise from Tom Golisano. Then came Ron Rolston. Then came the Ted Nolan redux tour. Then came Dan Bylsma. Then came Phil Housley. Then came Ralph Krueger.
Totals: three GM hires and five coaching hires in less than 10 years. Oh, and let us not forget that Western New York icon Pat LaFontaine was hired as president of hockey ops in November 2013 and packed up after four months, his vision of how to structure a team rumored not to align with that of Kim Pegula.
Bruins fans with long memories, and deeper scars, no doubt remember the Bruins posted eight straight playoff DNQs, 1960-67, the last of those occurring with wunderkind Bobby Orr in rookie coach Harry Sinden’s lineup. One way to end the DNQ misery: plug the game’s greatest defenseman into the lineup and alert the box office to prepare the cash registers.
In some ways, the Bruins’ run of futility, though a year shorter, was worse. It was a six-team NHL back then. The sons of Milt Schmidt only had to be better than two other teams to make the playoffs in those years. The Sabres must beat out seven other teams to be among the eight seeds in the East. Tougher odds.
Before Sinden was hired to take over in 1966-67, Schmidt was the lone bench boss, other than Phil Watson’s season-plus, for seven seasons of that stretch. Lynn Patrick was the GM for most of it, followed by Hap Emms for the last two years, before Schmidt assumed GM duties for the start of the 1967-68 season.
So, OK, losing begets change, be it here in the Hub of Hockey or anywhere else. In Buffalo, though, the Pegulas look rudderless, their billions allowing them to make nearly a decade’s worth of abrupt, impetuous changes that now have them saying they want to run a leaner, more streamlined, more fiscally prudent franchise. All of that three weeks after a public vote of confidence for Botterill as GM, whose most damning faux pas was dealing away Ryan O’Reilly, the perfect support partner for Eichel. That’s the same O’Reilly, by the way, who was MVP of last season’s playoffs.
There is no quick fix here for the new-age expansion Sabres. It will grow even worse if Eichel, who recently stated he is fed up with losing, has the joy of the game sucked from his bones amid continued futility.
The French Connection is not walking through that door. And even if they were, they wouldn’t last long enough to make a difference.
GROW THE GAME
Fun honor for Lexington’s Manz
Longtime Lexington resident Hank Manz, 78, learned this month that he was chosen as this year’s William Thayer Tutt Award winner — USA Hockey’s top honor bestowed on volunteers.
Since the mid-1990s, Manz has overseen the Lexington-Bedford Youth Hockey in-house program, for kids ages 5-10, which some years has had as many as 16 teams and 200-plus skaters.
The emphasis, according to Manz: fun.
“You can play with your brothers and sisters,” said Manz, who grew in New Haven and moved to Lexington in the mid-1980s. “For about one-third of our players, it’s a starter program. Some of them can barely skate. Then about one-third are very good players. And then a bunch of kids in the middle.”
Lo and behold, it all works, the ages and skill levels blended into a two-edged melting pot that often has kids sticking with the program for all their years of eligibility, including those who also augment their seasons with travel hockey. It’s an organized form of town hockey, reminiscent of a time decades ago, before indoor rinks, when outdoor ice brought together all ages and skills . . . and somehow it all worked.
“Years ago, several of us were trying to figure out why so many of the kids who were good hockey players continued to play in-house,” noted Manz. “We got a bunch of them together, had soft drinks and pizza for them. This one kid asked why they were there. And I said, ‘Well, we want to find out why you guys play in the in-house program.’ ”
The young player, said Manz, cast him a look that said, “Well, another stupid adult asking dumb questions.”
After a short pause, the youngster said, “Hank, it’s fun.”
“So we emphasize,” said Manz, who was also a town selectman for nine years, “that it’s a program you can play with your brothers and sisters and you play with a whole range of kids.”
William Thayer Tutt was USA Hockey president 1972-86, years that included the historic Team USA Olympic gold medal triumph at Lake Placid. For decades, building the game at the grassroots level has been a central point of organization’s mantra.
Programs such as LBYH’s 16-week in-house program are among those that try to encourage kids to take up the game, and also help them avoid burnout.
“Most of our kids are very long term,” said Manz. “Did we have a grand plan along the way? No. But I’ve always enjoyed sports where there was at least a little friendliness to it. I don’t like leagues that emphasize, you know, we’re here to win games. I really want kids to have fun. If you win games because of it, and you get to be a great hockey player, fantastic. But I think the point is to enjoy what you do, get better, learn something . . . and it turns out, along the way, that tends to increase your interest in whatever you are doing, sports or school or whatever.”
Waiting for call on hockey hubs
The NHL and the players’ union announced their ambitious return-to-play hopes May 26, which will be one month ago as of Friday. Yet, as the weekend approached, they still hadn’t divulged the locations of the two hub cities that will act as conference bubble sites during the ongoing pandemic.
Las Vegas, which reopened its casino doors on June 4, has been a presumptive favorite, a virtual fait accompli, to be the western hub. At least that has been the buzz around the T-Mobile Center, home of the Golden Knights, the last 2-3 weeks.
But the league and union have remained mum on the subject. They’ve been monitoring whether COVID-19 rates spike in the desert now that Sin City is back in business. But with a late-July move-in date anticipated for the start of the playoffs, plans for such a large movable feast need to be finalized.
The great advantage playing in Vegas’s favor: a massive stock of hotel rooms, the arena itself tucked directly behind the sprawling New York-New York Hotel & Casino.
There has been no presumptive favorite in the East, and the hub could end up more in the Midwest, be it, say, Columbus or Chicago. If players are allowed to mingle among the public during their stay, cities such as Chicago or Toronto would win their favor ahead of Columbus. If they’re forced to sequester in rink and hotel, then it’s all Altoona.
The league was still talking with some of the teams in would-be locations as late as Friday afternoon. An announcement could come early this coming week, at least to winnow the original list, which was upward of 10 cities, down to the four finalists (COVID-19 permitting).
Losing track of technology
The league’s long-anticipated rollout of its Puck & Player Tracking System, announced with considerable fanfare during All-Star Weekend in January 2019, will not come with the resumption of play this summer. At least not at the start.
So yet another coronavirus-related fly in the ointment. P&PTS was to be in full flight for the postseason.
Per the league office in New York, shuttered rinks across the Original 31 since early March meant the critical installation work of the system’s data infrastructure was interrupted. It had been completed in 26 arenas.
Another issue: the on-site staffing required to run all the bells and whistles. The league and union have been adamant about limiting the number of bodies inside each of the two hub arenas, which will play host initially to 12 teams at each site. Fewer gadgets, fewer personnel, fewer potential contact issues.
It’s possible, according to a league spokesperson, that the system will be integrated and operational as the postseason evolves. No doubt everyone involved, especially fans eager to see how the system might interface with legalized betting, would like to see it used for the Stanley Cup Final, currently and tentatively scheduled to begin approximately Oct. 1 (all dates flexible).
Iginla the class of the group
The league’s original plan had all 30 teams arriving in Montreal this coming week, some as early as Sunday, for the entry draft — to be known as the 2020 Alexis Lafreniere draft.
Like most everything else, the event was scrapped with no rescheduling date chosen. It will be held, likely in virtual form, some 2-3 weeks following the completion of the Cup Final.
Meanwhile, the Hockey Hall of Fame, which closed its doors in Toronto on March 14, will announce its 2020 class Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. We will actually have some real hockey news to discuss, even celebrate. Announcement day is often lost in a summer haze. Not this time.
Short-time Bruin Jarome Iginla heads up the class of those who are eligible for the first time — now that he’s been out of the game for three years. Iggy, with 625 goals and 1,300 points, was a slam dunk — even before he moved his family to the Hub of Hockey in his retirement.
Unlike years past, the Hall’s 18 voting members will not convene in Toronto to debate the candidates. As TSN’s Frank Seravalli noted this past week, ex-players and voting members Jari Kurri, Anders Hedberg, and Igor Larionov live overseas, making their presence in Toronto impractical, if not impossible.
Instead, with John Davidson acting as moderator, all voters will gather by conference call Wednesday, present their cases, and cast their secret ballots. The induction class can be no bigger than eight, including six players (four male; two female). The other two can be in the builder’s category, or one builder and one member of the referee/linesmen crew.
Induction weekend in Toronto remains Nov. 14-16, but like everything else, it could get bumped. If so, it’s possible the classes of 2020 and 2021 will skate together into the hallowed hall of the immortals.
Where is the Bruins’ Hall of Fame?
The Bruins are closing in on the 100th anniversary or their inaugural NHL season (1924-25). For a franchise with such a rich history, and one so keen on maximizing revenue streams, it remains a great mystery why it still does not have a Hall of Fame on its Causeway Street premises.
Many of the legendary characters, such as Eddie Shore and Lionel Hitchman, are long gone. But there are some great names still with us — including Harry Sinden, Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, and Gerry Cheevers, to name just four — and they’re all long overdue spots in the hometown hall. All four have been enshrined in Toronto.
The $100 million “Legendary Transformation” of the Garden is all but complete, and yet, no Bruins Hall of Fame. Makes zero sense on myriad levels, but especially in a city that reveres history and hockey. Must have been the same design committee that chose to refit the joint with thousands of seats too narrow and too uncomfortable actually to sit in and watch a game.
Forty years ago this June: Barry Pederson chosen first round, No. 18 overall, by the Bruins. And 34 years ago this June: Pederson shipped home to British Columbia in the swap with the Canucks for Cam Neely and the first-round draft pick that became Glen Wesley . . . Kevyn Adams, the new GM in Buffalo, never signed with the Bruins after being selected in 1993. He eventually won the Cup with Peter Laviollete’s 2005-06 Hurricanes. He was a free agent out of Miami University (Sean Kuraly’s alma mater) in 1996 and turned pro with the Maple Leafs. His other ports of call included: Columbus, Florida, Phoenix, and Chicago . . . Ryan Reaves, 33 and due to be an unrestricted free agent, re-upped for two more years with the Golden Knights at an average $1.75 million. It’s a step back from the cap hit of $2.775 million he carried there the last two seasons . . . The Islanders are expected to move into their new arena aside Belmont Park for the 2021-22 season. Meanwhile, Nassau Coliseum is closed and up for sale, according to Bloomberg News. It’s possible, if no one steps up to buy it, or assume the $100 million in debt, the Fish Sticks next season will be forced back to Brooklyn to play all games at the ill-suited Barclays Center.