On the surface, it’s an easy sell when you add up simple facts and ignore history. That’s how the Sabres have operated for years, which is how Darcy Regier remains at his post no matter how many times his teams miss the playoffs, no matter how many gullible owners swallow his nonsense.
The Sabres are rebuilding. That’s actually true. They traded captain Jason Pominville. Franchise goalie Ryan Miller has his house up for sale. Leading scorer Thomas Vanek has his bags packed. Management is planning to find their replacements and structure a foundation through the draft.
Ron Rolston’s resume outlines a man dedicated to developing young players. He became the first coach in USA Hockey history to lead three under-18 teams to the gold medal in the world championships. He had a winning record after taking over for Lindy Ruff last season. All of that happens to be true, too.
Of course, there’s a difference between what’s true and what’s right when it comes to professional sports. Therein lies the problem of Rolston remaining the Sabres’ coach as part of Regier’s genius master plan. This isn’t Slap Shot Camp. The last time I checked, the Sabres played in the National Hockey League. Fans are spending good money, big money, with the idea their favorite teams are doing whatever they can to succeed in the best league in the world.
The objective isn’t developing players.
Let’s not kid ourselves. There was nothing “interim” about his job title when he signed a multiyear deal in February. He was the guy all along. This is nothing against Rolston, really, but retaining him without completing an exhaustive search goes to the heart of what’s wrong with an organization that’s bent on taking the easy way out.
In two-plus years since Terry Pegula purchased the franchise, management took a team that was a few players away from becoming a Stanley Cup contender and turned it into a small-time operation. They keep selling, and people keep buying whether it’s ownership or an apologetic minority of the fan base or, in this case, both.
The Sabres already jacked up ticket prices after missing the playoffs last season for the second consecutive season and the fourth time in six years. They retained a general manager to clean up a mess he created. And they’re asking fans to pay major-league prices for minor-league hockey, as if they haven’t suffered enough.
Shame on them or shame on you?
Regier isn’t fooling anyone who has a shred of common sense and certainly not anyone inside the game based on hundreds – yes, hundreds – of conversations I’ve had with current and former players and employees. It’s sad they don’t publicly speak up for the sake of change because, really, at one point does it all become insufferable?
It’s a question for Pegula. Good luck getting any real answers out of him.
Pegula should know that Regier had options before keeping Rolston. He could have sent Rolston back to Rochester, thereby making best use of his teaching ability. He could have waited until the playoffs ended to see if any good candidates became available.
You never know what might happen between now and next season. The Rangers could fire John Tortorella, for example, if they get bounced from the first round. Or maybe Alain Vigneault will be kicked to the curb in Vancouver. Coaches are replaced often in other cities, a concept that has been foreign in Buffalo no matter how much the need for change.
There are good, young coaches out there who have good reputations and are ready for the NHL. Toronto Marlies coach Dallas Eakins is considered among the better up-and-comers. Mike Haviland, now in Norfolk, is widely respected. Patrick Roy was another possibility. Something tells me the Sabres didn’t bother calling them.
Looking for someone older with more experience? Former coaches like Marc Crawford and Ron Wilson are available, the way Ken Hitchcock was a few years ago. Or how about Craig Ramsay, who is known for helping players at the NHL level? It wasn’t as if Regier had to worry about teams lining up to steal Rolston away.
Regier instead chose the path of least resistance because that’s what he does. When his decisions fail to work out, he revises history, convinces his bosses that it wasn’t his fault and makes a plea for patience. He talks about making players accountable without being held to the same standard. He takes advantage of naive owners.
In turn, they allow the practice to continue. Shame on Regier or shame on them?
You would think that Pegula was aware that Rolston wasn’t even a finalist for the Penn State job. Rolston wanted the gig but was politely turned away and landed, of all places, in the Sabres’ organization. Two years after joining the professional ranks for the first time in his career, he’s now the Sabres’ head coach.
And now Regier has Rolston precisely where he needs him. Rolston will forever be indebted to Regier for giving him an opportunity when nobody else would. Little does Rolston know that he’s setting himself up to be fired after Regier fails to give him the proper personnel and starts looking for a fall guy.
The decision to keep Rolston was another layer of the same-old, same-old ways of thinking that have led this organization nowhere. Regier made sure he didn’t hire a coach with a strong personality who might actually challenge him. Instead, he wrapped a extra blanket of insulation around him.
Although predictable, Regier never ceases to amaze me.
It shouldn’t be long before he says Rolston was his man all along, you know, going back to the Paul Gaustad trade last year. For him to suggest the Sabres’ rebuilding plan started during the 2011-12 season was an insult to the intelligence of anyone who has watched his work for the past 16 years – and counting.
If the Sabres were rebuilding, Mikail Grigorenko would have been playing 16 minutes per game right away. He wouldn’t have been sent back to junior. He would have certainly played immediately upon his return. After all, given Rolston’s credentials, Grigorenko would have been in good hands in Buffalo, right?
And so we’re clear, Jochen Hecht was re-signed last summer as part of the master rebuilding plan, too, and not because Regier made a desperate and ill-fated attempt to find a center. Forget that Hecht’s best days were long gone or that the Sabres needed major upgrades. Are Vanek, Miller and Drew Stafford part of the rebuilding plan? I notice that all three, once part of an untouchable core, are still here.
Regier is trying to relieve pressure with the idea that fans and the bloodthirsty media, their term, will be slow to criticize young players because, well, they’re just kids. I don’t own kid gloves. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 19-year-old player or an inexperienced coach. This is the NHL, where only wins and losses matter.
The master plan, you see, is not rebuilding so much as lowering the standards, making them easier to attain and selling it off as achievement. After 16 years, a good decade after the Sabres should have fired him, Regier is adding up simple facts, ignoring history and trying to buy more time.
It’s true. But it’s not right.