It was three years ago today that Terry Pegula took over as owner of the Buffalo Sabres and broke down at the sight of Gilbert Perreault.
It was also the day when team President Ted Black announced Buffalo should be known as “Hockey Heaven.”
And it was the day Pegula himself unleashed the unforgettable gem that quickly landed on the wall of the Sabres dressing room: “Starting today, the Buffalo Sabres’ reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup.”
And then he talked about the Stanley Cup being a three-year process. Or maybe less.
Three years after Pegula took over, the Sabres have never seemed as far away from touching the Cup as they do now.
With the season resuming Tuesday night, they’re well on their way to finishing last overall for the first time since 1987. In the next 10 days, there’s a good chance they will trade their franchise leader in goaltending victories (Ryan Miller), their captain (Steve Ott) and their best goal scorer (Matt Moulson). The lottery and the chance at the No. 1 draft pick is their only tangible goal coming in April. And winning it next April, when a rare talent like 17-year-old Connor McDavid is available, is probably on the radar too.
But even though this season is a wash – and next year might be too – there’s little doubt about the continued commitment of the organization, from the owner on down, about reaching the goal. The question is how it goes about doing it. And, of course, it’s going to take longer than three years.
Pegula himself admitted that in April, on the day he broke ground for the $172 million HarborCenter project being built in front of First Niagara Center. It wasn’t going to happen in three years.
“I just look at it optimistically. We’ll move forward and do the right thing,” Pegula said. “One team wins the Stanley Cup every year. We will build toward that goal. We’re daily working on that goal.
“I don’t know how long,” Pegula said. “How can you guarantee anybody anything? You do your best every year.”
New leaders, new life
Pegula obviously made a mistake keeping General Manager Darcy Regier after the season and Regier compounded that by retaining overmatched coach Ron Rolston, who had replaced Lindy Ruff in February.
It took until Nov. 13 – with the team at 4-15-1 and the fan base in revolt against the GM – for Pegula to act. Maybe that’s the date that will someday stand out more than Feb. 22, 2011.
Rolston and Regier were out, replaced by Ted Nolan and Pat LaFontaine. Then Tim Murray was brought in last month as general manager and Craig Patrick was added as a special adviser.
The moves haven’t had much impact on the team’s record. But they were huge in the public relations area and in how the organization is perceived, both in Buffalo and around the league.
The fans have much more belief in the leadership’s ability to go after Pegula’s goal. And they have an incredible chance to watch the team build quickly, with 17 first- or second-round picks over a four-year period that includes the last two drafts and next two.
The Sabres can simply use those picks to select players, but the likeliest scenario is some mix of draft and trade of the picks to acquire ready-made NHL talent.
“As frustrated as fans were in October and November, they still understood that the team was going to be rebuilt through the draft and the accumulation of high picks,” Black said in an email exchange with The News this week. “With new leadership overseeing the hockey decisions and draft picks, there exists a strong faith that the franchise will transition from being good ‘sellers’ to being great ‘builders.’ ”
Dollars and no sense
Plenty of Pegula’s spending has made no sense. Ville Leino’s six-year, $27 million contract might rank as the worst free-agent deal in NHL history. Tyler Myers’ $10 million signing bonus and his $38.5 million extension was probably far too much too soon. Brad Boyes was a bust.
The fans wanted an owner who spent money in the wake of Tom Golisano’s tight wallet. They’ve gotten that, but watch out what you ask for. At least so far, it hasn’t meant any success on the ice, but it’s meant a significant jump in ticket prices.
The numbers that Pegula has thrown around are eye-popping. There’s the $199 million he spent to buy the Sabres and the Rochester Americans, the $172 million to build HarborCenter (a number you figure will be higher by the time it opens in the fall) and more than $200 million in player payroll. There are the upgrades in scouting and coaching. The lavish locker room and several projects in the arena itself also get added to the tab.
That’s easily more than $600 million spent by Pegula since he bought the team. All for no playoff series victories.
HarborCenter is a unique use of the owner’s money. Its impact on the NHL operation figures to be negligible at the start other than providing an alternate practice facility – but it’s likely to be huge on the amateur hockey scene. And it could result in plenty of ancillary events coming to Buffalo like the NHL Draft Combine and the 2018 World Junior Championships. It was certainly a factor in USA Hockey entering into a two-year deal for the All-American Prospects Game.
Three years ago, Pegula and his people professed to not be urban land developers. They just wanted to own a hockey team. But they saw a need, seized opportunity and got the project moving at warp speed.
“The speed with which the HarborCenter project is moving from an idea to a one-of-a-kind facility is stunning,” Black wrote. “What is equally remarkable is how the momentum of the project seems to be a tipping point for how Buffalo is viewed from outside and from within.
“USA Hockey and the NHL are openly talking about bringing premier hockey events to our city. Our goal is for every player who makes it to the NHL to have played or trained in Buffalo along the way.”
Money not talking
With all the money he’s put out, Pegula has probably never figured it would be so difficult to win.
It was on Jan. 12, 2012, with his team at 18-19-5 and the man-games lost to injury total nearly piled up to 200, that Pegula made a Humpty Dumpty reference when he told The News, “My attitude now is, ‘Let’s put Humpty back together again.’ ”
He meant to make a run to the playoffs for the third straight season. Instead, the team immediately embarked on perhaps the most disastrous road trip in its history, with five losses in eight days pushing its road losing streak to a franchise-record 12 games.
They missed the playoffs that season, did it again last year and have gotten nowhere this season.
Humpty has never been put back together. Pegula is on his third coach and second general manager since making that statement.
When last season opened after the lockout, Pegula surprised observers by announcing a contract extension for Regier on the eve of the season opener. And there was no rebuilding thought in the works.
“You’ve got to look at every season to try to win the Stanley Cup,” Pegula said at the time. “Since I’ve been owner, I’ve watched two teams [the Los Angeles Kings and Boston Bruins] win the Stanley Cup and both of them took about 40 years to do it.
“It’s not something you win every year as an organization, but I think our team is a lot different than the team I inherited when I bought it. It’s got a new imprint on it, a new mark. It looks like a good hockey team.”
It wasn’t. Just 17 games later, Ruff was out. Before the season was over captain Jason Pominville and veteran defensemen Jordan Leopold and Robyn Regehr were traded. In an interview the week before Ruff was fired, Black said the organizational mandate is to make the playoffs every year. The Sabres, of course, are about to fail to do that for the eighth time in 12 years.
“Looking forward and saying, ‘We’re going to miss the playoffs so many times in the next 10 years’ makes me want to vomit,” Black said at the time. “Our goal needs to be we make the playoffs every year.”
Playoffs or bust
The Sabres can profess the goal is the Stanley Cup, but it really should be to get in the playoffs first. As far as the postseason goes, they are in the netherworld of the NHL.
This is going to be three straight years out of the playoff party, five times in the last seven years and, as noted above, eight times out of 12.
Since the turn of the century, in fact, the only years the Sabres have won a playoff series are 2001, 2006 and 2007.
The Sabres are facing the task of reversing a lot of negative history. And résumés of many other teams show how difficult that can be. Consider some of these examples:
• The Florida Panthers are going to miss the playoffs this year for the 14th time in 16 seasons and haven’t won a series since an utterly fluky run to the Stanley Cup final in 1996. That’s the only time in their 20-year existence they’ve won a single series.
• The Columbus Blue Jackets have failed to qualify in 11 of their 12 previous NHL seasons and didn’t win a game the one time they did (getting swept in 2009 by Detroit).
• The New York Islanders haven’t won a series since 1993, losing seven straight since then. They’ve missed the playoffs in six of the last eight years and are likely to make it seven of nine this year.
• The Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won a series since 2004 – and just broke a seven-season absence from the postseason last spring.
The people running the Sabres aren’t naive. They know teams have struggled for many years to have success in the postseason. They know it’s 44 years and counting for the Sabres to win the Cup. Just last week, the Hockey News listed Buffalo as the NHL’s worst-suffering fan base.
“The goal is to win the Cup for our fans and our city,” Black said. “By including HarborCenter as part of their vision, Terry and Kim Pegula are demonstrating that what was once impossible can be a reality. We will soon have a ‘championship building’ and the commitment behind it will continue to inspire us to build a championship team.”