The Buffalo Sabres finally addressed the calls of critics and fans to fire general manager Darcy Regier and head coach Ron Rolston, but the hiring of Pat Lafontaine as president of hockey operations and the return (albeit on an interim basis) of Ted Nolan as head coach surprised many observers.
At first glance, these hirings seem more about appeasing the fan base than a serious upgrade in the front office and behind the bench for the Sabres.
LaFontaine is a fondly-remembered former Sabre whose previous experience as a team executive was a short-lived stint (six weeks) back in 2006 as the senior adviser to NY Islanders owners Charles Wang, re-signing in protest over the firing of GM Neil Smith.
Nolan is a former NHL coach-of-the-year (1997) who works well with young players on rebuild clubs, as witnessed by his previous tenure with the Sabres, his two-year term with the Islanders from ’06 to ’08, plus coaching the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats to the 2006 Memorial Cup Final. Unfortunately, he also has a reputation (deserved or not) for clashing with management.
Are these two merely placeholders for the Sabres while they pursue a new general manager and head coach? Will LaFontaine be relegated to figurehead status once a new GM is hired? Only time will tell.
In the short term, these hirings merely serve to drive the circus that the Buffalo Sabres became since the summer of 2011.
This is a team whose previous GM, unaccustomed to spending big bucks in the UFA market, invested heavily in Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff back in July 2011, only to see those investments (particularly the oft-injured Leino) fail to pan out.
A team which replaced its long-time head coach midway last season with a guy (Rolston) who, by most accounts, was in over his head.
A team which dragged its feet on the long-overdue replacement of its long-time general manager, allowing him to make important roster decisions throughout last summer and into this season, including the recent trade of Thomas Vanek for Matt Moulson and draft picks.
A team which decides to hire a blast from the past behind the bench and a former star player largely inexperienced in front office duties to head up its hockey operations.
Even die-hard Sabres fans must be feeling their confidence in the organization shaken by now.
The roster, meanwhile, is a mess, winning only four games in its first twenty. Goaltender and pending UFA Ryan Miller could be gone by the March trade deadline if a suitable return can be found. If not, he’ll almost certainly depart via free agency next summer, with fellow UFAs Matt Moulson and Steve Ott following him out the door one way (trade) or the other (free agency).
Can an unskilled LaFontaine be trusted to shop these guys for quality returns before the deadline? Can he find a good executive (maybe Rick Dudley, current working with the Montreal Canadiens) to make these critical moves?
2010 Calder winner Tyler Myers has been mired in a horrendous slump the past two years, looking nothing like the potential Norris contender he was projected to become.
Forwards Cody Hodgson, Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno and Mikhail Grigorenko, expected to form the core of the Sabres offense, have struggled this season, due in part to their mishandling by Rolston. Former 30-goal scorer Drew Stafford remains mired in a two-year slump of his own.
Can Ted Nolan, who last coached in the NHL five years ago, help these guys regain their confidence and get them back on track?
The Sabres are at a crucial point right now. Over the past five years this franchise has been run into the ground by mismanagement and poor spending decisions. They cannot afford further mismanagement.
Many Sabres fans will turn to LaFontaine and Nolan as saviours, willing to seize on any real sign of improvement for this once-proud franchise. The pair will be under tremendous pressure to produce positive results.
If Nolan doesn’t pan out this season, he can simply be replaced if the new GM feels the club needs a better hand behind the bench. LaFontaine, however, will be in his new job for a while and bears the greatest responsibility in finding the right people to properly manage this moribund franchise.
Can LaFontaine and Nolan finally get the Sabres back on the path toward respectability? Or is their hirings merely the continuation of the circus which has made this franchise, which only seven years ago was among the NHL’s best, into a laughingstock?
For their sakes, for the sake of the Sabres, and for their fans, here’s hoping they can turn things around. The NHL is a better league with a competitive Buffalo Sabres franchise.