It took no more than 10 days to arrive at a decision that could alter the course of a hapless franchise for better or worse for the next decade or longer.
Pat LaFontaine was only a few months into his new gig within the cozy confines of the National Hockey League offices. Terry Pegula was searching for a solution, any solution, to right the misguided master plan for his Buffalo Sabres that had gone terribly awry.
Their paths crossed for the first time a few weeks back in Florida, where LaFontaine was attending a concussions seminar not far from the billionaire's home. The two met for dinner. And then on Pegula’s yacht, where he presumably popped the question to the Hall of Famer.
“He said to me, ‘I want you to be the next general manager,’” LaFontaine told the media horde gathered inside First Niagara Center on Wednesday following one of the biggest announcements in Sabres franchise history.
Pegula, with his team hopelessly situated in last place with a 4-15-1 record, finally quelled the tempers of suffering Sabres fans by firing the general manager of 17 years, Darcy Regier, and novice head coach Ron Rolston.
As the newly appointed president of hockey operations, LaFontaine reached further into the nostalgia bin and pulled out former coach of the year Ted Nolan to assume head coaching duties on the interim.
As far as anyone can tell, especially in the short term, the Sabres got this one right, right down to Nolan’s interim tag.
LaFontaine is highly regarded around the league and will serve as a radiant face of the franchise. He becomes the latest in a growing trend of teams turning to all-time greats for rejuvenation, a la Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy in Colorado or Steve Yzerman in Tampa Bay.
But for as much as LaFontaine is lauded for his people skills and hockey intellect, he has virtually zero credibility in the professional track record department, having only worked briefly with the New York Islanders.
He now faces the first step in what will continue to be a long and arduous rebuilding process in identifying the Sabres’ next general manager. From there, the new GM will be tasked with making the right choices with all the draft presents left behind by Regier, not to mention trading franchise goalie Ryan Miller.
Time will tell how this plays out in the long run.
After all, it’s not too difficult to earn high marks for swapping a much-maligned GM for one of the most beloved figures in franchise history during a time of turmoil.
And if these past three or so years have taught anyone anything, hasn’t it become obvious that Pegula shouldn’t be as involved in fulfilling his Cup promise as he would like?
What makes this decision any different than his errant choice to entrust Regier and cohort Lindy Ruff from the beginning instead of cleaning out an ineffective front office? Or to sign Ville Leino?
Why was the general manager fired just days after being allowed to trade the team’s best player?
For nearly three years now, Pegula, and, by extension, the entire Sabres organization, has been flying by the seat of their pants. It’s as though Pegula wakes up any given morning and, on a whim, decides on a direction he feels is best.
Where is the plan? Does he really have any clue how to build a Cup winning team?
Has he ever?
Pegula is a great guy, the kind of man you would love as father-in-law. He’s exceptional with his employees and has transformed the Sabres into a community pillar.
No one should ever question his motive. But you might say that in his case the path to last place was paved with those good intentions. And, given the results up until this point, it’s fair to question Pegula’s ability to oversee the franchise with an objective eye rather than the fanboy attitude he is perceived to embody.
The Sabres should be commended for their attempt to rejuvenate a stagnant product. However temporary, Pegula seemed to restore faith among the fanbase in his role as Cup Constructor.
Hopefully that feeling will last a little longer than 10 days.