Lighting the Lamp, With Rick Ackerman
Pity the visiting Buffalo Sabres. Neither new ownership, a new general manager (hired January 9, 2014) nor a new coach (hired last November 13 in an interim position) has done anything to prevent the Sabres from slowly becoming the worst team in the NHL over the last three years.
The big changes in western New York began on February 18, 2011, when Pennsylvania-born businessman Terrence Pegula purchased the Sabres' franchise for $189M. Pegula became a billionaire in 2010 when he sold his natural gas drilling company, East Resources, to Royal Dutch Shell for approximately $4.7B. He is also the brains behind the new $172M hockey complex, HarborCenter, currently being built in downtown Buffalo that will feature two rinks, a hotel, restaurants and other retail boutiques. The facility is expected to open in September, just in time for the 2014-15 hockey season.
The new GM is Tim Murray, who started as a scout for Detroit and Florida. He went on to become the Director of Player Personnel for the Anaheim Ducks in 2002. After another brief scouting assignment for the Rangers, Murray was hired as GM of the Binghamton Senators, Ottawa's farm club, and worked his way up to become assistant GM for the NHL Senators in 2007. His first major trade in Buffalo involved sending Ryan Miller and Steve Ott to the Blues for Jaro Halak, Chris Stewart, amateur William Carrier and two conditional draft picks.
New coach Ted Nolan is a former player (Detroit, Pittsburgh) who began his coaching career in Sault Ste. Marie in 1988 and led the Greyhounds to three consecutive Memorial Cup berths, winning the Canadian national junior championship in 1993. He was then hired by the Sabres in 1995 after serving one year in Hartford as assistant coach, winning the Jack Adams Award as best NHL coach after Buffalo won the Northeast Division championship. After a strained relationship with goaltender Dom Hasek and then GM John Muckler, Nolan was fired in 1997. Nolan resurfaced in Moncton as coach and director of hockey operations for the QMJHL Wildcats, taking the Wildcats to the Memorial Cup Finals, only to lose to coach Patrick Roy and the Quebec Remparts. On June 8, 2006, Nolan returned to the NHL, replacing Islanders coach Brad Shaw, now an assistant coach in St. Louis. Nolan led the Islanders to a 92-point season and a playoff berth, yet was fired a year later in 2008. The next two years were spent in Rochester as vice-president of hockey operations, and his contract was transferred to Buffalo when Pegula purchased the Americans along with the Sabres. Nolan also agreed to coach the Latvian national team at the 2012 and 2013 IIHF World Championships, qualifying for the recent Olympic games in Russia. After being named interim head coach in Buffalo in November, Nolan would coach the Latvian team in Sochi before returning to man the helm for the Sabres, permanently as of last Monday, when he signed a three year contract extension as the head coach.
Buffalo joined the NHL as an expansion club in 1970 (along with Vancouver), only three years after the Blues were born. Like the Blues and Canucks, the Sabres have not yet sipped champaign from the bowl of the Stanley Cup. However, Buffalo did win something vastly important to the franchise, a roulette wheel spin. The consensus number one pick in the 1970 amateur draft was junior phenom Gilbert Perreault (HHoF 1990), a high scoring (103 goals, 277 points in 155 games over three seasons) center from the Montreal Junior Canadiens. A roulette wheel spin would determine which expansion team, Vancouver (allocated numbers 1-10) or Buffalo (allocated numbers 11-20), would get the number one pick. The hockey gods were smiling upon the Sabres when league president Clarence Campbell announced number 11 as the winner, the same number Perreault would sport for 17 seasons, all with Buffalo. He would join left winger Rick Martin, a first round pick, fifth overall, in 1971 and right winger Rene Robert, obtained in a trade in 1972 with Pittsburgh (for Eddie "Clear the Track") Shack, to form the French Connection line. Over seven seasons, that line accounted for 736 regular season goals and 58 goals in six playoff years (49 games).
Over 44 years, Buffalo has qualified for the playoffs 30 times, advancing to the Finals twice, losing to Philadelphia in 1975 and Dallas in 1999 (in triple-overtime on Brett Hull's disputed goal). The Sabres have won six division titles (the last in 2010), two conference championships (the last in 1999) and one Presidents' Trophy (in 2007).
Buffalo's future lies with a bevy of young talent, including goaltender Jhonas Enroth (drafted in 2006, second round), defenseman Tyler Myers (2008, 12th overall), forward Tyler Ennis (2008, 26th overall), right winger Joel Armia (2011, 16th overall), center Mikhail Grigorenko (2012, 12th overall), center Zemgus Girgensons (2012, 14th overall), defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (2013, 8th overall) and defenseman Nikita Zadarov (2013, 16th overall). If the Sabres can win the upcoming NHL draft lottery (they will have the best odds with the worst record), Buffalo will have a choice of Aaron Ekblad, a defenseman for the Barrie Colts, Sam Bennett, a center for the Kingston Frontenacs or Kootenay Ice center Sam Reinhart, the son of NHL All-Star Paul Reinhart.
Don't automatically assume this will be an easy victory for the Blues tonight. The Note has everything to lose, while the last-place Sabres have nothing to win.