There’s a name on the tips of many players’ tongues in the Northeast Division in training camp this season, and it’s not that of a player, coach or general manager.
It’s Terry Pegula.
No one person elsewhere in the league dropped quite the bombshell on a single group of teams as the Buffalo Sabres’ wealthy new owner, who spent loads of cash on his club in adding Christian Ehrhoff, Robyn Regehr and Ville Leino to the roster.
A billionaire who made his fortune in the natural gas industry, Pegula has single-handedly made the Northeast a more difficult place to play for all five teams in it, transforming a small-market team that perennially worried about the bottom line into yet another big budget club.
The Sabres are now the fourth team in the division that will spend at or near the cap this season, with the group as a whole boasting a league-high $60-million (U.S.) average payroll.
“It seems like it gets harder every year,” said Montreal Canadiens defenceman Jaroslav Spacek, who has spent the past five years in the division with the Sabres and Habs. “Everyone wants the Cup so bad so they try to get the best squad you can.”
One Northeast Division team accomplished that feat last June, with the Boston Bruins winning the group’s first Stanley Cup since Montreal’s last championship in 1993.
With Buffalo suddenly making a bid to join the contenders in the Eastern Conference, it appears the division may take over the title of most competitive in the next few seasons.
Even with the rebuilding Ottawa Senators in the mix, the Northeast could again be home to four playoff teams as soon as this season, which will make for a lot of difficult games given every NHL team plays 24 regular-season games – 29 per cent of its schedule – within its division.
“There’s no question it’s going to be a challenge every night for us,” Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Luke Schenn said. “Those division games, there’s no nights off.”
Having high payrolls isn’t the only thing making the Northeast tough to play in. With Pegula in the fold after buying the Sabres last February, the division has five of the wealthiest and most stable ownership groups in the league.
It also has the highest attendance in the league, with an average of 19,004 fans going to games last season – more than 1,000 more a game than the second-place Central Division.
Players pointed out this week that having the past two Vézina Trophy-winning goaltenders – Tim Thomas of the Bruins and Ryan Miller of the Sabres – share the division with Carey Price of the Canadiens is evidence of how difficult it will be to score in many of those intradivision games.
So while three other divisions had more points in the standings last season – including two in the Western Conference – the Northeast is viewed across the league as the one on the rise.
“It seems to go in waves,” Canadiens forward Mike Cammalleri said. “In my first few years, the West had some powerhouses. It was the Colorados and San Joses and Detroit – you almost felt like the top five teams in the West could win the Cup. …
“When a guy comes in and does what he did in Buffalo and what the Molson family did here, and on and on, it’s the catalyst, for sure. Buffalo’s going to do everything they can, Montreal’s going to do everything they can, Toronto’s going to do everything they can, Boston does everything they can and they come up with a Cup win. It’s become a real tough, competitive division, and very quickly.”
Credit a large part of that shift this season to Pegula, who has been urging the Sabres to think in terms of winning a championship above all else.
“I’ve always said I think an owner of a sports team has one job: to be liked,” Pegula said. “And there’s one way to be liked and that’s to win.”
“It’s in our discussions daily, how excited we are with what’s happening in Buffalo,” added defenceman Tyler Myers, who is in for a big chunk of Pegula’s cash after signing a mammoth seven-year extension that includes a $10-million signing bonus next July 1. “It’s pretty motivating as a player to see that. You want to come to the rink and play for somebody like that.”
With a report from Sean Gordon in Montreal