When Terry Pegula rode into this downtrodden town with his billions of dollars from the coal and oil business and promised to spend his way to success with the Buffalo Sabres, the fans hailed him as a King Arthur come to create an unlikely Camelot.
Two and a half years later, the Sabres owner and the hockey lieutenants who continue to have his ear are remote figures amid the NHL team’s ruin. Pegula and general manager Darcy Regier are in a cold war with much of the local media, especially the city’s only daily newspaper (the Buffalo News), and fans are angry about another season that appears lost before the 10-game mark.
By the third period of last Thursday’s 3-0 loss to the Vancouver Canucks, a score which actually flattered the Sabres, the few thousand fans who had not angrily left their seats at First Niagara Center were once again chanting “Fire Darcy, fire Darcy.”
But thus far, Pegula is resisting the pleas, despite the Sabres’ 1-7-1 record and no sign of hope it will improve any time soon. In the wake of speculation Pegula would give in to pressure from the fans and fire Regier in the next few weeks, Sabres president Ted Black told WGR radio, which broadcasts team games, they will “stay the course.”
The problem is, if Pegula fires Regier 10 games into a season finding a replacement will not be easy. Almost all of the best candidates are already under contract to other teams. Many of them, such as Dave Poulin and Claude Loiselle (executives with the Toronto Maple Leafs), or Montreal Canadiens assistant GM Rick Dudley, who played and coached in Buffalo, may only have a window in their contracts that lets them leave at the end of a hockey season.
So it will be left to Regier to deal with the Sabres’ most pressing issue, getting some assets in return for their two best players, goaltender Ryan Miller and winger Thomas Vanek.
Miller, whose great work kept the score against the Canucks from being far worse, is showing his frustration. For the first time, he refused to speak to reporters after a game.
It will be easier for Regier to get a bigger immediate return on Miller than Vanek.
The latter is a good scorer but even though this is the last season of his contract, it carries a $7.1-million (U.S.) salary-cap hit, which won’t make him attractive until close to the NHL trade deadline (March 5). Miller, 33, also has just this season left on his deal but it is a more cap-friendly $6.2-million.
The goaltender has the right under his contract to name eight teams which he will not agree to be traded to. That list is believed to include the Edmonton Oilers, who just happen to be shopping hard for a goaltender.
The Oilers also have a problem with talented young centre Nail Yakupov, 20, who alienated new head coach Dallas Eakins in record time with his attitude but has the offensive talent the Sabres desperately need.
The Oilers’ major financial commitment is to three other young forwards – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle. When Nugent-Hopkins’s contact extension kicks in next season, all three will be making $6-million per year. That does not leave a lot for Yakupov, whose entry-level deal, and its $925,000 salary, is up at the end of 2014-15.
Oilers GM Craig MacTavish is unlikely to admit it out loud, but this, plus his goaltending problem, means a deal involving Miller (more parts to it are likely) is possible.
It is also possible Miller might change his mind about going to Edmonton. He wants to be closer to Southern California because his wife is an actress who works mainly in Los Angeles. But none of the three California teams are in the market for a goaltender.
And those who know Miller say he is a hockey guy above all and might be intrigued by the possibilities of winning with a young team such as the Oilers. Since Edmonton is a lot closer to L.A. than Buffalo, it might be enough to entice him.
But Regier is painfully cautious when it comes to trades (as any frustrated Sabres fan, not to mention NHL GMs, will tell you), so it could take a while before anything happens.
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