Matt Studemeyer The Hockey Writers
Tabula Rasa for the Buffalo Sabres
Tabula Rasa, or “blank slate,” is a term most notably used by English philosopher John Locke in his most famous work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke believed that human beings are born with a blank slate and gain knowledge through experience. The Buffalo Sabres, yet again, after firing both general manager Tim Murray and head coach Dan Bylsma, find themselves with a tabula rasa—an opportunity to learn from previous experiences and mistakes.
Drilling for Answers
Terry Pegula, the billionaire owner of both the Buffalo Bills and Sabres, amassed most of his fortune through natural gas drilling, or fracking. Pegula applied his same ‘drilling’ method to the Sabres, only with nothing to show for it but a deep, dark hole filled with angry fans at the bottom of it.
Sabres fans all remember Pegula’s heartfelt proclamation when he stated, “The reason for the Buffalo Sabres’ existence is to win a Stanley Cup.” These words now ring hollow as he is set to hire a fourth coach in his six-year tenure.
Pegula, knowing he’s dug himself and the organization into a hole, said in his address to the media, “We as members of the Sabres’ organization are all responsible for our success, but accountability starts with me. We are not happy with our season this year, and there are no excuses.”
Amazingly, for being such a rock-star businessman, Terry Pegula has had a tough time putting together a formidable business model for a winning hockey team. Since he took the team over, the Sabres have only made the playoffs once—the year he bought the team—and lost in the first round in seven games to the Philadelphia Flyers. Since then, not only have the Sabres not made the playoffs, but they’ve only managed to put together one winning season.
At face value, most fans probably prefer Pegula over previous Sabres owners like Tom Golisano and Larry Quinn, or more notably John Rigas, who was convicted on charges including bank fraud, wire fraud, and securities fraud. In light of that, at least prior ownership could claim some sort of organizational stability, which Pegula cannot. Former head coach Lindy Ruff and general manager Darcy Regier both managed 16-year stays with the team. The next coach to be hired will be the fifth under Pegula, while the general manager will be his third.
What They’re Leaving Behind
Many thought that the hiring of Tim Murray, and more significantly the hiring of Stanley Cup-winner Dan Bylsma, marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. Now a new epoch in Sabres history will begin with the next general manager and coach-to-be.
In saying goodbye to two straight seasons of mediocrity under that of Murray and Bylsma, the Sabres also close the book on the ‘tank’ seasons of 2013-2014 and 2014-2015. The atmosphere that surrounded the team and city during those years is something never before seen in hockey, let alone professional sports. While the Sabres undoubtedly benefited from two second-overall picks in back-to-back seasons, they simultaneously infected themselves with a culture of losing that would prove difficult to shake off.
Not much was expected of the Sabres in the 2015-2016 season. Indeed, on paper, the team was significantly better with additions like Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly, and Evander Kane, along with a credentialed coach in Dan Bylsma, whose hardware qualifies him as such. The playoffs were a pipe dream, but a 27-point improvement in the standings from a season prior was a welcomed kernel of hope.
After palpable improvement, the 2016-2017 Sabres suddenly found themselves stricken with a losing sickness that lay dormant for some time. The catalyst for the Sabres’ regression was the high-ankle sprain injury to Jack Eichel the day before the season opener. The ankle injury to Eichel, coupled with a pathetic defense core, proved costly for the Sabres’ playoff hopes along with the jobs of Murray and Bylsma.
On-ice issues were not the only predicament for the drama-laden Sabres. Shortly after O’Reilly signed the most lucrative contract in Sabres history, he found himself in the middle of a DUI case. Leading goal-scorer Kane has had multiple run-ins with the law, enough to where most fans have probably lost count. Aside from legal issues, the locker room has turned into a point of contention amongst the media and fans. The word “disconnect” was thrown around all year long, coupled with rumors that Jack Eichel wouldn’t sign an extension if Bylsma remained coach. And remember when standup guy Sam Reinhart was forced to watch an entire game from the bench? This page in Sabres history should be closed and never opened again.
A blank slate for the Sabres may carry an appealing tone with it, but no shortage of questions arises when taking the first step forward. As his track record shows, Pegula is a savvy capitalist, but nothing close to a hockey man. It may certainly be in his interest to hire a president of hockey operations to take care of the hockey side of the business. Pegula did hire former Sabres legend Pat LaFontaine for that very role in 2013, but he resigned from the position after only three months on the job. Again, more drama Sabres fans want to forget.
The firing of Murray couldn’t have come at a more crucial time. With the upcoming draft lottery, the draft, expansion, and free agency, the new general manager will have a lot on his plate in a short span of time—possibly making this the worst time for a blank slate. The new GM will have to foment new relationships with the players and personnel, along with hiring a coach to do the same exact thing. Not only that, any previous dealings/favors between Murray and other general managers around the league go out the window as well. Aside from getting to know his players on a personal level, the next GM will have to actually assess their play on the ice with most likely little to no working knowledge of the majority of the Sabres’ roster.
A new GM with no prior loyalties and biases may be a welcomed thought, but with it brings some understandable anxiety for diehard fans. Maybe the next GM thinks O’Reilly is overpaid or that Reinhart is a bust. Possibly Rasmus Ristolainen isn’t a number one defenseman. Maybe Robin Lehner is nowhere close to being a starting goalie in the eyes of the future GM, unlike Murray, who vouched heavily for him while also paying a steep price (a first-round draft pick) to acquire him. All these questions and more are already knocking on the door of the next Sabres GM.
Pegula needs to hire a man who understands hockey. Like John Locke was privy to human nature and understanding, the next general manager needs to be a philosopher of hockey, a hockey czar if you will. He needs to be someone who can demystify the existential crisis the Sabres find themselves in, while also laying down a blueprint for success—something to build out of this tabula rasa.
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