Niagara Gazette

November 14, 2013

MROZIAK: Will reaching back bring Sabres forward?

BY MICHAEL MROZIAK
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Never mind Aram Khachaturian’s classic “Sabre Dance” or the novelty song “We’re Gonna Win That Cup.” If you’re looking for an appropriate theme song for the Buffalo Sabres these days, it’s Jethro Tull’s “Living in the Past.”

That’s the image the Buffalo Sabres are creating, anyway, by bringing two beloved names from the 1990s — Pat LaFontaine and Ted Nolan — back into the fold.

This time, however, reaching back into Buffalo’s yesteryears might just work.

News of the Buffalo Sabres’ shakeup Wednesday was greeted first by shock, then a general sense of euphoria and relief by the Western New York hockey public upon realizing that the Regier era was indeed over. Then as the day progressed there came the questions, understandably, whether owner Terry Pegula was just being a superfan once again and giving jobs to some favored personalities from the days of the Aud.

The skepticism is understandable. You’ll recall that when introduced as the new owner, Mr. Pegula had projected the Sabres would be, at about this time, in contention to win the first of the multiple Stanley Cup titles that would be the goal of the franchise from that day forward.

Bringing Nolan back is appropriate under an interim basis. The biggest knock on him is that he holds only a .500 record as a National Hockey League head coach and, depending on whom you believe, gained a reputation within hockey circles as a “boss killer,” as critics say was evidenced by his notoriously difficult relationship with former GM John Muckler.

On the other hand, you’ve got the man who steered the team during an era when it was known as “the hardest working team in hockey.” He took a team that featured only one star really, all-world goaltender Dominik Hasek, and got them into the second round of the 1997 playoffs. For his effort, he was voted as the winner of the Jack Adams Award, which goes to the league’s top coach. As Sabres fans recall, things went downward from there.

His departure from the Sabres wasn’t necessarily the most justified. Still, the game has changed since Nolan’s last NHL coaching job with the New York Islanders. If he wants to become the permanent coach, he needs to prove himself.

Meanwhile, if there’s one thing about LaFontaine’s hire that immediately impresses me, it’s what was said in Wednesday morning’s news conference. Pegula, when recalling the conversation, noted that LaFontaine, when asked if he felt he was GM material, didn’t agree but discussed what he could offer. 

I respect him for not trying to take on more than he feels he’s prepared to do. Smart leaders recognize what they do not necessarily know, then find the right people who do.

That’s what will be the most important development in all this: the general manager that LaFontaine will choose. Of all the names tossed about by reporters and armchair speculators alike, there were some names who also represent Buffalo hockey’s past. Among them were Rick Dudley and Jim Schoenfeld. Dudley remains a very respected hockey mind while Schoenfeld has risen in the managing ranks in the New York Rangers organization.

Until that decision is made and a GM is introduced, I’m willing to greet the change at First Niagara Center with a very cautious optimism.

Follow Niagara Gazette Sports Editor Michael Mroziak on Twitter at @MrozGazette.