Sullivan: Pegulas' Sabres moves raise more questions than answers

Jerry Sullivan

Kim and Terry Pegula offered mainly dodges and platitudes in their press conference after firing Jason Botterill and bludgeoning the hockey department on Wednesday.

Typical of a Pegula presser, there were a lot more questions than answers, many of the tougher ones hanging in the air after the Sabres owners departed the room and resumed the organizational purge into the night.

There are many lingering questions as novice general manager Kevyn Adams begins to pick up the pieces and prepare for the October draft. In Adams’ first season as GM, the Sabres will look to avoid setting an NHL record by missing the playoffs for a 10th consecutive year.

Here are a few questions on my mind:

• Are the Pegulas in austerity mode? They claim otherwise, but the moves they made Wednesday — on the heels of a previous personnel purge at Pegula Sport and Entertainment — suggest an organization desperate to stem the financial bleeding.

We’re come a long way from February, 2011, when Terry arrived in Buffalo as the Sabres’ new owner and told a rapt fan base that “From this point forward, the Buffalo Sabres’ reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup.”

Pegula rolled out a new credo: “Effective, Efficient and Economic.” The operative word is economic. Terry said there would be no financial mandates on the hockey department when he took over. That promise rang hollow when he took a chain saw to it on Wednesday.

• Why did Adams get the GM job with zero credentials in hockey operations?

For all I know, Adams could be the next Harry Sinden, Ken Holland or Steve Yzerman. He has done some good things in his nine years in the organization. But a team in utter disarray should have done a search and at least identified rising NHL personnel people — Chris Drury, anyone? — who might have wanted the job.

Adams has been put in a tough spot. He looks like a crony who was elevated because he was close to ownership. It’s the sort of move Ralph Wilson might have made later in his stewardship of the Bills, when he was wary of outsiders and mired in dysfunction.

• What about the prospects? Two years ago, Chris Taylor was seen as a legitimate candidate for the Sabres’ head coaching job. Now he’s gone, along with the rest of the coaching staff in Rochester.

The Amerks didn’t win in the playoffs or develop stars for Buffalo, but Taylor was regarded as a good nurturer of young talent. Botterill got credit for a promising talent pool in the minors. Now Adams has to find new mentors for Rochester. Some of the kids out there must be wondering what the heck is going on.

• Is head coach Ralph Krueger destined to be team president? The Pegulas insist they don’t believe in the hockey president model, but they’ve been known to speak out of both sides of their mouths before (last month, for example).

Krueger is popular with the players. There was a notion when he became coach a year ago that he might one day be elevated to a top management position and pick his successor. It any event, more powers flow to him here.

• What about the roster? If the Sabres are more interested in “return on investment,” which they established as one of their three major goals in a memo to PSE employees in January, will they be looking to shed salaries?

Maybe Adams will finally do the wise thing and move defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen. They’re likely stuck with Jeff Skinner’s $9 million salary albatross, and they’ll have to pay Rasmus Dahlin soon. I can’t see them shelling out big bucks to Sam Reinhart, who is a numbers player on his best day and a losing presence over long stretches when he barely produces.

• What’s the future for Jack Eichel? This is the biggest question of all. I can’t imagine that Eichel hasn’t considered what playing for a chronic loser is doing to his reputation as a “generational player.”

Eichel said he was “fed up with losing” after Kim Pegula said Botterill was staying in late May. He ought to be fed up. He has played five NHL seasons without making the playoffs. The Sabres couldn’t even crack a 24-team field in his finest season.

The Sabres tanked to get him. He’s the face of the franchise. Fair or not, it's a losing face. The perception is that he hasn’t been dynamic enough to lead a team to the playoffs, never mind the sort of deep run you expect from a true superstar.

Fans have to worry that Eichel will decide he has to leave to salvage his reputation. He’s on a 10-year contract, but he has a lot of clout and empowered athletes have a way of forcing their way out of bad situations in modern pro sports.

It would be devastating for Eichel to leave Buffalo. But if the Pegulas were desperate enough to purge the hockey department, who knows what could be in store if the Sabres keep losing?

Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

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