By Eric DuVall
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — It's a day late but hopefully not a dollar short but here's my take on the Sabres news this week.
An even-handed analysis of Darcy Regier's 16 seasons in Buffalo would show some impressive successes. He was a master at trading players and receiving maximum return. But on balance he failed far more than he succeeded. He had the greatest player in franchise history in goaltender Dominik Hasek but was never able to build a team around him that was a legitimate contender. He deserves credit for building a powerhouse in the 2000s, but again failed to address shortcomings, then allowed co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere to skate away in free agency, a disaster that largely perpetuated the dismal state of affairs the franchise finds itself in today.
Regier regularly overvalued his own players. He chose to resign Tim Connolly (twice). He and Lindy Ruff stood by pedestrian players like Jochen Hecht and Paul Gaustad who continued to log valuable minutes because they were veterans, time that could have been used to groom younger players to take on bigger roles.
And finally, when the wheels really came off, Regier fired Ruff and elevated an inexperienced AHL coach in Ron Rolston — not to mention half the players he was originally tasked with developing — to the NHL with no plan for how to make it work.
The Sabres as a franchise said they were committed to rebuilding but that wasn't what was happening these last two seasons. They were floundering.
Rolston was plainly in over his head. He wasn't getting quality effort, much less acceptable results. He was alienating and embarrassing veterans by benching them. He wasn't inspiring the young players who picked up those minutes to perform any better. The results were obvious to everyone. In the end, it was Regier's coaching hire and Rolston's obvious coaching failures that finally earned Darcy the axe.
Rebuilding a franchise means more than simply trading away all your good players, tanking two or three seasons and hoping the guys you draft grow up to be better than the ones they replaced. It requires a vision for the future and a definitive plan for how to execute that vision. Under Regier, I was never sure what kind of team this was supposed to be. Right now the only kind of team it is, is bad.
Enter my boyhood hero, Pat LaFontaine, to save the day. It goes without saying, I was floored when I heard the news Wednesday morning.
I've respected and admired LaFontaine since his playing days. He was a genuine star, a humble but fearless leader in the sport. Add to that he was one of the smartest players I've ever watched. He brings the immediate cache that comes with having your number hanging in the rafters and inspires faith from a fan base that had lost almost all hope this franchise would turn things around.
With LaFontaine comes former Sabres coach Ted Nolan. That's a more complicated reaction. I liked Nolan — to an extent. There was no denying he got more out of players than other coaches. But maximum effort doesn't always yield maximum results.
It's one thing to inspire a ragtag bunch of goofballs like Matthew Barnaby to run through walls for you. It's another thing to instill a working system of play under which players can succeed over an extended period of time. Effort is a huge part of any successful sports team — and Lord Stanley knows it's been entirely lacking here for far too long — but it also takes refined, erudite coaching to transform a group of players into a team that can play to its strengths in a disciplined way, the same way, night after night, for 82 games.
I question whether Nolan can do that.
Perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself. If this season is lost, and by all accounts it is, maybe Nolan is the perfect choice as interim coach. All the strategy in the world won't matter if players aren't playing hard enough to win. LaFontaine and Nolan spoke of their first objective: a change in culture. If the rest of the year is spent instilling those basic values — hard work, team play, hustle — they will have accomplished something at which their predecessors failed.
In many respects, though the Pegulas have owned the team for two years, Wednesday felt for the first time like they really assumed ownership for its direction.
Of course time will tell how it goes but if reputation is an indication, Pat LaFontaine is a fantastic place to start. For my money, firing Regier and hiring LaFontaine is the smartest thing Terry Pegula has done since he bought the team.
Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.