Buffalo became the 10th team during the current NHL season – 5 during the regular season, 5 so far during the playoffs – to fire its coach, Dan Bylsma, after only two years in a five year contract. As extra spice, Buffalo joined Los Angeles in firing its general manager, Tim Murray as well. Sabres owner, Terry Pegula, supposedly in consultation with his wife, fired both of them – just after giving Murray a contract extension earlier in the season – on Thursday after Buffalo missed the playoffs for the 6th consecutive season.
There was no warning that something like this was coming until a Buffalo radio station reported that star player, Jack Eichel would not sign a contract extension if Bylsma remained as coach. Eichel denied the story and seemed apologetic in his explanation. He certainly did not express any animosity to Bylsma and Murray. So were there other factors at work?
It could be argued that Bylsma has slipped as a coach since winning the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009. Things went downhill from there (a lot could be accounted for by Marc Andre Fleury’s bad playoff goaltending), Bylsma got fired, and was hired by Murray for Buffalo. In his first season, the Sabres improved by 27 points, though that was still not enough to make the playoffs, and then they regressed a little this season. Bylsma was not helped that Eichel missed a significant amount of the season due to injury.
As for Murray, Pegula would later state that he was only a first time general manager and therefore lacked experience. He has proclaimed that Buffalo’s next general manager will have extensive experience at the NHL level. Buffalo never made the playoffs during Murray’s four year tenure. Still, Murray was responsible for drafting Eichel. If Buffalo drafted another good player for next year and made an astute trade or free agent signing in the coming off season, there is no reason to believe that the Sabres could not continue their climb upwards to a playoff position.
But perhaps Pegula was watching what was going on across Lake Ontario in Toronto. After the horrid ownership of the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund, the Maple Leafs cleared the decks. First, new president Brendan Shanahan hired probably the current top coach in the NHL, Mike Babcock and then followed that up by hiring a proven, Stanley Cup winning general manager, Lou Lamoriello. Lamoriello then selected Auston Matthews with the overall number one draft pick and watched his Maple Leafs become one of the biggest surprises of the current season, making the playoffs after being last overall last year.
Pegula might have been envious, believing that his Sabres should be where the Maple Leafs currently are, and lost patience. After missing the playoffs for the 6th consecutive time and drafting Eichel the previous season, he noted the difference in progress and felt that the Sabres were just spinning their wheels under the current management. Considering that Bylsma’s contract was still in its early years and that he had granted Murray an extension only a few months earlier, this change is especially financially costly.
Four of Buffalo’s closest rivals from the old division days, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Boston made the playoffs this year while Buffalo got left behind. That might have grated on Pegula who might have seen Buffalo’s lack of progress to be a direct reflection of his ownership and would subject him to media attack and fan dislike. So he has taken a chance and made a significant change in direction. He had better be right. If his new combination does not improve the Sabres and they continue to miss the playoffs, all he has to do is look in the mirror and find the answer as to why.