Was Toronto The Reason For Buffalo Firing Murray And Bylsma?

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.

Let’s Review The Harvesting Of NHL Coaches

5 NHL coaches were fired during the regular season and as soon as the season ended, other teams wasted no time in shoving the head coaches out the door. And as usual, most were unfair. So far, four more coaches paid the price.

1.            Dallas Stars – Lindy Ruff
Ruff is a good coach, but he has never won the big one. Last year, perhaps he got the Dallas Stars to over-achieve and that led management and fans to expect big things this season. But Dallas – with many notable big names and star players – did not show anything this year. Instead of building on or at least matching last year’s progress, Dallas regressed back to their old position of two years ago, so Ruff’s dismissal could have been predicted. Dallas has a lot of big salaries for underachieving players so many of them could be next and Dallas has made that clear by imitating Anaheim and bringing back their only Stanley Cup winning coach, Ken Hitchcock whom St. Louis fired earlier.

2.        Florida Panthers – Tom Rowe
Florida is in the unique position of firing their coach during the regular season and then firing his successor in the off-season. Gerard Gallant had taken the Panthers to a seldom-realized division title last year and actually had a winning record this year too when Florida without any warning became the first team to fire a coach and replace him with General Manager, Tom Rowe. But of the 5 teams that fired their coaches during the regular season, the Panthers were the only team not to respond to the new coach and improve. Now Rowe has been removed as both coach and general manager, but at least retains a job as special adviser. Dale Tallon is back in the General Manager’s harness. All this is done by an organization that seldom makes the playoffs, ensuring consistent bad attendance, and is a leading candidate to be shifted to Quebec, Hartford, or elsewhere. Florida is a laughingstock and these coaching changes show why. Unlike Tampa Bay where hockey is popular, the ownership and management are a major reason why hockey remains unpopular in the southern part of the state. Gallant was a leading candidate to be hired in the off season and the new Las Vegas Golden Knights showed their savvy by making him their first-ever coach, something that might have been predicted.

3.       Vancouver Canucks – Willie Desjardins
If any coaching change was the most unfair during this season, this has to rank near the top. Desjardins was placed in charge of a team on the way down, with its two top stars, the Sedin brothers over the hill and near retirement. Somehow he was expected to turn this team that has no top young draft choices on its roster into winners. Even in this downward spiral, Desjardins had approximately a .500 record over three seasons. Vancouver needed to rebuild with young stars as early as back then. Who is the Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews on this team? No one. Not even the best of coaches can do anything if the team’s top players are aging and in decline and no good young talent for the future has been added. How good a coach was Desjardins? We’ll never know, at least in Vancouver.

4.        Los Angeles – Darryl Sutter and Dean Lombardi
This ranks near the top as the most controversial change of the season, Los Angeles getting rid of the coach and general manager who gave them their only two championships. Admittedly, Lombardi might have slipped. Since the last championship, the Los Angeles attack has consistently declined and Lombardi has failed to find the right replacements either by draft, trade, or free agent signing. Trading for Ben Bishop when the team needed more offense was extremely questionable. But do you take such an extreme step as firing him only three years after winning it all for the second time? And the decline of attacking personnel is hardly Darryl Sutter’s fault. He still has this team playing well defensively. Lombardi and Sutter will immediately become leading candidates to be hired again sometime and somewhere in the future.

NHL 2016-17 Season Third Quarter Report

The majority of the teams have now reached the 60 game mark and again the pattern of wins and losses changed from the second quarter. Mostly it reverted back to what occurred in the first quarter: Two steps forward, one back, two steps back, one forward, etc. Gone was the dramatic long winning streaks that marked the second quarter. Some teams like Chicago, New York Rangers, St. Louis, and Washington managed to put together modest winning streaks of 5-6 games. What else was notable during the third part of the current season?

Bloodshed

Namely coaches’ blood. Jack Capuano of the New York Islanders, Ken Hitchcock (who was going to retire from coaching anyway at the end of this season) of the St. Louis Blues, Claude Julien of the Boston Bruins, and Michel Therrien of the Montreal Canadiens joined Gerard Gallant of the Florida Panthers who was fired in the first quarter of the season on the unemployed list. But the Canadiens immediately gave Julien his old coaching job back after ten years in Boston.

Out Of The Picture

Probably it can be safely said that the Dallas Stars, Vancouver Canucks, Carolina Hurricanes, and Detroit Redwings have joined the Colorado Avalanche and Arizona Coyotes as being out of the playoff picture for this season unless they start one of those dramatic long winning streaks that occurred in the second quarter.

Squandered

1. Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers had a ten game winning streak in the second quarter and seemed comfortably assured of a playoff spot in the middle of the Eastern Conference. But they played so badly during the third quarter that they have tumbled out of a playoff position.

2. Montreal Canadiens

Montreal played so well during the first quarter that they were comfortably ranked as one of the “big 5″ teams in the Eastern Conference, along with Washington, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, and Columbus. But they have played so poorly since then that they fired their coach and tumbled down to one of the bottom four playoff positions. If they do not rally around new coach Claude Julien, and some of their pursuers get hot during the last quarter, incredibly they could miss the playoffs again just like last year.

Hung In

Ottawa is still holding a playoff position in spite of the long absence of number one goaltender Craig Anderson, and the Los Angeles Kings are just out of a playoff spot and now have number one goaltender Jonathan Quick back.

On The Rebound

At one time the New York Islanders looked like the first Eastern Conference team to be declared out of the playoff picture. But they have played so well since their poor start that they now have a real chance to make the playoffs. The Islanders also got some good news when star forward John Tavares declared that he wanted to remain an Islander. Now if only they could get some good news about a new, larger arena being constructed in Queens, so that they can get out of the tiny Barclay’s Center, the only NHL arena that has obstructed view seats…

Speaking About Arenas

Those loveable Arizona Coyotes announced that host suburb Glendale was so sick of them that they would rather have an arena without a team than see a Coyote uniform for much longer. So the Coyotes tried to move across Phoenix town to the suburb of Tempe into a projected new third-smallest arena in the NHL. But the joyful news of this “progress” was terminated when Tempe decided that they did not want the Coyotes either. So now the Coyotes are unwanted on both the east and west side of Phoenix. Since then they have denied that they were seen flirting with both Seattle and Portland. Stay tuned for the next episode.

On a less hilarious note, Detroit will be getting a new arena next year and there is talk of building new arenas in Calgary and Ottawa.

Breathing Easier

If you see a happy hockey player with a smile who is no longer playing with a bag over his head, it is P. K. Subban of the Nashville Predators. Subban had been singled out by Montreal Canadiens General Manager Marc Bergevin as the main culprit for the collapse of Montreal last year when Carey Price got hurt and traded Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber. By the end of the second quarter of this season, Montreal was at the top of the Eastern Conference, Weber was thriving, Subban got hurt, and there was a real chance that Nashville might not even make the playoffs. But since then Montreal tumbled down the charts while Nashville rose. Incredibly Subban may get the last laugh, something nobody would have dreamed of only two months ago.

Sad Times

The Detroit Redwings have lost their greatest player Gordie Howe, and owner Mike Ilitch who played a key role in the rebirth of good hockey in Detroit in less than one year. Boston Bruins lost legendary star Milt Schmidt and fired the coach who had the most victories in Bruin history, Claude Julien.

All Quiet On The Quebec City Front...

There is still no news about whether Commissioner Gary Bettman has found a suitable owner for a new Quebec City team instead of the unwanted Pierre Karl Peladeau.

And The Olympics

The NHL has still not decided about participating in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea. Several NHL players have declared that they will play there anyway whether the NHL participates or not.

Coming Up

The Great Trade Deadline and the home stretch.

Hitchcock Pays For Management’s Mistakes

Ken Hitchcock was supposed to retire from NHL coaching at the end of this season and Mike Yeo take over next year. Instead the St. Louis ownership and management speeded up the process by firing Hitchcock after the Blues tumbled out of a playoff position.

What was not said was that during the off season, the St. Louis Blues like the New York Islanders lost significant talent and therefore could not play at the level of last year. When the two coaches could not repeat last year’s breakthrough success, they lost their positions, becoming the second and third coaches after Florida’s Gerard Gallant to be fired during the current season.

There is a similar parallel in both the Blues and Islanders story. Last year for the first time in eons of seasons, the Islanders won a playoff round. Last year for one of the rare occasions in their history, the Blues won two playoff rounds and made it to the Western Conference Final where they put up a good struggle against the San Jose Sharks.

It seemed that all management had to do was add some significant talent to take the Islanders into the ranks of the true contenders in the Eastern Conference and to get the Blues over one more hump and into the Stanley Cup Final, a round they had not reached since the first three years of their existence. Instead both teams lost talent and now are struggling to make the playoffs. That is hardly the coach’s fault.

Additionally for the Blues, management decided to trade Brian Elliott and hand the goaltending job to Jake Allen who has given the Blues subpar goaltending. That is not Ken Hitchcock’s fault either.

The Blues took Hitchcock’s firing out on the Toronto Maple Leafs, ironically the team they are tied with for longest streak without winning the Stanley Cup, 50 years. The St. Louis Blues are the only team from the first six-team expansion; Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, Philadelphia Flyers, Dallas (Minnesota) Stars (California-Oakland Seals no longer exist), to not win the Stanley Cup. But whereas the Maple Leafs with new ownership, management, a Stanley Cup winning coach, a new young star in Auston Matthews, look like a team on the rise, the Blues with their established stars with whom they failed to build a champion, look like a team going downhill and will have to be rebuilt.

How close were the Blues to being a champion? They finally broke through to the third round last year. Admittedly they would have to add more talent to get beyond San Jose and San Jose was no match for Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh. Obviously management and ownership did not believe that they were close with last year’s roster and allowed significant talent to leave. That left Hitchcock to play out the string this year which management saw fit to shorten by three months.