BUFFALO – Now what? In a stunning move, general manager Tim Murray and coach Dan Bylsma are gone, victims of the Sabres’ last-place finish.
Tanking, gutting the roster and starting from scratch were supposed to transform the Sabres into perennial contenders.
Instead, they’ve remained a laughingstock. So on Thursday, 11 days after the Sabres completed a disappointing 78-point season in which they regressed, owner Terry Pegula fired Murray and Bylsma.
Obviously, missing the playoffs by 17 points in a year long targeted as their return following a six-year absence, was too much for Pegula to handle.
The move, perhaps not coincidentally, happened a day after WGR reported star center Jack Eichel wouldn’t sign a contract extension if Bylsma remained coach. Eichel’s agent vehemently denied the report.
Still, the timing is odd. And rightly or wrongly, Eichel, just 20 years old, could be labeled a coach-killer.
Pegula, who rarely speaks about the Sabres, is scheduled to hold a news conference this morning. Perhaps he can offer some insight into the team’s direction.
Right now, the Sabres don’t seem to have any. They’re still arguably the NHL’s most dysfunctional franchise.
Bottoming-out so they could secure Eichel’s pick in 2015 hasn’t paid dividends. Murray and Bylsma, who won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, were supposed to offer stability after years of regime and coaching changes.
Remember, Pegula hired Pat LaFontaine to run the hockey department when he fired GM Darcy Regier and coach Ron Rolston in November 2013. LaFontaine hired Murray in January 2014, then left the organization two months later under odd circumstances.
Murray fired Ted Nolan, LaFontaine’s hand-picked coach, in April 2015.
The overturn has been stunning, especially for a franchise that had Regier and coach Lindy Ruff together for 16 years.
Murray had been meeting with Pegula to discuss a failed season and the future of a team that went 33-37-12 and finished with three fewer points than last season.
Nine days ago during Murray’s end-of-season news conference, he gave Bylsma what barely qualified as a tepid endorsement, saying, “He’s my coach today.” Murray also cautioned he was also subject to Pegula’s review.
Bylsma signed a five-year contract when Murray hired him in May 2015. Murray, who was hired in January 2014, signed a multi-year extension before the season opener Oct. 13.
While Murray overhauled the roster, drafting Eichel, winger Sam Reinhart and acquiring center Ryan O’Reilly, he also made his share of gaffes.
The blue line quickly became the Sabres’ Achilles’ heel, and he traded some notable defensemen – Brayden McNabb, Tyler Myers and Mark Pysyk – that could’ve helped. Some of his returns in those deals contributed little or nothing.
For example, defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, Murray’s big piece for Pysyk, was awful as a lower-back bruise dogged him all season.
Murray made a colossal mistake returning defenseman Brendan Guhle, 19, to his junior team before the season. Even as a teenager, Guhle’s speed and puck-moving skills would’ve helped the Sabres immensely. He proved that during a three-game emergency recall in December.
Murray also saddled the Sabres with bad contracts – winger Matt Moulson received five years and $25 million in free agency and defenseman Josh Gorges’ $3.9 million salary was acquired for another four years – in his first summer as GM.
Other than Reinhart, Murray’s first draft in 2014 already looks like a bust.
And in making those blockbuster deals that acquired O’Reilly and winger Evander Kane, Murray traded prospects and draft picks, whittling away the Sabres’ depth.
Bylsma, meanwhile, seemed to have a disconnect with his team. Clearly, some players believed the Sabres should’ve been playing more aggressively. A frustrated Eichel and Kane talked about that regularly, sometimes after games in which the Sabres sat on leads and blew them.
Bylsma’s inability to adapt his system to his top players’ talents might’ve doomed him.
The Sabres also fired director of pro scouting Rob Murphy and director of amateur scouting Greg Royce, according to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman.
Pegula released the following statement:
“After reviewing the past season and looking at the future of our organization, Kim (Pegula) and I have decided to relieve general manager Tim Murray and head coach Dan Bylsma of their duties. We want to thank Tim and Dan for their hard work and efforts that they have put in during their tenures with the club. We wish them luck. We have begun the process to fill these positions immediately.”