Sabres General Manager inks new deal to stay with team
By ANDREW KULYK and PETER FARRELL
Opening Night last week didn’t turn out the way a general manager exactly dreams of.
His generational player, Jack Eichel, goes down in practice with a high ankle sprain. This, the guy who the team gave up two horrible seasons for the rights to obtain. Then Evander Kane, as troubled as he might be off the ice but still a very valuable asset, gets injured with broken ribs. Two of the franchise’s important new stars, Forward Kyle Okposo and Defenseman Dimitri Kulikov, are scratched with nagging injuries. Ryan O’Reilly is playing hobbled.
Can anything else possibly go wrong so soon and so fast?
Oh, the Sabres lost the opener to Montreal, 4-1, in a listless performance.
All this happened on the backdrop of Murray receiving a contract extension to remain as the Sabres’ General Manager. He was awarded what was deemed as a multi year extension, his tenure was to have expired next June. “I have this year left on this deal then it’s going forward after this year. We’ve had a little bit of talk about it, but nothing we’ve been meeting on or anything like that, just a couple of conversations. It’s something I thought the past couple weeks might get done but then it all came together,” said Murray to a hastily assembled press corps in the press box at last week’s opening night.
Murray is a man of few words, defined by his steely glare. Fans, some media members and people associated with the team might find him to be aloof. Others admire his passion and energy as he appears to be a man with a mission and focused solely on his job, and that is to return the Sabres to the playoffs and bring back realistic visions of a Stanley Cup run.
Just go back to the 2016 NHL Draft, events which are often memorialized with long winded speeches and blusters of platitudes. When Buffalo, scheduled to pick second that year (Edmonton won the lottery and chose Conor McDavid ahead of the Sabres), got its turn to pick, Murray marched up to the dais and uttered these words: “Buffalo selects Jack Eichel”. That’s it. That’s all.
Piece by piece, Murray is dismantling the team he inherited from the departed Darcy Regier, and for better or for worse, has to wear the results. Unlike his predecessor, he has made trades. And then some. His first splash was to get Hudson Fasching and Nicholas Deslauriers from the Los Angeles Kings. He trades away Matt Moulson and then reacquires him in free agency. The blockbuster, happening in 2015, was with Winnipeg, where the team shipped away Tyler Myers and Drew Stafford for Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian. Three months later, here comes Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn from the Colorado Avalanche. Mark Pysyk is traded for Dimitri Kulikov. Kyle Okposo arrives via free agency. Then add your three first round draft picks, Sam Reinhart, Jack Eichel and Alex Nylander, now playing for Rochester.
Goaltenders? Ryan Miller was gone a month after his arrival. We briefly saw Jaroslav Halak in practice. Michal Neuvirth. Jason Kasdorf. Anders Nilsson. But the guy who Murray is counting on is clearly Robin Lehner, acquired from Ottawa and who missed a good part of last season due to his own injury suffered at last season’s opening night.
To this day, Murray will deny that the tear down and rebuilding of the team in his image had anything to do with deliberate tanking. At his first end of year press conference a couple years back, Murray emphatically stated, “When you tear it down, it doesn’t happen overnight. I don’t buy into five year rebuilds. I could sit here and say it’s a seven year rebuild and get ten years out of it. But that’s not reality and not what I want anyway. I want to rebuild properly, and that takes time. But it doesn’t have to take years.”
After a five year absence from the Stanley Cup playoffs, expectations are white hot in Sabres’ Hockey Heaven that there will be meaningful hockey played in Buffalo in later April and into May once again. But already, those expectations are being tempered by the spate of injuries, especially the loss of Eichel, and the team’s mediocre start. The good news was that the Sabres handed the red hot Edmonton Oilers their only loss to date, on their home ice in their shiny new arena no less. On the other hand, everyone is casting a wary eye on Toronto, where their generational player, Auston Mathews, scored four goals in their game on opening night. The Sabres have pretty much owned Toronto during the past two decades.
For sure, these next two months will be challenging for the team as they battle through the injuries and try to remain in contention. And what goes with the territory… win or lose, the General Manager has to wear those results. Murray knows that goes with the job. Just don’t expect him to elaborate too much on his burden.
Rest in Peace… Larry, the Peanut Man.