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The Pegula Era at Two Years

Are the Sabres better today?

Former President Ronald Reagan once posed this question when he was a candidate for the office: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”

It’s a powerful question, and a variation of that is perhaps worthy of a bit of reflection for the Buffalo Sabres. This past weekend the team had an anniversary of its own. Two years ago Terry Pegula took ownership of our hockey team. The unveiling of the “Pegula Era” took place on February 23, 2011, as the Atlanta Thrashers were in town.

Remember the event? Pegula and his two boys took to the carpet at center ice, with no announcement or noisy PA announcer intro, and the ovation lasted for two minutes. It only got better as the French Connection trio skated onto the ice to greet the new owner.

The Sabres won that night, and they would do a lot of winning for the new boss. In fact, Buffalo went 16-4-4 to finish that year, climbing out of a big hole to take the seventh seed in the conference. The Philadelphia Flyers were the first-round playoff opponents, and fans here were dreaming of a deep run and asking, “Why not here? Why not now?” On the hopes of blue-liners such as Chris Butler and Shaone Morrisonn, and the leadership of Rob Niedermayer, the Pegula magic and energy had us believing that we could immediately be a Cup contender.

It didn’t happen. A topsy-turvy playoff series against the Flyers ended miserably in seven games. After Tyler Ennis provided the heroics in game five at Philadelphia, the team could not hold a one-goal lead in the third period in game six at home, succumbing to a tying goal and then an overtime netter to send Buffalo fans home disappointed.

That was the last playoff action we have seen on Buffalo ice.

2011-12 saw a great start in Europe, followed by a head of steam for the rest of October, quickly devolving into a losing funk that stretched through early December and into most of January. At one point the Sabres were mired in a 1-8 streak that included a host of lopsided losses. In back-to-back games in March, the team surrendered goals with less than five seconds left in regulation.

And now, in this lockout-shortened season, Buffalo finds itself once again stuck in the bottom of the standings, despite the boxcar salaries being meted out by a free-spending owner and the (on paper) deep talent on this team.

Report card?

From the front office standpoint, the team has done all the right things. Pegula went out and found a top hockey executive in Ted Black. Coming from the Penguins, Black has the leadership, personality, and marketing savvy of former Sabres executive Ron Bertovich from the old Adelphia days. He has reached out into the community to assess strengths, goals, and weaknesses, refined a good management team, and represents Pegula well as the face of the franchise.

They got off on the right foot, first putting out the call and inviting all player alumni back to Buffalo for a reunion. Many showed up, and it was a grand affair; most importantly, it sent waves of attention within the hockey community that there was a new kid in town in Buffalo. The team followed up by creating the new Alumni Plaza in front of the First Niagara Center, unveiling the first statue, that of the French Connection, as its centerpiece.

There was more. Pegula spent $7 million for a complete makeover of the team’s locker room, lounges, and training areas for the players. The new look was dramatic, the opulence and comfort for the players taken to an entirely new level.

With the adjoining Canalside, the Sabres are also displaying huge leadership. Tired of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation’s inaction towards cleaning up the development parcels on the Central Wharf, Pegula donated $120,000 to remove the jersey barriers and collapsing fencing and to lay sod. Then in August, the Sabres were named the developer for the adjoining Webster Block. Construction is expected to start soon on the $170 million project, which will be a game changer in the Inner Harbor.

On the ice? Not so good.

Ville Leino’s free agent signing might turn out to be a bust, the Sabres traded away huge grit with Zack Kassian, and incredibly the defensive corps appears to have regressed, even minus the aforementioned Butler and Morrisonn. Coach Lindy Ruff has never been able to cultivate a true backup netminder for Ryan Miller (or, for that matter, for Dominik Hasek), the trade deadline acquisitions have been miserable (Zubrus, Moore, Torres, Boyes), and since that dark day in 2007 when Drury and Briere departed, the team seems to lack a true leader. Ruff’s resignation was a necessary first step to begin turning things around.

Multiple Stanley Cups? Given the current formula, the team is locked into multiple 10th-place finishes, with an occasional steal of a low seed playoff berth if the puck bounces their way.

Everyone knows what needs to be done. Not sod. Not sculptures. Not contract extensions for hockey guys mired in mediocrity. By the time we do this column for the third anniversary, hopefully Terry Pegula can figure it out.

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