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Sabres "Blueprint" Goes the Distance

Sabres clinch last place and Ted Nolan fired

The consternation over the Buffalo Sabres’ quest for 30th place went down to the wire.

At stake was a guaranteed berth among the top two picks in the 2015 NHL draft lottery, which now becomes a 20 percent chance to land Connor McDavid and an 80 percent chance of getting the rights to pick Jack Eichel. Both are regarded as generational players, superstars to build the franchise around, and most importantly to the ownership and front office, to market the team to the fan base, season ticket holders, suite holders and sponsors.

29th place in the league would have gotten a 13.5 percent chance for McDavid, a 20 percent chance for Eichel, and 66.5 percent chance of falling to third pick. The prospects from third on are impressive and tantalizing, but not regarded in the same way as the top two marquee players are.

Yet as the last weeks unfolded, and the Arizona Coyotes refused to go away in the race to the bottom, fans and observers could clearly see that this rag tag group of Sabres players was not running for the bus. They were not mailing the season in and giving in to the chorus from the fan base that they secure that coveted 30th place.

And much of the “blame,” if you will, rested on the shoulders of Coach Ted Nolan, who was perceived as the catalyst in the room who was inspiring his players, who created a siege mentality of “us against them,” and was almost willing his players, especially his goaltenders, to play above their potential.

Had Nolan and his players succeeded in putting the monkey wrench into the “blueprint,” it would have been his final, and probably his most gratifying Eff You to an organization that in totality has treated him awfully during his two stints here.

Nolan was brought back to Buffalo in November of 2013 in a surprise move, and his return was largely due to the hiring of his friend and mentor Pat LaFontaine as President of Hockey Operations. Nolan’s and LaFontaine’s close friendship and association go way back to their time in Buffalo as coach and player. Later on, both men ascended to positions with the New York Islanders, Nolan hired as head coach and LaFontaine as an unpaid executive. That arrangement didn’t last long, LaFontaine left and Nolan was let go after two seasons despite getting that long suffering franchise back into the playoffs.

So when LaFontaine departed Buffalo in March of 2014 in a front office shakeup, Nolan was reportedly disconsolate. Pretty much, his fate was sealed. Mind you, it was LaFontaine who hired Tim Murray as the General Manager, and following that hire, it was Murray who had free reign in terms of who his coach would be. Whatever Murray’s feelings were about Nolan, removing him as coach and bringing in his own person would have been a public relations nightmare for the Sabres.

What is known now was that there was a huge clash of philosophies within the ownership and management hierarchy, with Murray advocating a plan to dismantle the team, go after the top players in these two talent rich drafts, and rebuild a team around those prospects. LaFontaine wanted to keep the core together. Everyone knows how that turned out.

So getting back to the original question—what if the Sabres had won last Friday in Columbus, bringing the quest for 30th down to the final night of the season. Imagine if you will a packed house in full throated support of the stumbling Pittsburgh Penguins, with fans dreading the late game that night—Arizona hosting the Anaheim Ducks.

It would have been ugly. And ironically, the 2-0 snoozefest is not the game you would have seen last Saturday. You would have seen an inspired team, led by Coach Nolan, making its last statement to Buffalo’s hockey nation.

And that is exactly why Nolan had to go.

Once the “blueprint” was decided, as right or wrong as it may be, it would take all aspects of the organization rowing together to ensure its success. Ted Nolan tipping his hand to the media and the public about running things the way he sees fit, about criticizing his GM for leaving defenseman Mark Pysyk in Rochester all season, and almost projecting a sense of schadenfreude as the worries over 30th place went the distance, made him unpalatable to the future of the franchise.

If the hand wringing amongst the fans, and the media, and the morning crew on WGR 550 was excruciating, imagine what it must have been like in the management suite, with millions of dollars of ticket and merchandise sales on the line, and the careers of the general manager and top executives hanging in the balance. And powerless to do much if anything that was unfolding on the ice.

Nolan will be richly compensated for his time here in Buffalo. His future in hockey, whether it be in Latvia, in the juniors, or somewhere else will be there. But for most fans in Buffalo, his legacy will not be the last two years, but his first stint, elevating the Hardest Working Team in Hockey to a division title and that 1997 series win over Ottawa that is seared into our consciousness. And for that we will always thank Ted and wish him well.

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