It’s says a lot of bad things about how far the Buffalo Sabres have fallen that the firing of Darcy Regier, the (now-former) general manager of the last 16 years, came as a surprise. It’s true no one expected the Sabres to do well this year, but they’ve been playing at a level that is historically bad by any and all NHL standards. Management finally found its brain and let him go after a 16-year tenure. He was so ingrained in Sabre lore in a bad way that yesterday, when the team said it would be making a big announcement at 10:30 AM, speculation flew about what it might be: Was the team raising ticket prices? Announcing vegetarian concession options? Adding a back escalator to the Effin’ Center? No, wait, I know: They just saved a bunch of money on car insurance by switching to Geico!
No, no, and no. The Sabres, mired in a mess that saw them play their first 20 games to a 4-15-1 record, 30th place in the NHL, display a league-worst offense, hire a head coach who won all of nine game in regulation out of over 50, field a team of badly underdeveloped kids and goons, and get their asses handed to them by some of the worst teams in the league, finally fired the mercy bullet. Regier is out. Coach Ron Rolston went with him. Ted Black is still hanging around, but seeing as how he’s the guy who talked Terry into keeping Darcy and and Rollie long after they should have been canned, one senses he received a quick demotion to the smile/nod token. The team has yet to hire a new GM, but they created a new position – Head of Hockey Operations – which went to Pat LaFontaine. Ted Nolan returned to finish the job he began back in the 90’s, when Regier unceremoniously dumped him. The Buffalo Sabres, once admired across the league for being a prime example of a team that beat the NHL economic structure to be a competitive small market year after year, finally decided to reintroduce competitiveness and class to the organization.
I can’t help but reflect a little. If Regier was fired a few years ago like he should have been, he would have been given a better-wished sendoff. The Presidents’ Trophy and 1999 Prince of Wales Trophy both happened on his watch, after all, and he did manage to nab Ryan Miller, Brian Campbell, and Daniel Briere, the most electrifying Sabres of the past decade for my money. Yet, there’s no accounting for all his mistakes: How the hell did Maxim Afinogenov get to stay with the team for so long? Why was Regier’s only big pickup in the aftermath of the 2005 lockout Teppo Numinnen in a newly-capped NHL with Peter Forsberg available? How the hell do you just let both Chris Drury and Daniel Briere walk out the door like that? There was his ill-thought attempt to toughen up the team after Milan Lucic snowplowed Ryan Miller…. The refusal to make a trade during the 2006 run because of chemistry concerns….
Darcy Regier is widely considered one of the NHL’s true good guys, but being a good guy doesn’t make a team good. For much of his tenure, being a Sabres fan meant never getting too attached to any players you liked, and embracing the most useless guys on the team. Despite some incredible highs, Darcy’s techniques for improvement gradually backfired on the team, and over the last year, the fans began jumping ship. It looked like a 3-7 Bills team would be back in the playoffs before the Sabres. Through all these ridiculous fiascos, Regier still managed to charm his way into keeping the job like some kind of ultra-hypnotoad, asking for more time and patience. How he managed to stay employed after his now-famous “suffering” remark makes the head explode. If you’ve spent 16 years on duty and are asking for more time and patience to get it done right, you blew it.
Save for a handful of token glory years, the Sabres have spent most of the millennium playing the worst hockey of their existence. Regier’s GM record tends to be deceptively bloated, at least a little bit, because he flew in riding the coattails of Ted Nolan, first edition and General Manager John Muckler. In part, we can write off his early successes with the 1998 and 1999 teams as picking up the work those two started. And while he takes a lot of shit for the Pat LaFontaine trade – his first – selective memory kinda blocks out the fact that Patty Lala had taken shots to the head like a reliable prizefighter and was concussed enough to believe he needed to keep playing after the doctor said the next blast could kill him. The fallout after The Hardest Working Team in Hockey days was terrible, but post-lockout, Regier rebounded by assembling the 2006 and 2007 teams, probably the best two teams in Sabres history. After 2007 left team Captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere hanging out to dry, the Sabres were never a threatening team again. Yes, the original Winter Classic was a good game, and the 2010 division title was nice, but that thing just sort of happened. The division wasn’t wonderful and the Sabres were the kind of team that was very good at playing off mistakes, and teams like that don’t have long playoff lives, no matter how many division banners are in the rafters.
Early in the 2012 season, Milan Lucic took Ryan Miller’s head off, and that exposed the Sabres to the league as a bunch of pretenders. Regier spent the next offseason in tough guy mode, adding muscle to a talent-depleted roster. Nutshell story, the plan backfired, the Sabres became known as a classless and dirty unit, and Regier – not satisfied with letting just the actual hockey talent go – started letting go of the basic elements of talent scattered on the team, claiming it was all in the name of a grand design rebuilding project. In 2013, he made an enormous tactical error by suggesting he was starting a new rebuilding project which had begun, unbeknownst to fans, with the prior trade of Paul Gaustad and telling us that the wait for winning hockey was going to require some more suffering. That was no coy implicative remark either. That was the exact term he used. Unfortunately for Regier, he had already been on the job for 13 years by then and the fans were pretty much out of rope. When a team of underdeveloped kids and dirty-shooting goons hit the ice this season and played at historically bad levels, the pissed-off fanbase jumped ship and Terry Pegula was finally forced to make a business decision: Keep trusting Darcy and let the fans keep jettisoning themselves to the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs, or whoever else would have them, or rid himself of the man who had taken the Sabres down about 43 notches in class and respect. Pegula made his first truly smart decision of his ownership tenure and did the latter.
Darcy Regier the man is still one of the best-liked people in the NHL, and on that level, I sincerely hope he lands on his feet. I would prefer it, though, if he lands on his feet somewhere that doesn’t involve my team’s player management.