BUFFALO, N.Y. – Sabres President Pat LaFontaine’s two-month search for a general manager ended with an unexpected addition.
In hiring Tim Murray to take over as GM on Thursday, LaFontaine also announced the addition of Hockey Hall of Fame executive Craig Patrick to serve as a special adviser to assist in transforming the NHL’s worst team into a contender.
“It’s comfortable for me to be in the middle, having played centre my whole life,” the former Sabres captain said, seated between Murray and Patrick. “To have these wingers is pretty special.”
Murray has the background, decisiveness and even a hockey pedigree LaFontaine was seeking in a general manager.
The 50-year-old Murray is the nephew of Senators general manager Bryan Murray, and has spent much of his 20 years in the NHL being mentored by his uncle, including the past seven in Ottawa as an assistant GM.
“I think we have the next great eye for talent,” LaFontaine said. “He’s earned it. He’s done every job to get to this point. He’s had success everywhere he’s been. And he’s going to have success here in Buffalo.”
Patrick assumes a role similar to the one he held the previous two seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets. It’s LaFontaine’s belief that Patrick’s 30-plus years of experience—including 17 with the Pittsburgh Penguins—can provide focus to a team in transition after general manager Darcy Regier and first-year coach Ron Rolston were fired in mid-November.
“Craig’s going to help evaluate. He’s got the experience,” LaFontaine said. “He’s won Stanley Cups. He’s gone through rebuilds.”
The Sabres’ front-office has begun taking shape in the two months since LaFontaine took over.
“I’m on a mission to bring the right people here,” LaFontaine said. “I’m still not done. We still have a lot of work.”
Now comes improving the team on the ice, which sits last in the NHL with 12-26-4 record entering its home game against Florida on Thursday night.
Though Buffalo has shown improvement in going 8-11-3 under interim coach Ted Nolan, Murray made clear he has plenty of work to do.
Murray intends to continue the process begun under Regier by building through the draft. And he won’t be averse to trading any of Buffalo’s remaining core players—including goalie Ryan Miller.
“This team’s in last place right now,” Murray said. “Everybody can be traded.”
Miller, along with captain Steve Ott and newly acquired forward Matt Moulson, are in the final year of their contracts.
Another issue is the status of Nolan, who was hired by LaFontaine with the opportunity to continue on as coach once the new GM was hired.
Murray is open to working with Nolan beyond this season.
“It’s a clean slate here,” Murray said. “There’s no preconceived notions. He’s the coach of the hockey team, and I’m looking forward to getting to know him.”
Nolan, who is back for a second stint in Buffalo, said he had no input on Murray’s hiring, and is eager to getting to know his new boss.
“My status has always been the same since Pat asked me to come here,” Nolan said. “I’m here to coach this team as best as I can. I’m not worried about tomorrow, I’m just worried about here today.”
Murray believes the Sabres have several pieces already in place, including a large stock of high draft picks and up-and-coming prospects in their system.
“The cupboard’s not bare,” Murray said. “This was an attractive, attractive time for me to just branch out on my own and try to put my stamp on the game of hockey.”
The Sabres could have as many as two first-round and three second-round selections in this year’s draft. The Sabres also have a solid group of prospects in their farm system. They include defencemen Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov, who were both drafted in the first round in June.
Murray has a solid track record as a talent evaluator, and has had input in numerous personnel decisions during his previous stops in Detroit, Florida, Anaheim and the New York Rangers. In Anaheim, he had a hand in the Ducks selecting future star forwards Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in the first round of the 2003 draft.
“I would consider myself somewhat aggressive,” Murray said of his philosophy. “I don’t think it takes you two days to make a decision or two weeks to make a decision.”
That’s a departure from the conservative approach the Sabres took under Regier, who was criticized for being overly cautious when it came to shaking up his roster. Murray’s decisiveness and directness is what owner Terry Pegula was seeking in his new GM.
As for Patrick, Pegula has been a long-time fan of the executive he first got to know in Pittsburgh.
“Craig’s a smart man,” Pegula said. “He’s probably forgotten more than most people know about hockey.”