BUFFALO, N.Y. – First, Ryan Miller. Now, Pat LaFontaine.
A day after trading their star goalie to St. Louis, the Buffalo Sabres lost another face of their franchise after LaFontaine abruptly resigned as president of hockey operations on Saturday a little more than three months after being brought in to provide a new direction to the NHL’s last-place team.
The Sabres announced the decision in a news release issued after speculation had been raised of a potential front-office shake-up involving LaFontaine.
“I would like to thank Pat for all he has done for the organization,” Sabres owner Terry Pegula said in the release. “Pat joined us at a very difficult time, and helped transition the organization down a new path.”
The Sabres said LaFontaine would be returning to his previous role working with the National Hockey League. LaFontaine had been working with the league on player safety issues before being hired by the Sabres in mid-November.
The former Sabres captain’s arrival was hailed as a major turning point for a struggling team. LaFontaine took over following a change in the front office during which general manager Darcy Regier and coach Ron Rolston were dismissed following the Sabres’ 4-15-1 start.
LaFontaine’s first move was hiring former Sabres coach Ted Nolan to take over as coach on an interim basis for the remainder of the season.
LaFontaine’s next step came in January, when he hired Tim Murray as general manager.
“Terry Pegula hired me in November, and my primary objective was to lead the Sabres organization through a time of transition,” LaFontaine said in the Sabres’ release. “I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish in a short period of time, and want to thank Terry and Kim Pegula for the opportunity and their support during my time with the Sabres.”
LaFontaine’s resignation still comes as a major surprise. In January, LaFontaine talked openly about how he would use his connections to USA Hockey in a bid to lure national and international events to Buffalo.
He leaves a day after Murray made his first big splash by trading star goalie Ryan Miller and captain Steve Ott to the St. Louis Blues.
In exchange, the Sabres acquired goalie Jaroslav Halak, forward Chris Stewart, prospect William Carrier, a 2015 first-round pick and a conditional 2016 third-round pick in a deal reached in advance of the NHL trade deadline on Wednesday.
The Sabres (18-34-8) had the day off on Saturday, and return to practice on Sunday before travelling to play at Dallas on Monday. They remain in last place, but are enjoying their first three-game winning streak following a 4-2 win over the San Jose Sharks on Friday.
This is not the first time LaFontaine has abruptly stepped down as an NHL team executive.
In July 2006, LaFontaine quit the New York Islanders a little over a month after being brought in to serve as senior adviser to owner Charles Wang.
In Buffalo, LaFontaine’s absence was notable this week once the team returned to the ice following the league’s Olympic break.
He was not spotted in the press box during the Sabres’ three-game homestand that began with a 3-2 win over Carolina on Tuesday. That was unusual because LaFontaine had previously spent time watching games from the press-box level in Pegula’s box, alongside Murray and several of the owner’s associates.
LaFontaine also missed the team’s “Power Play Luncheon” for fans on Friday, when he was scheduled to speak along with fellow former Sabres greats Gilbert Perreault, Rene Robert and Danny Gare. The crowd was informed LaFontaine had the flu.
The Sabres have become a top-heavy organization since Regier’s dismissal.
Pegula created the position of president of hockey operations to hire LaFontaine. And Pegula did so only after LaFontaine declined a chance to become the GM by saying he didn’t think he had enough experience for that job.
Along with hiring Murray, the Sabres also brought in Hockey Hall of Fame member and long-time executive Craig Patrick to serve as a special adviser.
LaFontaine backed the hiring of Murray and Patrick, by referring to both as his “wingers.” He also discussed how important it was for him to be building a front-office team that could work together in rebuilding a team that has missed the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, and not won a playoff round since reaching the 2007 Eastern Conference finals.
It’s not clear what effect LaFontaine’s departure will have on the team’s short-term future, including Nolan’s status.
Murray said this week he’s already had discussions with Nolan about extending his contract beyond this season.