Sabres hires a good start, but new GM is most important piece

The Buffalo Sabres’ road to recovery is still going to be a long, uphill one full of losses. But at least they’re on that road. Wednesday’s hiring of Ted Nolan as interim coach and, especially, Pat LaFontaine as president of hockey operations started them down the right path. The question is: will they stay on it?

The Sabres needed a change. They had, at times, become a clown franchise this season, what with the John Scott and Patrick Kaleta incidents, a league-worst nine points and their own fans booing them at home. The changes made on Wednesday won’t bump the Sabres any closer to the playoffs, but they will provide a refreshing jolt for the fan base and send a new message to the roster. And they were changes that also gave the team options to move ahead with the brain trust of its choosing.

From the Buffalo News:

“I think it’s a philosophy and a direction,” LaFontaine said. “Not only do you want to change the culture as far as where you see this team going, but its in the locker room, the front office and the hockey department that they want to be part of culture change together. Anytime you have new leadership, you have to prepare the troops. … We’ve got a lot of work in front of us. We have to be patient, smart, selective. It’s not going to happen overnight, but I can tell you this, we’ll get the right people and still filling the holes and the environment will grow.”

The Sabres had become stale. Regier was on the job since 1997 and though he would eventually lift the team into contender status, it seems like a lifetime ago. The Sabres haven’t even won a playoff round since 2007. And though Regier’s recent trade record is pretty good for a guy attempting to build a franchise back up, there was a sense in Sabres fandom he wasn’t the right guy to finish the job. They had grown tired of him and his bygone era. It’s not that Regier was doing a poor job of starting the rebuild – it’s just that the Sabres desperately needed a new outlook, a new hope. They needed a new confidence in management.

LaFontaine also spoke about his inexperience in the GM chair, which is why he didn’t push for that position. He knows more qualified people around the league who would do a better job, which is exactly the kind of long-term, level-headed approach the Sabres need. Good start. Because, as big as today’s news was, the main part of the rebuild puzzle still needs to fall into place – there is still a GM to be named.

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LaFontaine has connections with former Rangers GM (and briefly Islanders GM) Neil Smith, but you have to hope they choose someone who has been involved in NHL management more recently. If not, today’s promise would cave in under the doubt of a gathering old boys’ club. And though Smith could very well prove to be a good choice, on the surface, it’s not the best option today. From Nashville’s Paul Fenton, to New Jersey’s David Conte, to Vancouver’s Laurence Gilman and beyond, there are plenty of interesting and worthy candidates for the Sabres to inquire about.

And as for Nolan – it would be folly to get tied up in his interim tag. Since there is no GM in place yet, it makes little sense to commit full-time to a new coach until the new team builder is put in place. Nolan isn’t the most inspiring choice to take over the team, but this season is lost anyway. He will make the Sabres skate, he will make them work hard, he will relay a completely new message and, who knows, he may coach his way into a full-time position under the new boss. But there’s no need to make that final decision today. This was a minor part of the new movement. Again – good start for the Sabres.

There’s still so much to be done in rebuilding this roster. But with Rasmus Ristolainen, Zemgus Girgensons and a slew of other rookies already on the roster, a promising pipeline of talent, and a wide collection of draft picks under Buffalo’s control, Regier left the franchise in a good place to do it from.

Today started the process for a franchise starving for change – and it got off on the right foot. The right things were said and those speaking at the press conference exuded an understanding for the patience this franchise will need over the next few years. It wasn’t only a personnel change Wednesday, it was a philosophical change from how owner Terry Pegula has played the game so far. And there’s nothing wrong with changing gears if it’s for the best.

But the ultimate judgment of today’s news has to wait until a new GM is hired. He’ll be the one tasked with building this team up, making the final decision on a full-time coach and (maybe) trading Ryan Miller, the best asset the team has left.

Wednesday’s news was a good, promising start, but the most influential individual in this new era is still to come. Who will (or should) be the next GM of the Sabres?