BUFFALO, N.Y. – Sabres forward Drew Stafford has witnessed plenty of turmoil during his eight seasons in Buffalo.
Following Stafford’s rookie season in 2007, the Sabres lost co-captains Chris Drury and Danny Briere to free agency. Last year, long-time coach Lindy Ruff was fired.
What occurred during a 24-hour stretch this weekend has become the topper, leaving Stafford shaking his head in disbelief after returning to practice Sunday.
“I thought I had seen it all,” Stafford said. “But, I guess, there’s always room for more surprises. And this one’s definitely a shocker.”
On Friday, Stafford had difficulty keeping his emotions in check after star goalie Ryan Miller was traded to St. Louis. A day later, he was blindsided upon learning of Pat LaFontaine’s abrupt resignation as president of hockey operations.
“It’s tough,” Stafford said. “It’s another challenge, a little more adversity that you’ve got to put on top of the pile.”
As if the Sabres (18-34-8) needed any more distractions during a season in which upheaval and dysfunction have been common threads for the NHL’s last-place team.
At 2-13-1, Buffalo got off to its worst start in team history. Leading scorer Thomas Vanek was traded to the Islanders in October. The Sabres opened 0-8-1 at home, before enjoying their first win on Nov. 12. Three days later, general manager Darcy Regier and coach Ron Rolston were fired.
Miller getting dealt along with captain Steve Ott, were widely anticipated moves because both were in the final years of their contracts. LaFontaine’s departure was a surprise, coming a little more than three months after his arrival was hailed as a positive turning point for a struggling team.
“It’s a lot for our fans to swallow in a short amount of time,” Sabres president Ted Black said. “It creates uncertainty. And it’s something that fans are going to be upset by.”
Black failed to divulge any further details regarding the resignation except to reiterate LaFontaine wanted to resume his previous role working with the National Hockey League.
Black called the resignation a disappointment, but denied speculation that there had been any discord between LaFontaine and front-office staff or owner Terry Pegula.
LaFontaine has not returned messages, and on Sunday, his cell-phone mailbox was full.
What’s clear is that his departure marks the latest setback for a franchise that has had difficulty establishing a winning course in the three years since Pegula bought the team and vowed to build an immediate contender. The Sabres are in jeopardy of missing the playoffs for a third straight season, and in the midst of a rebuilding plan that began with the purge of numerous high-priced veterans last year.
Black said the objective has not changed, and the team’s transformation will continue under general manager Tim Murray.
“Pat was here for three months. It is one person,” Black said. “I don’t know if that impacts the greater mission or will deter us.”
Murray was hired by LaFontaine in January, and now assumes much of his former boss’s responsibilities.
It was Murray, who negotiated the Miller trade. And he is also fielding offers to make further deals before the league’s trade deadline on Wednesday.
Next on Murray’s priority list is negotiating a contract extension with interim coach Ted Nolan, who was brought in by LaFontaine for a second stint in Buffalo.
“We want Teddy to be our coach going forward,” Murray said. “If he wants to be here, I want him to be our coach.”
The question is whether Nolan wants to stay, something he left open following practice Sunday.
“Right now, it’s not about my contract. It’s about the situation that’s happening,” Nolan said. “It’s about what’s transpired in this organization, what happened to a very dear friend. And we’ll leave it at that.”
So much for the momentum the Sabres were supposed to be enjoying with their first three-game winning streak in preparing to play Dallas on Monday.
“We traded our franchise player, we traded our captain. That’s tough enough as it is. And then all of a sudden the situation with Patty,” Nolan said. “Right now, I have to put my personal situation behind right now and really concentrate on those 22 guys here.”
Informed of Nolan’s comments, Murray said, “I’m not going to beg anybody to come work here.”
Murray said it’s his objective to continue rebuilding the Sabres, which is what he was hired to do with or without LaFontaine.
“I can’t make choices for him. He makes his own choices,” Murray said. “I’m not one to dwell on what-ifs and sentiment and all that. But I’ll forever be grateful that he hired me.”