Give the Buffalo Sabres some credit here. Some credit. They could have taken one look at how the GMTM (general manager Tim Murray) tenure went and played it safe in their next GM search. Few would have blamed them if they had felt burned by going outside the GM recycling bin and pursued someone with a proven track record in the NHL. But of the seven candidates who appear to have made the final short list, not one of them has ever had the parking pass to the GM’s spot.
Regardless of which candidate they ultimately hire – Jason Botterill, Paul Fenton, Tom Fitzgerald, Michael Futa, Bill Guerin or Bill Zito – they’ll be getting a good hockey man with a combination of youthful vigor and some really good experience in the trenches. They’ll also be getting something of an unknown quantity. Again. It’s going to take a leap of faith here by everyone involved, including Sabres owner Terry Pegula, who has to stop throwing good money after bad and at some point has to get out of his own way. A really good start would be to hand the job over to one of these seven guys and allow him to do it unimpeded.
Botterill, Fenton, Fitzgerald and Guerin all played in the NHL, so they have that perspective going for them. And it’s no coincidence that when they played, all four were considered outstanding character players. That’s why they’ve gravitated to where they are now. If you’re looking to instill a culture of hard work and accountability, those guys will do it. Zito was a player agent for years and is now the assistant GM in Columbus. That leaves Futa, whose highest playing level was in Denmark and in Germany’s third division, where he went after playing Canadian university hockey.
But Jay Feaster never knew how to skate and Mike Babcock played Canadian university, then played pro in Great Britain, so the lack of a high level of playing pedigree clearly doesn’t preclude anyone from running a hockey department. The fact is, there’s not one skill that translates from playing to be a GM. Not one. Coaching, that’s a different story, but a short, dumpy guy can run a hockey team as well as a former player. There are too many former players in positions of power in hockey already, more than any other sport by far, and the game needs more people involved at the managerial level who have not had their faces smashed into the glass.
There seems to be a fascination in Buffalo for all things Pittsburgh, which would give the inside track to one of three men – Penguins associate GM Botterill, assistant GM Guerin or former Penguins director of player development and current New Jersey Devils assistant GM Fitzgerald. (In fact, for a short time on Monday, Botterill’s Wikipedia page identified him as the GM of the Buffalo Sabres.) All of them have won a Stanley Cup and the way things are going, both Botterill and Guerin could have their name engraved on it again after this season.
But if the Sabres are looking for someone who has a body of work that is long, plentiful, successful and hands-on, they would serve themselves well by seriously looking at Futa. The 49-year-old assistant GM for the Los Angeles Kings should have been named GM when the Kings fired Dean Lombardi, but they instead went with a name GM in Rob Blake, another former player who doesn’t need the money, but has put in the work in the trenches and has equipped himself to be ready for the job. But if there’s one person in the Kings organization who deserves credit for putting Blake in that position, it’s Futa. And it’s no coincidence that once Blake was hired, he almost immediately elevated Futa from director of player personnel to assistant GM.
Of all the candidates, Futa is the only one who was a GM in major junior hockey, where he operated a small market franchise in Owen Sound and discovered, among a few other players, a little-known and undrafted prospect by the name of Wayne Simmonds. He has since worked his way up through the scouting ranks, teaming with Mark Yannetti to build an organization that was once bereft of prospects into one that boasted some impressive young talent. The Kings are once again bereft, but that’s more due to the perils of winning and trading futures than it has talent identification.
Futa has experience with a Stanley Cup team as well, but the difference with him is he knows what it’s like to build a contender up from the rubble. He and Yannetti were largely responsible for the Manchester Monarchs team that won the Calder Cup in 2014-15. He’s been involved in everything from the Under-17 World Hockey Challenge to the NHL trade deadline. He finished second to Murray the last time this job came open and was eschewed for Brad Treliving in Calgary. He likely would have been a GM somewhere by now had the Kings not continually turned teams down when they asked permission to speak to him.
There are not many places where the Kings would allow Futa to go, but one of them is Buffalo. And it would have to be for a GM job, nothing less. All of the candidates the Sabres are courting have impressive resumes and would do a fine job, but none has the breadth and depth of experience Futa would provide to an organization that desperately needs to start building properly from the ground up.
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