June 11, 1997. That’s the last time the Buffalo Sabres hired a general manager. Darcy Regier held that post for 16 years, the longest-serving Sabres GM ever, until he was fired on November 14, 2013. 58 days and 10 candidates after that, Pat LaFontaine hired Regier’s successor, and the man he deemed worthy of Buffalo’s GM job is Tim Murray, the now former assistant general manager of the Ottawa Senators.
It felt like a pretty safe assumption that Tim Murray would succeed his uncle Bryan as the GM of the Sens. So why did he choose Buffalo?
First and foremost, even if it looked safe that Tim could have Bryan’s job in a few years, there are 30 GM jobs in the NHL that are highly sought after and a good opportunity rarely comes about – generally the teams that have fired their GM’s are not in a good position. Tim knew he had the Sabres job and ultimately weighed in favour of finally becoming the GM of a team. This isn’t groundbreaking and applies to every GM; it’s just the reality of pro sports.
Second, despite getting fired, Regier orchestrated the beginning of the rebuild extremely well for the Sabres. He built a prospect pool that was ranked #2 in the NHL by Hockey’s Future, and have had several of their top prospects take major strides (Girgensons, Ristolainen, Zadorov). The Sabres have the best chance of any team to finish last, adding a potential #1 pick, plus the Islanders 1st in either the 2014 or 2015 drafts, along with five 2nd’s in those drafts, and tons of cap space.
The most difficult part for Murray will be the quick decision he has to make on Buffalo’s three big impending UFA’s: Ryan Miller, Matt Moulson and Steve Ott. He’ll have to determine whether to sign or trade all three of these guys, which could lead to even more picks coming back to Buffalo. The Sabres have been an absolutely miserable team this season, but don’t let that make you think their GM job isn’t a very good situation to come into.
Finally, what I believe had to be the biggest factor in Tim’s decision to go another team, is Terry Pegula vs. Eugene Melnyk. Sabres fans and the city of Buffalo are spoiled rotten by Pegula, a billionaire who doesn’t run the team like a business, but like a dude who loves the Sabres and has tons of money. The Ville Leino signing was a classic example of a new owner wanting to show his wallet and spending big immediately. It turned out to be a colossal failure, but Pegula fares no expense, and definitely has learned from trying to build a team that way. Look right outside the First Niagara Center, where Pegula is building a massive hotel with two hockey arenas, spending $170 million out of his pocket, all for the betterment of the city and the FNC.
Murray himself stated, “If you’re a good team, you have to spend to the cap.” He also mentioned it was nice to know ownership would be willing to spend, which brings us to Eugene Melynk. The NHL has a set salary cap at $64.3 million, a number that is expected to dramatically increase year after year, with major revenues like the new Canadian TV deal and multiple outdoor games bringing in more money to spend.
So what does Eugene do? As a complete disservice to his team, fans, and basically the entire city, puts a bullshit $50 million cap on the roster. I completely understand and would advocate not spending all the way to the cap. Every team needs to be smart and leave themselves at least some space, unless they’re a team that is completely going for it. But this cap that Eugene forces is nothing of the sort; an internal cap at $14.3M less than the actual salary cap is insane, and nothing but a hindrance to the team. The Murrays and their staff have done a tremendous job building a cost-effective roster that while inconsistent, is still competitive given their financial constraints. Ottawa could add players with annual salaries of $5M and $4M and still have $5.3M in cap space to work with. This doesn’t matter to Melynk, who only looks at those numbers as the money he’ll complain about losing later.
As a GM, you would choose an owner like Pegula over Melnyk every single time. Money isn’t the answer to everything when trying to succeed in the NHL, but having a blank chequebook over an internal salary cap sure as hell is a better situation for a prospective GM. Murray’s a smart guy, and I’m sure the comparison between the two financial situations really weighed on his decision. I don’t think that the Sens brain trust is going to collapse because they lost Tim Murray. But for Senators fans, it has to be disheartening that being part of their organization is less attractive because of Eugene trying to run the show.