The Buffalo Sabres were considered serious contenders in the East coming into last season. But after finishing ninth and missing the playoffs for the third time in five years, they ended up being the biggest disappointment in the NHL. So does that mean there's serious pressure on Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier this year?
Few would deny both men will find themselves on the hot seat if their team has a repeat performance of 2011-12.
This is a new era in the history of this team. The Sabres are no longer a franchise bound by a self-imposed budget.
Terry Pegula has brought hope and a whole lot of money to western New York. He shouted from the rooftops that he would do anything to bring a Stanley Cup to Buffalo.
Surprisingly enough, he left the incumbent coach and general manager in charge of that mission.
It's rare in today's sports world to see new ownership come in and not clean house. However, it's also just as strange to see a team that's had the same coach and GM tandem for 14 years.
Especially when that tandem has never won a championship.
Ruff and Regier have had different periods in their tenure together where they've enjoyed immense success. All of it was accomplished under ownership that was more concerned with the bottom line than the product on the ice. And for that they should be commended.
Yet, none of that changes what happened last year.
After trading for Robyn Regehr, then signing Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino, Sabres fans saw right away Mr. Pegula wasn't afraid to open his wallet. The problem with that, though, is the risk you take in overpaying the wrong player.
With that being said, it's hard to write off Leino as a bust after only one season. In fact, some of his struggles rest squarely on the shoulders of Ruff.
He labored to find a home for Leino throughout the year, and rarely kept him with the same linemates for more than a few games. It's hard to develop any continuity if the players around you are constantly changing.
Is there any excuse for scoring 25 points while making $4.5 million?
Of course not. But Ruff did little to put Leino in a position to succeed, which is a fundamental responsibility of coaching.
And regardless of what you thought of Derek Roy, the former Sabre rightfully spoke out against Ruff's propensity for calling out his players in the media when spoke to told John Vogl of The Buffalo News:
To be pointing fingers now is obviously tough. Behind closed doors, I think it’s fine. You can be hard. It’s not fun, but it’s good to be hard on your players behind closed doors, on the bench to get them pumped up. I’m not a coach, but I don’t think it’s the right thing to be saying it to the media.
He's right. That's another prime example of an ineffective strategy Lindy's employed that does nothing but antagonize and irritate his team. Ruff should take a step back this season and think about keeping his most poignant criticisms inside the room.
The development (or lack thereof) of Cody Hodgson should go a long way this year in determining whether Ruff's message is getting through or whether it's stale and tired.
As for Regier, he's as responsible as anyone for the success of the Sabres because he assembled this roster.
Since coming back from the last lockout, the biggest knock on Darcy has been his tendency to fall in love with his players. Roy forced his hand by taking his issues with Ruff public.
But if Buffalo struggles coming out of the gate again, will he pull the trigger on a deal to shake things up? Would he send Drew Stafford packing if the winger underachieves for a second straight season?
After the nosedive the Sabres took following the Milan Lucic incident, this team was begging for a change. Players looked disinterested and the effort on the ice was subpar.
Yet, Regier failed to make a move early enough to make a difference. He had a perfect opportunity to show he was going to be more aggressive under Pegula, and he dropped the ball. Buffalo ultimately played themselves into a hole they could never climb out of.
Harrison Mooney of Yahoo.com also thinks this is a make-or-break season for Ruff and Regier:
With Terry Pegula desperate for a winner, one has to wonder if the other end of their leash might actually be tied to something now. Ruff especially has to consider himself on the hot seat. Buffalo won't have success unless Ryan Miller is on his game, and tweaking his system to give Miller a bit more support couldn't hurt. If he doesn't, the Sabres might have to find someone who will.
When you factor in the new ownership, the Sabres' performance last season and their failure to win a Cup in 14 years together, it's clear Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier both have enormous pressure on them this year.
It seems unlikely management would fire one and not the other. Both men need to break out of the bad habits they've developed over time if they want to keep their jobs.
Otherwise, we'll be talking about their replacements next offseason.