By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
A couple of months ago, the proverbial unnamed source told me that he thought the most under-covered story in the local media during the pandemic was what it might be doing to the Pegulas’ financial interest.
The source went on to point out that the Pegulas had considerable investments in the oil and gas business – two industries that were struggling at that point due to a drop in demand. Their other businesses were centered on entertainment and sports. It’s obviously difficult to sell tickets when people aren’t allowed to leave their homes for mass gatherings. What’s more, that issue figures to be a problem until a vaccine to the virus is developed and applied to the population.
No one was suggesting that a telethon was necessary for Terry and Kim Pegula. Their “nest egg” still has 10 digits in it, at least. They seemed well equipped to handle some tough times over the short term, even if cash-flow problems might need some managing until we return to whatever will pass for normal down the road. That was true even when the Sabres let go a few long-time executives with the team a few weeks back. It was an awkward move – taking jobs and health insurance away from employees who had spent many years at the same company during a pandemic is never pretty – but it seemed more like an isolated incident.
Then came the news on Tuesday that Jason Botterill had been fired as general manager of the team, with Kevyn Adams replacing him. The Kremlin-watchers of the hockey world thought the timing of the action was odd, particularly in the light of the vote of confidence in Botterill only three weeks ago. Those same observers studied the news release, which read, “We recognized we have philosophical differences regarding how best to put ourselves in a position to compete for a Stanley Cup. So, we decided to make this change.”
The Pegulas said during the news conference on Tuesday they had a series of meetings about the direction of the hockey department. They also mentioned, “We’re going to get leaner.”
Hmm. Then came the firings later in the day. The assistant general managers are gone. Some of the scouting staff members are gone. The team directory on line doesn’t have a great many people left in the hockey department, particularly in scouting. Combine these moves with the ones from earlier in the year, and a pattern emerges.
What, then, would cause Tuesday’s developments? The only scenario that makes sense is that the Pegulas told Botterill that the hockey department’s budget would have to be cut in a good-sized way … and soon. Botterill probably reacted the way most managers would – “No way!” (You can put an adjective in-between no and way if you’d like.) It went back and forth, and the Pegulas figured they could find someone else who was willing to run the team on the reduced budget. Botterill was shown the door, and Terry and Kim walked down the virtual hallway of the office to talk to Adams.
All of a sudden, this looks like a far different situation than it was before Tuesday afternoon. It’s not a matter of complaining about the way Botterill completed the Ryan O’Reilly trade and the Jeff Skinner contract – which admittedly have not worked out well. It’s a matter of a change of course for the entire franchise, and not in a good way.
People have a right to complain about the way the Sabres have been run in the Pegula Era, but you can’t say that the owners weren’t willing to shell out dollars when they thought it would help the team. Free agents have signed good-sized contracts, the team has been close to the salary cap, there have been few complaints about expenditures on scouting, etc. The only obvious spot where money has not been spent where possibly needed is on a team president – but it sounds like the Pegulas prefer their hands-on approach to running the franchise instead of having an intermediary. (It’s a mistake on their part, but it’s their candy store.)
But now, most preconceptions are up for questioning. Will the Sabres be as willing to get involved in bidding for the right free agent when one becomes available? Could this development make Buffalo a less desirable place to play in the future? Will fewer eyeballs on prospects lead to less successful drafts? Will Adams receive help in the form of a “wise man” in the form of an assistant general manager as he learns the ropes of being a general manager in the NHL?
We don’t know the answers to that. We do know that throwing money at the Sabres didn’t prevent the team from sinking into the abyss in the past several years. We also know that this change in philosophy won’t necessarily help the team change the direction, but that it might hurt it.
The source was right. The Pegulas’ financial situation was undercovered. But not anymore.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)