"Starting today, the Buffalo Sabres' reason for existence will be to win a Stanley Cup."
He spoke those words Feb. 22, 2011, a few weeks after he finalized his purchase of the team from Tom Golisano. He said then that there was no limit on the team's spending, and that winning the cup was a three-year process that was to begin immediately.
The Sabres seemed to have been energized by that. They went 15-3-4 after Golisano's press conference to squeak into the playoffs, where they lost in the first round. They followed that up with a near-miss in 2011-12, finishing 39-32-11 to place ninth in the Eastern Conference.
The fell farther in 2012-13, during which they went 21-21-6 to finish well behind in the playoff race. After that strike-shortened season, Pegula amended his words:
"Jerry Jacobs (owner of the Boston Bruins) … took 39 years to win a Stanley Cup. I don't know how long. How can you guarantee anybody anything? You do your best every year."
The Sabres aren't even doing that much this year. They come back from the Olympic break this week with a 15-34-8 record, easily the worst in the NHL. They will spend the final two months of the season trying to secure the top pick in this summer's draft and likely shedding more salary.
The Sabres' payroll stands at $56,915,447, well below the $64.3 million salary cap and some $10 million less than last season, during which they shed Robyn Regehr and Jason Pominville (and their high-priced deals). They also dealt away Thomas Vanek and his $6.4 million deal, which does expire after this season.
More contract-shedding could come before next week's trade deadline. Matt Moulson, whom the Sabres acquired in the Vanek deal, makes $3.13 million but will enter free agency after this season along with Steve Ott ($2.95 million) and Ryan Miller ($6.25 million).
So these actions would seem to belie Pegula's vow to open the pocketbook. But they could also portend the start of a new three-year plan. Pegula has already pulled the trigger twice on new coaches, first bringing in Ron Rolston to replace Lindy Ruff and then replacing Rolston less than a year later with Ted Nolan. Pat LaFontaine, named to the newly created job of president of hockey operations, will determine his fate along with Tim Murray, whom LaFontaine hired to replace Darcy Regier as general manager.
In the front office, therefore, Pegula is living up to his vow to create a culture of winning – at least in theory. His hiring of Craig Patrick as a special adviser further attests to this; Patrick built the 1990s Stanley Cup-winning teams in Pittsburgh and was a part of the 1980 Miracle on Ice Olympic hockey team. And the draft picks the team picked up in the past year, along with those it's likely to get come this year's trade deadline, should bring in a wealth of young talent to complement the cache of picks the team's made in recent years, including Rasmus Ristolainen, Zemgus Girgensons and Joel Armia.
Whether all these changes will result in the title Sabres fans have craved for nearly a half-century remains to be seen. In the interim, though, the club is mired in its worst stretch ever, as it's about to miss the playoffs for the fifth time in seven seasons. So Pegula has his work cut out for him.
He's done enough in this past year, though, to keep the flame of hope he ignited three years ago lit. Barely.
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