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Agenda clash adds intrigue for Sabres

Agenda clash adds intrigue for Sabres Sabres head coach Ted Nolan enjoys nothing more than taking underdog teams and showing them they can win, while GM Tim Murray is confronted with doing what’s best for the greater good, which means losing and moving closer to next year’s No. 1 pick – Connor McDavid. (File photo)

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Let’s examine job descriptions as they pertain to the Sabres and the season ahead. It marks the first full season since Tim Murray was hired as general manager and Ted Nolan returned as coach. Murray did not bring Nolan aboard but retained him to maintain stability after the Pat LaFontaine debacle.

It’s important to remember that they had no previous relationship and may not have a strong one now. Their allegiance is to the team, not to each other. They don’t need to be beer buddies, but they must understand what the other is trying to accomplish for their relationship to work.

In an ordinary season, the general manager and coach generally have the same ideals. The GM assembles the best team possible with the idea he has enough talent in place to contend for the playoffs. The coach does everything he can to maximize potential with the same goal in mind.

This is not an ordinary season.

Murray and Nolan aren’t about to hold a news conference saying as much, but they have different agendas. It doesn’t mean they have a contentious relationship. Murray will say that he wants to win ASAP because he can’t send any other message to his players, to the fans, to the league.

But his job calls for doing what’s best for the long-term success of his hockey club. This year, losing also means winning. The more Buffalo loses, the greater its chances of getting the first pick overall. It would allow the Sabres to draft Connor McDavid, the top prize of the 2015 draft.

McDavid is expected to be a franchise player, one who comes along once in a generation. He’s already been compared to Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby, two of the best players in NHL history, the kind of players who can lead an entire franchise on the right course for a decade or longer.

Owner Terry Pegula has a crush on the kid, and understandably so. He has made it clear within the organization that Buffalo should be doing everything possible to increase its chances of landing him. Murray is trying to strike a balance between improving his team and finishing last.

It’s quite a tightrope, but it explains why he didn’t add an established goaltender this summer. There is no better way to get maximum effort from his players and minimal results from his team.

Nolan will be doing whatever he can to win because, for no other reason, he needs to sleep at night. He’s not going to become a problem child. He’ll also say all the right things when the Sabres open training camp. He’ll talk about his commitment to making young players better. He’ll say he understands the process, how it takes time to turn around a franchise.

But that will be for public consumption.

In private, his players will hear a different tune.

I’ve known Nolan for nearly 20 years, and I can see where this is headed. He’s wired to win every game possible by any means possible. He’s a proud man who persevered through years of inequity and indignity. He’s stronger now than he was 17 years ago, when he was pushed out of the NHL.

Nolan didn’t cower to anyone in 1997, so he’s certainly not going to back down now. It’s why players respect him. They would know if he took his foot off the accelerator. He’s certainly not going to deliver a half-hearted message about effort when effort goes to the core of his coaching philosophy.

This is where Nolan is best. He enjoys nothing more than taking underdog teams and showing them they can win. You saw it the first time around with the Sabres, when he was the popular coach of a lovable team, and with the Islanders, who made the playoffs in 2007 while having last-place talent.

Nolan wouldn’t be the first coach to rally his players around the idea that their own organization lacks faith in them. Coaches embrace the Us-vs.-Them approach whether the opponent is the other team, the media or even their own organization. The trick for him is turning effort and chemistry into winning.

Bet the house that respected veterans such as Brian Gionta, Josh Gorges and Matt Moulson didn’t sign up for losing.

Nolan would take great joy in proving people wrong, in building confidence among his players and winning sooner than expected. He feels a responsibility to prove LaFontaine was right to hire him before his friend and former boss lost a power struggle and was shown the door.

Murray is left doing what’s best for the greater good, which means losing and moving closer to the No. 1 pick. Nolan is trying to get the most from his players, which meaning winning and moving away from the first pick. The conflict isn’t with them but in their job descriptions.

For now, anyway.

email: bgleason@buffnews.com

  • Ken Elder

    Assuming what Gleason has written is true (and that's a big IF) and that they have competing agendas, there's no reason that both couldn't get what they want.....an improved team with a much greater attitude and work ethic that still finishes at the bottom. Let's face it.....the team last year was the worst in club history. The team that takes the ice this October will be vastly improved over the one that left the ice in April. But even if they increase their win total by a third, they will still finish damn right at or incredibly close to the bottom. Nolan could get them onto a substantially improved trajectory and they could still end up with McDavid.

  • joe

    this sounds like the plot from the movie"major league". the owner is telling the club to fail on the ice to get one player? seriously?

  • Otis

    Playing for the bottom is a joke. Tank the season and you still only have a 20% shot at McDavid. Heck he may even be a bust or end up with concussion issues. Who knows. You need to learn how to compete and win. How are these young kids going to develop right if they know the organization and the fans would rather they lose every night? That's messed up.

    • Lou68

      You are right about the 20% but I don't see McDavid as a possible bust. You never know with injuries and he is still young but having watched him play, he is the real deal. A beautiful, fast skater with great hockey instincts and exceptional skills.

      Odds are we never see him in Blue and Gold but it certainly would be a beautiful thing. Murray et al should be building the team with the talent and players they have. I think they'll do that and hope for the best. Watch for a real fire sale if they are even close to the bottom come trade deadline. Look for every team to do that in hopes of getting Connor, or that 'other guy'.

  • Leah P

    Tim Murray is no fool. He is ten steps of everyone. Never would there be a discussion between Murray and Nolan where Tim is "instructing" Ted to tank games. Thats also pretty difficult to orchestrate in the sport of hockey. Murray has engineered a roster in such a way where the chances of having a winning season are slim, but in a way that will allow for the healthy and productive development of the young draftees. Nolan is aware of what he is working with, and Murray has ALLOWED Nolan to stay because he knows that when this team does have a talented roster capable of making consistent playoff runs, Nolan will have the coaching skills the maximize success, but with this current roster Murray knows that Nolan will get the most out of his individuals and develop their skills and team chemistry, without winning to the point where mcdavid is out of reach. And Bucky points this out eloquently; why go out and get a starting goaltender? This season is a perfect opportunity to develop your young tendies, see if you have a diamond in the rough, and also pretty much guarantee that the lack of a starter will be the cause for a certain number of loses. Hope for a losing season? yes, do it. Watch your young players like Zadarov, Ristolainen, Armia, Girgensons, and Reinhart develop into pro athletes? yep, youll see that too. And if the recipe is right, you may just see Connor McDavid in Blue and Gold come 2015.

    • Otis

      You know what would be more fun? A run at the playoffs with a young hungry hard working team.

  • Jan Reimers

    This is exactly as it should be. Nolan and his players will do everything they can to win, which is absolutely necessary for the integrity of the game.

    If they are good enough to finish a little up in the standings, they probably won't get McDavid. So be it.

    But if they give it everything they have and still finish low enough to have a shot at the kid, that's fine. Good luck!

  • MikMul

    The McDavid thing isn't worth worrying about. They could get him no matter what because the league has changed the rules. Its no longer like when we drafted Turgeon. They AT LEAST have added more talent to the team, and have people on the staff that have a better grasp of how to run an NHL team. They need to win and gain others' respect back.

  • Andrew

    There is absolutely NO WAY that the NHL allows McDavid to end up in Buffalo. I don't care if the Sabres had a 99.9% chance of gaining the number 1 pick next year, it just isn't going to happen.

  • Jack

    Sorry, you lost me at Crosby being 'one of the best players in NHL history' !! He's not even the best on his team!

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