Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - One of the most surprising aspects about Lindy Ruff getting fired by the Buffalo Sabres last season was the club didn't send Darcy Regier packing at the same time.
Ruff and Regier were hired by the Sabres as head coach and general manager, respectively, back in 1997 and the two were always tied together in Buffalo, through both good times and bad.
So, it didn't seem right when owner Terry Pegula opted to fire only Ruff last February, while Regier earned a stay of execution. The fact that Regier was signed to a contract extension prior to the start of last season made it difficult to justify firing him at the time, but the GM always seemed to be living on borrowed time following Ruff's dismissal.
The axe finally swung in Regier's direction when Pegula fired the club's longtime GM as well as head coach Ron Rolston after Buffalo's awful 4-15-1 start to the 2013-14 season. The owner informed Regier and Rolston they were being relieved of their duties on Tuesday night, and on Wednesday morning Pegula announced the news at a press conference.
Regier and Rolston losing their jobs is not a surprise, but Pegula did reveal some intriguing additions to the Sabres organization in the wake of the firings. The club introduced former Sabres great Pat LaFontaine as president of hockey operations and brought back Ted Nolan to serve as the club's head coach on an interim basis.
LaFontaine has quite the rebuilding project ahead of him in Buffalo, a city he knows well after starring with the Sabres for six seasons from 1991-92 until 1996-97. Considered one of the best American-born players to ever skate in the NHL, LaFontaine carved out place for himself in the Hall of Fame even though concussion issues wound up cutting his career short.
Nolan, meanwhile, returns to the Sabres after a previous stint as the club's head coach for two seasons from 1995-97, when LaFontaine was one of his players.
While Nolan has an interim tag placed in front of his coaching title, the Sabres revealed Wednesday that he will finish out the season behind the Buffalo bench.
For LaFontaine, the first and most important order of business is finding a new GM to replace Regier. The next step would be finding some way to reverse Buffalo's recent downward spiral.
Regier and Ruff experienced some early success in their tenure in Western New York, but things turned sour in a hurry. With Ruff no longer around to share some of the blame, the focus shifted to the GM. The situation got so bad this season that fans in Buffalo were publicly calling for Regier's dismissal, as "Fire Darcy" chants became common occurrences at First Niagara Center.
Although the past several seasons have been trying for the Sabres and their passionate fan base, there was a time not so long ago when Buffalo was a perennial contender. After getting the Sabres to a Stanley Cup Finals in the spring of 1999, Regier also helped build clubs that made it to back-to-back conference finals in 2006 and '07.
The good times were not destined to last, however, as Buffalo has not qualified for the playoffs the past two seasons and four of the last six. Of course, judging by the way the team has started in 2013-14, it seems highly unlikely the Sabres will be returning to the playoffs this season.
Regier leaves LaFontaine a club with some young talent and potential for the future, but right now there are more questions than answers in Buffalo. The club dealt one of its biggest bargaining chips in winger Thomas Vanek last month and received Matt Moulson and a couple of high draft picks in return.
If LaFontaine and the club's next GM choose to deal goaltender Ryan Miller, and it seems likely they will, he could land Buffalo a few prospects or even more draft picks, which are like gold to a team stuck in rebuilding mode.
"We have a lot of work in front of us. We have to be patient. It's not going to happen overnight," said LaFontaine at the press conference announcing his new post. "We'll get the right people in position. We'll get it there."
Nolan is takes with a much simpler job than LaFontaine. He needs to get the Sabres to play with more energy and passion on a nightly basis. Nolan seems pumped for the opportunity to teach this young group the right way to play and his fan favorite status in Buffalo could generate some much-needed excitement for the struggling franchise.
"I'm going to get try to get to know this team as quick as I can and change the culture," Nolan said. "We'll make it exciting and we'll make it a place people want to come and enjoy hockey games again."
Even with the changes made this week, it's still bound to be a long season in Buffalo. But something had to be done to shake things up and handing Regier his walking papers was the obvious play.
With Regier gone, the club has finally made a clean break with the past. Now it's up to LaFontaine and whomever replaces Regier to make good on the promise of better days to come.