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Leafs lose in Ottawa but the bigger story could well be Brian Burke going to Buffalo as Sabres GM—a la Punch Imlach forty years ago…

When the Sabres pulled the trigger (finally) on a coaching change earlier this week, some were surprised that they went with a relative unknown—their AHL coach who was a well thought-of mentor with USA Hockey but someone with very little experience at the professional level.

Ron Rolston may become a tremendous NHL coach, but some ”insiders” figure Buffalo GM Darcy Regier is perhaps most comfortable at this fragile stage for the organization (and himself) with someone who is an extension of Regier himself, a coach who won’t rock the boat and all that.

I’m jumping ahead a bit, but if you pay any attention to the Buffalo hockey market, there is also a belief that Regier himself will be on thin ice if the Sabres do not rebound before this season is over.  Two losses (and not good ones—the team is just as flat as it was before the coaching change) is not a good sign under the new guy behind the bench though in fairness, it’s obviously early for Rolston.

But my broader point is this:  two years ago new owner Terry Pegula came into town as the conquering hero.  He had tons of money and was committed to Western New York.  He absolutely loved the Sabres and told everyone who would listen that he was a huge fan of the team and had been for years.  Most importantly, he made it just as clear he would leave no stone unturned in building a championship team.

At the time, however, he wanted very much to provide continuity.  He was keen to retain Regier, and it took a while but he re-signed Ruff to a long-term extension as well.  Buffalo was suddenly hockey  “happyville”,  especially when Pegula spent wads of dough in the summer of 2011.  But last season was a write-off and as we reach March of 2013, the Sabres have an elite goalie and some nice pieces, but by and large have struggled to make the playoffs in recent seasons.  Ultimately, the players could not respond any more, it seemed, to Ruff’s urgings.

My guess is now that the popular Ruff is gone, Regier has no safety net left.  Fans in Buffalo are not satisfied with mediocrity and certainly not happy about the way the team is playing.  That the coaching change has started with a thud will only exacerbate that sentiment.  It’s a fantastic hockey market and it deserves a playoff team.  They still may be that this season, there’s still plenty of time, but if not, I would not be the least bit surprised to see Pegula make a bold move as soon as the season is over.

What might that move be?  I think he could bring in a new General Manager. Though a respected hockey guy who has had to deal with a lot of different owners and financial constraints over the past fifteen seasons, the bottom line is Regier has not won nearly enough.  It’s the NHL and as we always hear, it’s a results-oriented business.

If Pegula makes a move, given his promises to the fan base two years ago, he will want to find the highest-profile coach and General Manager that he can, right?  There is no cap on spending when it comes to executives and he will search for the best available GM and the best available coach.  Who might that GM be?

My guess is the first name on his list will be that of of Brian Burke.

Can you imagine a Buffalo-Toronto rivalry with Burke as the man in charge just down the highway from the ACC?  Other than maybe Ottawa, would there be a better place for the former Leaf General Manager to land than Buffalo, where we have had an intense rivalry with the Sabres since that franchise joined the NHL in the summer of 1970?  Hockey fans of that era will well recall that long-time Leaf GM and coach Punch Imlach (right) was the first man hired (as coach and GM) by the Knox family who owned the franchise, and from Day One, the Sabres had a major attitude when playing the blue and white.  In fact, I seem to recall that, in Buffalo’s first season, the expansion squad waxed the Leafs right at Maple Leaf Gardens the first time Imlach brought his team to Toronto, with Punch wearing his ever-present fedora behind the bench.

To be clear:  I’m not starting a rumour.  I’m not an “insider”.  I don’t “know” anything.  It’s just logical to me that the Sabres will start fresh under Pegula if things don’t get straightened around the rest of this season.  Ruff was a very well thought-of person in Buffalo, as is Regier.  But even well-regarded sports executives get moved.

Regier was always quiet, patient and low-profile.  Is Buffalo ready for a more bombastic GM?  Is that what Pegula would want, in addition to the hockey smarts that Burke would bring?  I don’t know, but it makes some sense.

And wouldn’t it be fun?


We can’t say we weren’t entertained on Saturday night.  Some fluky goals, for sure, but some back and forth play and lots of action.  Both the Leafs and Sens are missing some critical pieces but both continue to play hard.  Lots of guys were driving to the net at both ends of the ice.  The Leafs didn’t always play smart (a few too many turnovers in the early going) but they battled.

Small things made a difference.  Just before MacArthur stuck his nose into the pile on a third period power-play to tie the game at 2, Ottawa had almost cleared the zone but Phaneuf managed to keep the puck in.  From there, Grabovski—who scored the game’s opening goal on a trickling shot—did the work before his linemate poked it home.

I don’t like whining players but I love that Kessel expressed his frustration when he was tripped in the first period without a penalty call.  I like to see some passion from our star winger.

Phaneuf broke up an awful  lot of plays—exactly how many I don't know but that’s one “stat” I really would like to see.  And Fraser just keeps playing tough, steady, smart hockey.  I won’t go over all the same old points but he won’t be the guy leaving the lineup when Gardiner is called up.  (I’m wondering, though, if Gardiner stays with the Marlies until an injury forces Nonis’ hand…)

At the end of the day, you’d maybe like to see Scrivens keep the play alive before that last pivotal faceoff in our zone.  You’d like Grabovski at least scrum that last draw and for sure see Gunnarsson do something to tie up Greening before the Ottawa winger could somehow will the puck into the Leaf net.

It’s never good to give away points, but this was maybe the first time this season it was that painful—and potentially costly.


Quick update on the last three polls here at the new-look Vintage Leaf Memories site.  The first poll saw the majority of readers vote that the Leafs would indeed make the playoffs this season.  (I believe the final total was 60% believed the Leafs will make it; 40% do not...)

When I asked if readers thought the Leafs should stick with Reimer (pre-injury) rather than go out looking for a veteran goalentder, 90% of respondents said "yes", stick with the kids.

Most recently, 70% supported the idea of Jake Gardiner re-joining the Leafs, while 30% of you thought it would be best if Jake stayed the rest of this season with the Marlies.  Thanks for taking the time to vote.


  1. "I don’t like whining players but I love that Kessel expressed his frustration when he was tripped in the first period without a penalty call. I like to see some passion from our star winger."

    Did you notice, later, at the net? Kessel punched a guy in the head with his gloves on...a good wind up too. He may be developing some fire.

    Kessel was also more candid with the media this week...laughing and showing some emotion. He seems to be changing. Perhaps we expect too much of him, he's still a very young man.

    I have complained about Orr earlier in the season. But I have liked the way he has played lately. I actually thought the team missed him against Ottawa. It may have been the difference in winning. Though he played a good game, Mike Brown isn't a close replacement.

    Teams are more polite and play a more cautious game when Colton is around. They don't go to the net as much, (and Ottawa did get goals in close.) With Colton around, they don't like to hit our elite players and we get goals as a result. That Ottawa player would not dare hip-check Kadri with Colton on his line.

  2. Agreed DP- like to see Phil with some passion!