BUFFALO (LGS) — Undoubtedly, Tom Golisano is one of America’s seldom-heard “rags-to-riches” success story outside of Western New York. It all started in 1971, when Golisano started Paychex with just $3,000 and his idea to make payroll outsourcing easy and affordable for small businesses. Nearly 30 years later, Golisano is attempting to pull off another “rags-to-riches” story, this time after purchasing the Sabres in 2003.
His hockey franchise — under the guidance of managing partner Larry Quinn, COO Daniel DiPofi and GM Darcy Regier — has made it to the conference finals the past two years. Last season, the Sabres had a $29 million payroll and took Carolina to Game 7 before injuries took their toll. This past season, with a franchise-record $44 million payroll, Ottawa humiliated Buffalo in five games. Both teams were nearly identical, yet very different after key role players headed to greener paychecks last offseason.
Under Golisano, the success story of the Sabres is still flourishing, yet floundering. They are flourishing in the fact that the club is still young and exciting. They are floundering in that they can only spend so much in order to turn a profit with every oncoming season. Already burdened with a bunch of salaries from last season’s record number of players who could have filed for arbitration ($29.3 million split amongst 13 players), the team has dug itself a hole in order to improve off of last year’s team. The major problem facing Regier is attempting to keep everybody together and stick to a self-imposed budget — which the team has hinted will not approach the league's estimated cap of $48 million — without angering fans amongst the Sabres Nation.
News Flash — everybody has to lose something, whether they like it or not. The Sabres organization needs to lower its payroll and raise ticket prices in order to achieve a profit for a third consecutive season under Golisano’s watch. Regier needs to find a way to get some money available in order to resign the current RFA’s, including leading goal-scorer Thomas Vanek, and attempt to resign either Chris Drury or Daniel Briere, or to a lesser extent, Dainius Zubrus. The fans need to accept that in order for the Sabres to attain both goals, current members of the club must be traded.
Accomplishing these goals will ultimately fall upon one person — Darcy Regier. He is a man who is conservative in his ways and makes the right decisions in order for this club to be successful. The demands are still high from fans and critics alike for the Sabres to be one of the top teams in the league and attempt to get into the Stanley Cup finals next season. Somehow, he has to walk that fine line of not breaking the rules set upon by Golisano and angering the fans. Golisano is a fair man, but he knows when to cut ties with a bad business venture. If it wasn’t for his boss in 1971 to snivel at his payroll processing idea, Golisano wouldn’t have left his work and Paychex wouldn’t even exist. The fans, however, aren’t so forgiving.
Expect Regier to get a contract extension but only for one year. This will be his defining year as GM of the Buffalo Sabres. This man has been behind some of the most successful and disappointing teams in history. No matter how people can say last year was entertaining to watch, it was no excuse to lay the proverbial egg when the Eastern Conference title was on the line against your biggest divisional rival. Buffalo simply didn’t have the drive as the club did last year. They were too soft on the physical game. The defense didn’t step up and contribute to the offensive game. The top offensive stars were silent when it mattered. The special teams were appalling. The Sabres’ problems were big enough that you could have seen them from the Canadian side of the falls.
Regier knows what he has to do. It was his mess two years ago when he had only three players under contract before he signed everybody to their qualifying offers. It was his mess last year when at least 10 players could have had their cases heard in arbitration, causing skyrocketing salaries that forced the Sabres to let several other role players go to other clubs. It is his mess this upcoming offseason — quite possibly the worst of the three — to figure out how to keep a competitive club on the ice, resign your top goal scorer and keep two of the most beloved Sabres in recent history in the Blue and Gold. In hockey, just like in business, it all comes down to making good and bad decisions for the team.
One thing that can be agreed on is this — the Buffalo Sabres will not look the same next season. Familiar faces will be gone, while new ones take their locker stalls. The Sabres might not spend to the cap again, but it is expected that this team will compete on a nightly basis as one of the best in the league. The Sabres have some great up and coming talent they can not afford to lose, while some of the current players on the roster should be considered for trade not only to make room for that talent but to alleviate some of the burdensome cap figure in order to keep Thomas Vanek and at least one if not two key UFA’s in the Queen City. It’s up to Darcy Regier and the tools he’s given to get the job done, otherwise he could be out as GM of the Sabres next year.