So Tim Murray is out as general manager of the Buffalo Sabres after the team failed to make the playoffs and, conspicuously, just a day after rumours surfaced that the team’s star centre, Jack Eichel, wasn’t interested in signing a contract extension as long as Dan Bylsma remained head coach (Eichel quickly denied this).
The heat was already on in Buffalo due in part to the success of teams that were, not too long ago, considered to be no further along rebuild road than the Sabres. The Edmonton Oilers, who leapfrogged Buffalo to nab Connor McDavid at the 2015 NHL Draft, are in the midst of a first-round series against the San Jose Sharks, while the Leafs are currently giving the President’s Trophy winning Washington Capitals all they can handle.
Murray can’t be faulted for going full tank commander a few years ago in an effort to draft McDavid, and it’s unfortunate that they didn’t land the player who will, in all likelihood, be named league MVP at the NHL Awards this summer. Eichel is no small consolation prize, however, and Murray deserves plenty of credit for sprinkling a nice forward corps around him.
The problem is that, when building a team that can consistently make the playoffs and challenge for a Stanley Cup, the forward corps is the least important component.
It begins from the net out, and there, too, Murray deserves praise. Robin Lehner had fallen out of favour with the Ottawa Senators (who didn’t really need him anyway, given they have Craig Anderson), and Murray guessed that, if the big netminder could get over his injury troubles and get his head sorted out, he’d be a consistent, above-average option between the pipes. Lehner delivered this season, posting a .920 save percentage and 2.68 goals-against average.
Unfortunately, the second-most important position, defence, is where Murray did a total face-plant. Instead of seeking out guys who could drive possession, Murray went the gritty route, acquiring Zach Bogosian from the Winnipeg Jets as part of the Evander Kane deal that sent Tyler Myers to the Manitoba capital, and picked up Computer Boys cast-off Dmitry Kulikov from the Florida Panters (pro-tip: if an analytics-loving squad is trying to sell you something, RUN!). The Kulikov trade has been such a disaster that Murray himself crushed it in a recent interview.
Numbers-wise, the Sabres’ D has been a total disaster. Justin Faulk and Cody Franson were the only two guys to finish above 50 per cent Corsi at even strength, but neither really moved the needle offensively (24 points in a combined 120 games). Bogosian had 11 points and and 48.9 CF%, while Josh Gorges (45.2) and Kulikov (45.2) were even worse.
Now, if you have at least one defenceman who can carry the puck, make clean zone entries and exits, and really drive possession, you might still be OK. Just look at what Erik Karlsson is doing for the Ottawa Senators despite underwhelming D depth, or how much the Boston Bruins have been hurt by the loss of Torey Krug.
Unfortunately for the Sabres, their lone pure offensive defenceman, Rasmus Ristolainen, is actually their worst possession blueliner at five-on-five (44.1).
Murray has said that he didn’t believe he had a Stanley Cup calibre defence, but that he believed it was a playoff calibre defence. In the end, it wasn’t even close, and that’s why he’s out of a job today.
Post script: Could Murray return to the Ottawa Senators, the team he left in order to take the Buffalo job? You’d think it might be a fit given his uncle Bryan is still a senior advisor with the team, but word is he and current GM Pierre Dorion didn’t really get along.
Tim Murray congédié à Buffalo. Gros doute que le neveu de Bryan revienne dans le giron à Ottawa. A brûlé les ponts avec Dorion. #ledroit
— Marc Brassard (@mbrassard) April 20, 2017
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