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The Pegula Process: Why Sabres Fans Should Be Worried

Regardless of the industry or endeavor, you’re more likely to find success if you follow a rigorous, thoughtful process. A good process will, over time, lead to more good outcomes. A bad process, on the other hand, will often lead to bad results.

Fans (and many sports columnists) often focus on the result and not the process. This sort of results-based analysis often misses what matters.

Paul DePodesta was an assistant to Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane (and a key figure in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball book). DePodesta has a blog and, years ago, he wrote about a scene at a Vegas casino that captures the difference between focusing on the process and the result.

Many years ago I was playing blackjack in Las Vegas on a Saturday night in a packed casino. I was sitting at third base, and the player who was at first base was playing horribly. He was definitely taking advantage of the free drinks, and it seemed as though every twenty minutes he was dipping into his pocket for more cash.

On one particular hand the player was dealt 17 with his first two cards. The dealer was set to deal the next set of cards and passed right over the player until he stopped her, saying: “Dealer, I want a hit!” She paused, almost feeling sorry for him, and said, “Sir, are you sure?” He said yes, and the dealer dealt the card. Sure enough, it was a four.

The place went crazy, high fives all around, everybody hootin’ and hollerin’, and you know what the dealer said? The dealer looked at the player, and with total sincerity, said: “Nice hit.”

I thought, “Nice hit? Maybe it was a nice hit for the casino, but it was a terrible hit for the player! The decision isn’t justified just because it worked.”

So what visibility do we have into the Pegula process?

Well, when he first arrived, he declared that his diligence indicated Darcy Regier was one of the best GM’s in the league. There was a lot of evidence to the contrary, of course, but that was Pegula’s conclusion based on his process.

When asked about his head coach, Lindy Ruff, he defiantly stated that Lindy “ain’t going nowhere.” The Pegula decision-making process led him to keep the GM and coach he inherited from the previous ownership and not clean house when he first bought the team or during the off-season – a time that would give a new GM and coach an opportunity to get acclimated.

In January 2013, the Sabres gave their unpopular general manager, Darcy Regier, a three year contract extension as Pegula declared Regier a “talented guy.” Notably, Pegula also emphasized that he and Regier “work very well together.” According to multiple people, Pegula was (and is) very active in discussing personnel with his general manager – another worrisome sign for the Pegula process.

Then, as the season of ‘suffering’ led to an increasing amount of fan discontent, Pegula suddenly reversed course and Ruff was fired as was Regier. So, less than a year after giving his GM a three year contract extension, Pegula fired him.

Remarkably, Terry Pegula, after having met Pat LaFontaine just twice, offered him the Sabres’ general manager job during a dinner with the former Sabres player. Keep in mind, LaFontaine had never been a general manager. LaFontaine turned it down pointing out that he didn’t have the skills for that job. Here are Pegula’s own words about his LaFontaine courtship:

“One thing led to another and it was like, ‘Wow, this guy is pretty impressive,’ so I guess I popped the question,” Pegula said. “I asked him if he thought he could be a GM. He said, ‘No, but here’s what I think I can do.’ ”

What kind of hiring and firing process is this?

It’s one that seems spastic and inconsistent. This unorthodox and unrigorous process has resulted in at least one bad outcome: a newly hired President of Hockey Operations who resigned after just a few months on the job, leaving the Sabres with yet another public relations nightmare.

Now, during his time here, LaFontaine did hire Tim Murray to be the GM and it may be that Murray turns out to be a stellar personnel man. But, if it does, it has the feel of the blackjack player who hit on 17 and got a 4. It would be a lucky outcome from a bad process.

It’s still relatively early in the Pegula ownership regime but for long-term fans of the Sabres franchise, the Pegula process is something to be very worried about.

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