Jim Kelley
Thursday April 10th, 2008

Before we get too deep into the postseason, we feel the necessity to look back on the also-rans, how they got to that sad point and what their future might hold.

Biggest failure: The hands-down winner (or loser depending upon your perspective) are the Buffalo Sabres. Presidents' Trophy-winners last season (tied with Detroit for the most points) as the best regular season team of 2006-07, the Sabres mismanaged themselves right out of the playoffs this time around. It's a spectacular decline -- only the second time it's happened since the inception of the trophy and only the third time in the history of the league that the points leader did not qualify for the postseason the next time out.

Though there were incidents on ice and via the coaching staff (particularly the failure to develop a quality backup for goalie Ryan Miller), the mess in Buffalo was largely management's doing. It seriously misplayed the offseason signings (or attempted signings) of centers and co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere and lost them both. It grossly overestimated the contributions of holdover center Tim Connolly (injured again for big chunks of this season and the previous two after which he signed a $8.75 million contract) and the contributions of some younger players.

There was a disconnect in the locker room caused by the team's suspension of veteran defenseman Teppo Numminen for health reasons on the very day he learned he needed heart surgery. His leadership was never replaced. The team's best puck-handling defenseman (Brian Campbell) was sent away at the trade deadline for economic reasons (largely the inability to resign him) and replaced by a forward (Steve Bernier) and a draft choice. Bernier contributed about as much as the draft choice.

Management over-reacted to a restricted free-agent offer from Edmonton to forward Thomas Vanek and quickly matched the $50 million. The decision to not take the four-first round draft picks it could have received from the Oilers is one that the front office seems comfortable with, but Vanek did not progress this season and that decision did impact on Buffalo's inability to re-sign Campbell. It may also impact on the ability to re-sign Miller, who hits the unrestricted market at the end of next season and must be inked in the coming year or else.

Lots of teams have economic and personnel problems, but the Detroit Red Wings, who finished with the same number of points as the Sabres last season, not only repeated as the top team, but actually bettered their total from a year ago (115 from 113).

No one is expected to lose his job in Buffalo. General manager Darcy Regier has a year left on his contract, but is considered a talent across the league and would be snapped up if he were fired or asked out of his final year. Regier did seem to distance himself a bit from ownership in a season-ending press conference, noting that his job was different from decisions made by ownership. Most of the blame seems to be directed at owner Tom Golisano and managing partner Larry Quinn, neither of whom are vulnerable to dismissal.

Quinn -- who has a reputation as being arrogant and vindictive, and is not well regarded by fans and some members of the media -- handled this season's debacle well, going so far as to apologize for missing the playoffs and vowing to do better.

Biggest failure-turned-moderate success: Tampa Bay Lightning GM Jay Feaster knew his team was a possible also-ran before the season even started. It competed, but when what was obvious to many became obvious to all, Feaster slyly maneuvered his team into contention for the first-pick lottery. He moved it into an even more prominent position in that regard when he got highly- paid forward Brad Richards to waive his no-trade contract and accept a ticket to Dallas for Mike Smith, a goalie with the potential to solve Tampa's long-running problems in net, and center Jeff Halpern, who racked up 18 points in 19 games for the Lightning.

Feaster also determined that goalie Karri Ramo, a former sixth-round pick (191st overall in 2004) needed "development time" and the coaching staff played him heavily down the stretch. The result was a last-place finish, but also the most chances to win the weighted draft lottery. The Lightning can now spend the pick on the highly-regarded Steve Stamkos or trade it for some more immediate help. Tanking is an unspoken matter in pro sports, but it's done all the time and the Lightning did it well.

On the hot seat: Toronto got out in front of this thing by firing GM John Ferguson after it became clear the Leafs would miss the playoffs for the third-time in his three-year tenure, but there is still the difficult task of finding a replacement for interim GM Cliff Fletcher. According to several sources, the Leafs are waiting for some high-end GMs to be eliminated from the playoffs before asking permission to interview them.

Meanwhile, the heat is definitely on for Don Waddell in Atlanta. He fired his coach, took over behind the bench and still failed to make the playoffs. There is also a clamor in South Florida for the head of Jacques Martin who has role of coach and GM for the Florida Panthers and hasn't had success at either level there.

And then there is speculation that Ted Nolan is in trouble with the New York Islanders because he's not a "teaching" coach. One could argue that he's better at motivation than imparting skills. One could also argue that Nolan is under fire simply because he was hired by owner Charles Wang, not GM Garth Snow. It will be interesting to see how this plays out as both guys are favorites of Wang, but not necessarily of each other.

Wallflowers: What do Ken Hitchcock, Lindy Ruff, Peter Laviolette, John Tortorella and Craig MacTavish have in common? Well, they've all either won the Stanley Cup or been in the Cup final in recent years and they are all sitting out the playoffs this time around. They are joined by a handful of successful career coaches -- Andy Murray and Paul Maurice to name two -- along with the legendary Wayne Gretzky and last season's Coach of the Year, Alain Vigneault

That illustrious list is a clear indication that times have changed and that under the new CBA, getting and keeping player talent is more difficult than in pre-lockout years. It's also harder on the coaches, many of whom are used to making the postseason and having some success.

"It's not enjoyable at all," Ruff said. "It's painful to watch. It's a good thing there's a few things on HBO because we'll be flipping over there sometimes."

Hitchcock made a nice gesture to former NHL head coach Pat Burns by naming him to the Team Canada staff as an assistant for the upcoming World Championships. It's not just taking care of a good friend, however. Though Burns has been battling cancer, he's had some success and wants another chance in the NHL, but is not getting one largely because people are worried about his long-term well being. This is a chance for him to get back behind a bench and show hockey people that he still has something to offer. Burns is a good man and a very good coach. Here's hoping someone notices.

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