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Pat LaFontaine shows genius in hiring Tim Murray as Buffalo Sabres' new GM

Pat LaFontaine of the Buffalo Sabres Hockey ops president Pat LaFontaine actually doubled up on what the Sabres need most. (Getty Images)

By Allan Muir

It doesn't matter that it took Pat LaFontaine two months to name the new general manager of the Sabres, just so long as he found the right guy.

In the end, he may have found two.

Saying he's "on a mission to bring the right people" to Buffalo," LaFontaine announced today that he had hired Tim Murray as GM and, in a bit of a surprise move, Craig Patrick as a special assistant and advisor to the hockey ops department.

Murray was a dark horse when this process started, generating little buzz compared to candidates like Brad Treliving, Jim Benning and Mike Futa. He's hardly a household name, but Murray has paid his dues to get to this point. He first got his foot in the door as a scout with the Red Wings in 1993. A year later, he went to Florida where he became the director of amateur scouting for the Panthers. In 2002, he joined the Ducks as director of player personnel before moving on to the Rangers and, finally, the Senators. In Ottawa, he served as the assistant GM, as well as the GM of the Senators' AHL farm club in Binghamton, N.Y. Murray has had his hands in almost every part of the hockey pie along the way, but his strength lies in talent evaluation -- the core quality that LaFontaine was looking for during his search.

“He’s a very, very smart hockey man,” former Ottawa coach Cory Clouston said of Murray. “There’s no one I’ve ever met that knows players as well as Tim and can analyze their strengths and weaknesses. He’s very good at projecting players.”

Murray is a bird dog at heart. When was the last time you ever heard a newly hired GM thank "the guys in their cars who are out there getting ready to go to games" in his introductory comments? And he, like LaFontaine, believes in rebuilding through the draft. He'll be thrilled, then, to see all the picks that his predecessor, Darcy Regier, stockpiled during the past 18 months. They may become trading chips rather than prospects, but they give him a lot of options to get this team where LaFontainet wants it to be.

But Murray won't be exploring those options on his own, and that's the genius behind LaFontaine's final decision. The ability to identify talent is the most precious commodity in the game, but it's not the only tool that's needed. That's where Patrick comes in. He's done it all, from serving as the assistant coach with the 1980 U.S. Olympic team to building Stanley Cup winners in Pittsburgh. He's also been through a few rebuilds while serving as an NHL general manager for 23 years, so he knows how to recognize both the opportunities and the pitfalls of the process. For a greenhorn like Murray, Patrick will be an invaluable sounding board.

"The better the people around you, the better decisions you're going to make," Murray said.

Some of those decisions will come to a head quickly, starting with the fate of pending unrestricted free agents Ryan Miller, Matt Moulson and Steve Ott.

"I can't go out and tell you I'm going to trade pending UFAs," Murray said. "If there's a market and it makes sense [a trade could happen]. This team is in last place right now. Everyone can be traded. I expect the phones to ring off the hooks for some of these guys, but the market will dictate whether we'll trade them or not."

MUIR: Sabres out of the Power Rankings basement

After the presser, LaFontaine told the media on hand that he's interested in keeping Miller past this season. He also said he'd have input on the fate of Ted Nolan, who has done a terrific job as the team's interim coach.

Murray didn't endorse Nolan outright -- in fact, he seemed ready to admit to having a list of coaching candidates before he deftly got himself out of the hole he was digging -- but he does seem amenable to working with him.

"I know Ted from arenas," Murray said. "He's the coach of this team. I want to try to establish a relationship with Ted and his staff. There are no preconceived notions. I'm looking forward to getting to know him, his staff and the style they want to play."

Fair enough. The man doesn't even have a computer yet, so it's probably a little early to be making any commitments beyond lunch.

When Murray does get to work, don't be surprised if his first deal is with his previous employer. The Senators would like to get back into the first round of the draft after they sent their top pick to the Ducks in the trade for Bobby Ryan; the Sabres could have a first-rounder to deal as a result of their swap with the Islanders that send Thomas Vanek to New York in exchange for Moulson. Murray knows Ottawa's prospects as well as anyone, so if there's a chance to bring in a player or two who can step into the lineup and help immediately, he'll probably do it.

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