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Recapping Tim Murray's season-ending press conference

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber /

Before he answered questions at his season-ending press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Buffalo Sabres general manager Tim Murray opened with a statement. 

"I just want everybody to know that top to bottom in the organization, we understand that it was a very disappointing season," he said. "I'm the general manager of the team so I guess that's top of the food chain when it comes to hockey, so I stand here and take full responsibility for our position, our standings and how it finished."

Murray addressed the reasons for that disappointing season, but he also touched on everything from the coaching staff, team leadership, his opinions of the organization's young players and the potential for new contracts for Brian Gionta (an unrestricted free agent this summer) and Jack Eichel (eligible for an extension beginning on July 1). 

Here are the highlights of what Murray had to say:



On the coaching staff

Murray was asked whether or not he intended to retain Dan Bylsma, who has three years remaining on his contract, as coach. Here was his response:

 "As I say every day if I get asked that question: He's my coach today, I'm the general manager today. There's going to be a review top to bottom. I have to meet with ownership next week in Florida. I'm sure I'm going to be reviewed - I'm sure I'm being reviewed right now, as I should be. I finished my last interview about 20 minutes ago with my last player so I have a book full of notes that I have to compile and be ready to deliver those thoughts to ownership. After that I will come back, if I am still here, and deliver my thoughts to my head coach and our coaching staff."

He continued: "I'm the general manager today. He's the coach today. I haven't had any thoughts of firing him up to this point and the reason I always say 'today' is because something can happen tomorrow. So he's the coach, yes."

Murray did, however, offer his opinion that perhaps too much time was spent this season on coaching the system and preparing for opposing teams' tendencies. He explained:

"The coaches work extremely hard," he said. "I see them, they're in here at seven in the morning and they leave at night, and that's a non-gameday. The video they do and the preparation is exhausting. It's every detail. 

"I just wonder, and do have an opinion and think that sometimes, maybe they're stuck in that room preparing and they are working hard and maybe they can put a coffee in their hand once in a while and do two hours of video instead of three and get out and get to know our players and talk to our players. And it's about coaching individuals a little more and coaching system a little less. That's my opinion. I believe that's the right way."


On the roster/playing style

There's no denying that injuries were a factor for the Sabres this season. Jack Eichel missed the first 21 games with a high-ankle sprain. Evander Kane, Ryan O'Reilly and Kyle Okposo missed varying amounts of time. Johan Larsson saw his season end on Dec. 31, and Dmitry Kulikov was never himself and sustaining a lower-body injury in the preseason.

Murray said it's up to him to build a team that can withstand such injuries going forward.

"We're not in a position, and I haven't put us in a position that we can withstand that yet," he said. "I hope to one day be able to do that and develop and be able to create enough depth that we can do that but I haven't done that to this point. So that's part of what went wrong."

As for enhancing the roster, Murray reiterated that one of his top priorities this offseason will be improving the team's defensive corps. The Sabres averaged 34.3 shots against this season, the highest mark in the NHL. Improving the defense, he said, will allow the Sabres to play the fast, puck-possession style they wish to play.

"It's easy to point at the blue line and start there but that's where I'll start," he said. "We have to improve there. We have to play a transition game. We can't have 90 percent of our goals coming off of hard work and the cycle, or the power play, and that's where they all came from. This game is about speed and it's transition, and we failed there. That's on all of us."


On the organization's prospects

Murray broke down his thoughts on several of Buffalo's prospects at various levels:

On Alexander Nylander: "He knows he needs a big summer. His issue is strength. It's not skill, it's not hockey sense, it's not how to play the game, it's strength. And that's the easiest thing to fix so, if he puts in the time this summer, I expect him to come back and challenge for a skill position on this team."

On Justin Bailey: "Bailey was up and down, up and down, and had really good games and some not-so-good games. So it's consistency in his game and I think it's him trying to figure out what his role is and us trying to help him figure out what his role is." 

On Casey Nelson: "Played very well as an NHLer when we signed him to his contract, burned a year, and then he got injured early in the year and got off to a slow start. But he, to me, is still a transition, puck-moving defenseman that we're looking for. Is he going to be ready next year? That'll be up to him, but he has a chance."

On Brendan Guhle: "He has a great chance. I think he had a great year in junior, I think he played very well for us, although you can't get too excited because short term can fool you. But I don't think he's fooling anybody. He is a tremendous skater, he's got skill, he's what we need. We need our D to get up into the play and become that second wave of attack that we didn't have much of this year, so those guys can do that."

On Linus Ullmark: "I think Ullmark is tremendous. I think Ullmark, his trajectory, playing two or three years in the Swedish Elite League, winning Goalie of the Year there, coming here now and playing two years in the American Hockey League, he's taking the same track that many, many, many starting goalies have taken. Very few, like Carey Price, have taken a different track and a quicker track."

On Brady Austin : "Came up and played some games which I have to say was a major surprise and I thought that he handled himself well. Is he ready for a full-time job? No, I don't think he is, but at least he's put himself on the map."


On Robin Lehner

Lehner is a restricted free agent this summer, and Murray was asked whether the goalie had done enough to warrant a long-term commitment from the team. His response:

"Well, you tell me what he wants as a term and money and I'll tell you if I want to commit to him. And I'm not being flippant or rude, it's just I don't know. We haven't started any negotiations yet. When we do, I guess I could say if he wants eight years and 8 million a year than I'm not willing to make him my long-term No. 1 goaltender. So, I don't know the answer to that. Did he have a good year? Yes he had a good year … Our save percentage was extremely respectable and where you'd want it to be to be a playoff team."


On Kulikov's season

The Sabres acquired Kulikov from Florida at the draft last summer in hopes that he could be the kind of puck-moving, physical defenseman they're still looking to add. In a way, his season was derailed before it began. Kulikov was hit into the bench door during his preseason debut, leaving him a with a lower-back injury that would flare up throughout the season and limit him to 47 games.

Bylsma had said that Kulikov looked his best toward the end of the season, and Murray pointed to his game against Toronto on March 25 - when Kulikov made a tape-to-tape pass to Jack Eichel to set up a one-time goal on the power play and then shot across the goalie's body on a one-time goal of his own - as an example of that.

"That's the Dmitry that I made the trade for," Murray said. "That's what I saw visions of before I traded for him and it didn't work out. So, you can say that's a bad trade, I'll agree with you, but I don't blame him. I'll blame the circumstance and then I'll take the rest of the blame."


On community frustration

"If you're a ticket buying fan of any team, you want your team in the playoffs," Murray said. "That's the mandate. I'm not going to talk about years. I've been here three and a half years, that's all I can talk about, but yeah, I understand the frustration and I understand the disappointing because I am frustrated and disappointed at not being in the playoffs and I haven't paid for one ticket, and I haven't been a lifelong fan or resident of this city so I get it, big-time."


On Gionta

Gionta expressed his desire to return at locker cleanout day on Monday, and his teammates also expressed their hope that he'd be back. On Wednesday, Murray reaffirmed that he also would have interest in seeing Gionta return for another year. 

"Yes, I would be interested in bringing him back," he said. "Again, I don't know what his expectation is. I know my expectation would be a one-year deal and the money would have to work for us. But yes. I thought he had a very good year. I think he's a great guy, I think he's a great teammate, I think he's a culture guy. So I do have interest, for sure."


On team leadership

Murray was asked whether the team needed more leadership, and his answer was yes. But while that might mean adding another player or two who have playoff experience, he explained, it also means "buying into the program" from top to bottom.

Murray also said there's more to be done both on his part and the part of the coaches in establishing what's expected.

"The players want black and white," he said. "That comes to team rules, that comes to team schedules, that comes to team style of play, that comes to rolling your team, that comes to being a Buffalo Sabre. That doesn't fall just on the coach, it falls on the coach but it also falls on me, it falls on the players. Again, that's why I made the statement to start that I'm willing to take the knife here, as I should."


On Eichel's contact

Eichel is eligible for a new contract beginning on July 1, and Murray said he expects discussions with his camp to begin immediately. 

"I met with Jack today so we talked about the team, we talked about this year," he said. "He didn't bring up his contract but that's not his job, his agent will. But yeah, he's our guy so we're allowed to start talking on July 1 and I don't know why we wouldn't start talking then and try to get something done."

Murray also shared a bit about his exit meeting with Eichel:

"He wants to be leader," he said. "He wants to take more a leadership role. I encouraged him to do that. There was no talk of [captaincy]. There was obviously talk of coach and system and I had that talk with every player because I demanded that talk come up. I asked him point blank, do you like Buffalo? Do you like what's going on here? He said he did. 

"[He's] very frustrated that we're not a playoff team, he wants to be in the playoffs and I made a promise to him that I would do the best that I could to make the team around him better and that we would be a longtime playoff team."

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