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Sunday hockey notes

Under Pegula, Sabres could be a cut above

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / February 6, 2011

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Terry Pegula didn’t officially get the keys to the Sabres last week, but outgoing owner Tom Golisano finally made it official that he’s selling to Pegula, allowing Golisano to walk away with some $110 million in profit for his time in the owner’s office.

There aren’t a lot of those rosy bottom-line experiences in today’s NHL. Roger Marino (the “M’’ in EMC) only wishes he could have bolted Pittsburgh with that kind of financial upside for his brief, tempestuous, and pocket-draining reign as Penguins owner.

Look for Pegula to take control soon, possibly by the NHL’s Feb. 28 trade deadline, which means he has at least these next few weeks to scrutinize the work of the front office and the bench. Keep in mind, those close to Pegula say he views his acquisition as a rebranding of the franchise, which will make it difficult for general manager Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff to keep their jobs.

The Bruins, though they weren’t sold, underwent a similar upheaval/overhaul just five years ago when owner Jeremy Jacobs decided it was well past time to change the club’s culture. GM Mike O’Connell was fired, team president Harry Sinden fitted for a golden parachute, and new GM Peter Chiarelli brought in to change just about everything but the resurfacing blade on the Zamboni and the brand of pepperoni on Garden pizza.

The view from here:

■Regier, who signed a two-year contract extension at the start of the season, most likely will be jettisoned, well ahead of the league’s July 1 free agency period. No one is more vulnerable than the GM when a change of culture is mandated. This is a franchise looking for a new day, new lead voice, and a new image. The Sabres have been a club in need of something since Dominik Hasek left, and the Dominator, now 46, departed in the spring of 2001.

■Ruff, who opted not to sign a contract extension at the same time as Regier, might be sent packing, too. He certainly has more cachet in the coaching world than Regier does on the GM side, but he has been running that bench at the side of Lake Erie since October 1997. No Stanley Cup. Only one trip to the Cup finals. Three defeats in the Eastern Conference championship. Again, a very strong coach, but not necessarily a résumé that will protect him against a franchise rebranding.

Pegula’s ownership points to a great day for Sabres fans. They’ll finally have a rich owner who loves hockey, is willing to spend, and views ownership not only as a business but an act of civic pride.

His wife is originally from Fairport, N.Y., about an hour east of HSBC Arena, and they’ve lived in nearby Olean and Orchard Park (home of the NFL’s Bills). All in all, much like the Kraft family getting the keys in Foxborough. Now the Sabres just need to find a Bill Belichick to run the show.

JERSEY SHORED UP
Rolston helps revive Devils Turns out, Brian Rolston (left) wasn’t finished. The ex-Bruin forward, waived by the Devils and left unclaimed during their first-half miseries, has been front and center in New Jersey’s recent renaissance (8-1-1 in 10 games prior to weekend play).

With meager numbers of 2-3—5 through games of Jan. 8, Rolston is 5-8—13 in 11 games since, with four multipoint efforts. Coach Jacques Lemaire took him off third- and fourth-line duty, and Rolston is running these days with skilled forwards Patrik Elias and Dainius Zubrus (a line that was a plus-34 in that 8-1-1 run).

“I know how tough it is to come back when all of a sudden you don’t play as many minutes,’’ said Elias, noting Rolston’s struggles to return from groin surgery. “He was on the third line and sometimes the fourth — it’s tough when you’re in that position.’’

The turnaround has Rolston believing he can return to the Devils next season; he has $5 million coming his way in 2011-12, the final year of his contract.

Lemaire noted that he is using Rolston in different (read: better) situations than last season in part because of the opportunity that has developed in the wake of Jamie Langenbrunner being traded to Dallas.

“Jamie was playing up on the first two lines most of the time,’’ said Lemaire. “[Rolston] was sort of on the third line and he wasn’t playing with the same type of player. This year there was a spot open on that line. That’s where he belonged, if you want to get something from Rollie.’’

ETC.
Habs lining up to acquire help Of the 16 teams holding playoff seeds as of yesterday morning, only the Wild (135) had scored fewer goals than the Canadiens (136). Look for the Habs to try to fortify their forward lines leading up to the trade deadline. A prime target would be pending unrestricted free agent Brad Richards in Dallas, but the Stars remain for sale, and a strong playoff run with Richards aboard is likely worth more to an owner (Tom Hicks) who these days covets a sales receipt over a Stanley Cup. Another obvious Montreal target would be Blues winger David Perron, proud son of Sherbrooke, Quebec, but Perron hasn’t played since being smacked across the head by Joe Thornton one month into the season. Perron, yet to get back on skates, hasn’t been able to increase his dry-land training, which means he cannot target a return date.

Long tenure may end Tomas Kaberle remains on the Toronto back line, although he’s made it clear the last couple of weeks that he is amenable to waiving his no-trade clause. The Bruins twice tried to bring Kaberle to the Hub, once with a draft-day swap in June 2009 that had Phil Kessel going to the Leafs — a deal that fell apart when Peter Chiarelli and Brian Burke couldn’t agree on a flip of first-round picks. Not the toughest customer, Kaberle, but there is no denying his skill package, one that has him playing his 12th season in Blue and White. Leaguewide, only two blue liners have been with their clubs longer: Nicklas Lidstrom, 18-plus years with Detroit, and Chris Phillips, 12-plus seasons in Ottawa. In terms of overall longevity, it’s hard to believe Patrice Bergeron, who arrived on Causeway Street for the start of the 2003-04 season, is tops for continuous service among the Black and Gold. Goalie Tim Thomas played four games with the Spoked-B in 2002-03 but was in Providence for all of 2003-04 and spent the lockout season in Helsinki.

Desert deal delayed Two months ago, well ahead of Terry Pegula’s name surfacing here as the Sabres’ lead suitor, it sounded as if Matt Hulsizer, former captain of the Amherst hockey team, would have his purchase of the Coyotes wrapped up by Jan. 1. Now, nothing but the sound of crickets out there in the desert. What’s the delay? According to one of Hulsizer’s acquaintances, it’s in the details, specifically the complex lease agreement on Jobing.com Arena that the town of Glendale, Ariz., has to amend for Hulsizer to proceed with the purchase of the team from the league. “This is not a home run investment for us,’’ Hulsizer said in early December after wowing the league’s executive committee when he briefed it on his intended purchase. If Glendale and Hulsizer can’t get the lease language straightened out, look for Winnipeg and perhaps Quebec City to come calling again.

Disappearing act by Kessel Kessel, no longer on Toronto’s top line, went into weekend play with his season-worst goal scoring drought at nine games (0-3—3). A midweek Toronto Sun report had the ex-Bruin phenom snubbing an interview request and being the first Leaf to leave the practice facility. Same Kess, by the way, who was picked last when the captains divvied up the All-Star squads last weekend in Raleigh and then went 0-0—0 in the game. The current No. 1 line in Toronto has Clarke MacArthur riding with Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. Kessel, with 19 goals, still has a reasonable shot at finishing with 30. A minus-3 for his career prior to this season, he stood a team-low minus-20 as of yesterday morning. Only four NHLers rated worse: Filip Kuba, Ottawa, minus-21; Erik Karlsson, Ottawa, minus-21; Ilya Kovalchuk, New Jersey, minus-26; Phillips, Ottawa, minus-27.

A rebound for Esposito Ex-Bruin Phil Esposito, who turns 69 this month, last week was hired by the Lightning as vice president of corporate affairs (overseeing sales of arena suites). Not surprising, given that new owner Jeff Vinik over the summer said, “Phil is a great asset to this organization.’’ Phil and brother Tony were the driving forces behind the NHL landing a franchise in Tampa for the start of the 1992-93 season. The Bolts made another ex-Bruin, Dave Andreychuk, vice president of fan/business development. Both hires are Vinik’s way of rebuilding a few of the bridges torched by prior owners.

Loose pucks Johan “The Mule’’ Franzen potted five goals Wednesday in Detroit’s 7-5 win over Ottawa. The only other Red Wings to do it: Sergei Fedorov (December 1996) and Syd Howe (February 1944, when he scored six vs. the Rangers). No Bruin has ever potted five in a game . . . One year ago yesterday, Brendan Burke, 21, youngest son of Leafs GM Brian Burke, was killed in a car accident while making his way back to the Miami University campus in Ohio following a visit to an out-of-town law school. The accident came on the eve of the senior Burke’s tour as general manager of Team USA at the Vancouver Olympics, a role he fulfilled despite the unspeakable grief and heartache . . . Ex-Bruin Marco Sturm is back skating with the Kings, two weeks after being shut down because of knee tendinitis, but he wasn’t expected to play last night at Calgary. Look for Sturm to return in about a week . . . Don’t be surprised if the Flyers pick up a goalie in the next couple of weeks. Their net is tighter now with Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher, but the front office still isn’t sold that it’s a tandem that can win a Cup. One name to keep in mind: Florida free agent-to-be Tomas Vokoun . . . Tom Golisano, in Thursday’s news conference announcing his intention to sell the Sabres to Pegula, made note that he could have sold the club at a price upward of $250 million but it would have meant the Sabres leaving Buffalo. He didn’t mention that such a sale-and-move would have meant ducking out of a lease at HSBC Arena and also would have been subject to the NHL ratifying both the new owner and the move. And if that prospective buyer were Jim Balsillie, who tried to bring the Coyotes to southern Ontario, then it was never going to happen . . . Not surprisingly, Thursday night’s Bruins-Stars slugfest had callers to Boston talk radio the next morning repeatedly proclaiming it the best Bruins game they had seen in years. Politically incorrect though it may be, the fight game will always hold a sacred spot in hearts of Hub hockey fans who remember when the league was only six teams and the Garden, a piece of 1920s architecture, was built for boxing. We too easily forget around here that what we witnessed Thursday night was served up regularly on Causeway Street through the ’80s and into the ’90s. Maybe it’s not the prettiest reflection of who we are and what we like, but it is an honest one. And in this town, thank goodness, the ugly truth still shines brighter than any of the manufactured bells and whistles of modern-day hockey marketing.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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