It came as no surprise to most hockey insiders that Ted Nolan would be fired after the 2014-15 season. The Buffalo Sabres finished dead last for the second straight season in league standings in just about every category. Wins, losses, shots on goal, goals for, goals against, power play percentage, penalty kill, shots against and so on, were the absolute worst.
You had to see this coming. We can argue about the roster all day long. At the end of the day, there has to be some analytical improvement somewhere, with Nolan there wasn’t any and he’s out the door in large part because of it.
GM Tim Murray likes and respects Nolan and mentioned in Sunday evening’s press conference that each player went out of their way to share the same sentiment. Unfortunately when it came down to talking about improving the in game performance, there wasn’t the same disposition. Murray interviewed each player, a process that took almost six hours and after speaking to each he came away with the feeling that firing Nolan was best for the team. I hardly believe him on that. He said as much at the trade deadline and offered no excuses then. Murray has a plan, we may not all agree with the manner in which he is going about it but at the end of the day he’s following through. That also must be respected.
I am and will always be in the anti-tank camp. My belief is that when you have an owner willing to spend and a scouting department that is capable of doing its job on draft day any team can turn themselves around in a couple of years. Buffalo, for the first time ever finally has the owner that has gone above and beyond to lure in free agents (Robyn Regehr, Ville Leino). The Sabres have been hitting it out of the ball park in recent years with their draft choices. Zemgus Girgensons, Mikhail Grigorenko, Mark Pysyk, Johan Larsson, Nikita Zadorov, Rasmus Ristolainen, Linus Ullmark and Sam Reinhart are well on their way to becoming exceptional hockey players soon and for years to come. Add some veteran leadership (Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges) and there is a good chance Buffalo will be competing for the Eastern Conference sooner than later. Truth be told, there has to be a bench boss able to guide them in any situation and when the chips are on the table, the teams playing for the Cup will come down to more than determination, in game adjustments are key. You need to have more than a fiery chat during an intermission. Even Herb Brooks adjusted his game plan back in the 1980 winter Olympics when the USA beat Russia.
Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel are likely to expedite the process and be the generational talent that will help Buffalo finally win the Stanley Cup. Time will tell. The pressure on either of these players will be unprecedented even for this blue-collar town. To think of the money loyal fans poured into this organization the past two years with the thought that being terrible for this long will pan out into something miraculous is asking a lot. Murray will never hear the end of it if this plan does not deliver a championship. Seriously, we’ve been to the Stanley Cup finals before, twice in fact doing it the old fashioned way, this is win or bust.
Nolan was hired to bridge the gap, bringing him in was for the fan base. The Regier era was crumbling, and Pegula said within three years of taking over the team they’d be hoisting the cup. In order to save face and renew faith he threw them a bone. Sabres purists saw right through this for what it was which made hearing the news on Sunday a little less disheartening.
To be clear, Nolan ended his first tenure in Buffalo back in 1997. He was offered a one year deal initially, he rejected it and the Sabres hired Lindy Ruff. Ruff took the same team to the Eastern Conference finals in his first year and the Cup finals the next. Nolan returned to the NHL as coach of the New York Islanders in 2006 and guided them to a 1st round playoff berth. He was relieved again after the 2007-08 season. He was the coach of Team Latvia when the Sabres reached out last fall.
Nolan had no chance of returning or seeing this project through. One of the bigger knocks on Nolan is the assumption that he cannot get his skill players to perform at a higher level. I don’t know if I believe that. Larsson flourished at the tail end of the 2015 season while Tyler Ennis captured his second straight 20 goal season on a pretty bad offensive team. I don’t have the space to mention the countless others he did help.
This most recent roster lacked the talent and skill to compete on a regular basis. Nolan did what he did best, he raised the confidence in each player by instilling a work ethic second to none. He will be remembered for it and that will carry over in each for years to come.
Murray was not obligated to bring Nolan back, even if there were two years remaining on his contract. Coaches are hired to be fired and that’s exactly what happened here. Make no mistake, Nolan will find another head coaching job somewhere but it might not be in the NHL. He’s the classiest coach this town has ever had and that says a lot. We were lucky to have him. One of these days though I would like to see Nolan behind the bench of a team that has the skill required to compete at the NHL level. Nobody deserves it more.