BUFFALO – Ted Nolan said he’s a straightforward type of guy. So after taking over as interim coach Wednesday, the 55-year-old requested one thing from the Sabres, whose work ethic has been lacking during their awful 4-15-1 start.
“The only thing I asked is you compete,” Nolan, the Sabres’ coach from 1995-97, said following practice inside the First Niagara Center. “Some guys play 25 minutes. Some guys play three minutes. To work for three minutes, that’s not asking much. To work for 24 minutes, that’s not much. Some people have to work seven days a week, 14 hours a day.”
Nolan has to work at cleaning up the NHL’s worst team.
In a stunning move Wednesday, the Sabres fired longtime general manager Darcy Regier and rookie coach Ron Rolston. Pat LaFontaine is the new president of hockey operations. Nolan, a wildly popular figure here and a former Jack Adams Trophy winner as the NHL’s top coach, has the job for the rest of the season.
During his two seasons here Nolan developed a reputation for coaching gritty, ultra-competitive clubs.
Expect more of that. The Sabres’ lack of compete has been a major issue this season.
“I said to the team, I said, ‘We’re not going to promise if we compete we start winning. It has nothing to do with that. But if we compete, it gives us a chance to win,’” Nolan said. “Without that, it doesn’t work.”
Sabres captain Steve Ott added: “Guys are going to have to be earning things around here.”
Hours before taking over, Nolan was here Tuesday watching the Sabres’ 3-2 shootout win, a game the Los Angeles Kings outshot them 45-17.
Nolan, most recently the Latvian national team’s coach, knew then he would be replacing Rolston.
“I didn’t like that game last night,” Nolan said. “I thought it was ugly. I thought it was boring. … I didn’t like the game at all. We have to be better than that.”
More on Nolan later.
What about Regier, the GM since 1997? And Rolston, who went 19-26-6 in just 51 games?
“Very surprising to wake up to,” Sabres goalie Ryan Miller said about the news.
Ott added: “Obviously, it’s not acceptable organizational-wise to have this (standing).”
Miller said he has “a lot of respect for Darcy.”
“Hopefully, this is an opportunity for the Sabres organization to kind of reset a little bit,” he said. “Darcy has been here a long time, maybe time for a little bit different perspective and some other kind of influence coming in.”
Given the Sabres’ sorry state, did something have to happen?
“That’s the trend in pro sports,” Miller said. “Really, it’s up to the players to go out, execute and perform.”
Miller said he feels badly for Rolston.
“He was just kind of getting started, getting his feet under him,” he said.
Ott said players kept learning daily from Rolston, whose interim tag was shed in May after taking over for Lindy Ruff.
“Ron was put in a tough situation, let’s be honest here,” Ott said. “He’s a rebuild coach. It’s no different than any other job when you’re in that situation. I think he did the best he could. He came in prepared every single day. He was professional every single day. I have a lot of respect for what Ron did and tried to accomplish here.”
Still, Ott called having Nolan and LaFontaine “a huge step” for the Sabres.
“We have some highly respected pieces at the top level all the way down,” Ott said. “It’s probably not an easy job for Mr. (Terry) Pegula to do.”
Ott’s excited to meet LaFontaine, a Hockey Hall of Famer and Sabres legend.
“I know what people think of him in this community, let alone what he’s done in his hockey career,” he said. “That’s instant respect in my department. You always want a guy that played the game, been through the wars, been through the trenches. Patty’s one of those guys.”
So is Nolan, having played 78 NHL games and coached four seasons, including the Sabres’ 1996-97 Northeast Division championship campaign.
“I’ve only heard great things,” Ott said about Nolan, who also coached the New York Islanders for two seasons.
Nolan, whose Sabres start a home-and-home series with Toronto on Friday, plans to sit down with players and learn about them.
“The quickest thing for me is just finding out what kind of characters and personalities we have on this team, find out some of the reasons why the season’s not going the way they planned it to go,” Nolan said.
He already spoke to some players on the ice Wednesday.
“I talked to a few guys on the ice and they didn’t hold back,” Nolan said. “Some of them probably would’ve went on a little bit longer than they probably should’ve. But that’s what we want. We want open communication here.”
Nolan, who won junior championships with Sault Ste. Marie and Moncton, works with young players well. Right now, the Sabres have four teenagers. That number could dwindle soon.
“It’s unfair for a 19-year-old to go against 27-year-olds on a daily basis,” Nolan said. “You can do it for a little while. But on a consistent basis there’s not too many Sidney Crosbys.”
Nolan hasn’t had much time to evaluate, but he plans on skating tough guy John Scott, who helped ignite a preseason brawl the last time the Sabres played the Maple Leafs, on Friday.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Nolan said.
He also said winger Patrick Kaleta, banished to the minors recently to develop a calmer style, could be brought back.
“I’m going to be looking at everything to get this team back on track to really enjoy what they are watching,” Nolan said. “If he’s one of the guys that can do that, we’ll definitely do that.”
Rolston’s assistant coaches are staying on.