BUFFALO – Drew Stafford’s first conversation with Sabres coach Ted Nolan lasted no more than two minutes, the winger said. It was a straightforward, “man-to-man” chat.
“Looking-at-me-in-the-eyes kind of conversation,” Stafford said Monday, hours after the Sabres removed Nolan’s interim tag and gave him a three-year contract extension.
Stafford was struggling badly back in mid-November. He had one goal and had just lost his alternate captaincy. Nolan didn’t care. As a veteran, Stafford deserved respect. Nolan immediately upped his ice time.
“Just that kind of a respect knowing, ‘OK, I’m going to get this opportunity and he’s going to give me this chance,’ I grabbed it,” Stafford said inside the First Niagara Center after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s game against the New Jersey Devils.
Today, Stafford’s a reliable, first-line power forward. He has the ‘A’ back on his jersey. People talk about the 28-year-old becoming the next captain of the rebuilding club.
“He has that relationship with you where you don’t want to let him down,” Stafford said about Nolan.
Yes, the Sabres are still the NHL’s worst team. They’re 16-30-8 since Nolan replaced Ron Rolston on Nov. 13 and have lost 12 of their last 14 games.
But Scotty Bowman probably wouldn’t win much with the team’s current roster.
Nolan has changed the culture around the Sabres, an important first step in what could be a years-long rebuild. He connects with players young and old and demands effort.
“All I’ve heard is positives,” Sabres general manager Tim Murray said about Nolan.
Stafford added: “I love playing under (Nolan). He’s a guy that I think is perfect for this type of rebuild as a far as motivation and making sure the right guys are staying around.”
For Nolan, who also coached the Sabres from 1995-97, Buffalo is a special place.
“If I could pick a place to go, this would definitely be the place,” he said. “I’m excited to be here. This is a city that deserves a championship.”
Murray has been watching Nolan closely since his Jan. 9 arrival.
“In trying times, I’ve liked a lot of what I’ve seen,” Murray said.
The Sabres compete most nights, he said. Murray likes Nolan’s rapport with the youngsters and his popularity with the veterans.
Sabres center Tyler Ennis said Nolan offers stability.
“I think everybody’s just excited to kind of just move forward,” said Ennis, who has thrived under Nolan. “I think Teddy’s been awesome for us. There’s been so many changes this last little while.”
With their coach in place, the Sabres can go forward overhauling the roster.
“Do we like the same type of players?” Murray asked. “I think we do.”
Nolan added: “We like competitive people. If you haven’t got them, you don’t win.”
The future of Nolan’s assistant coaches will be discussed later, he said.
Despite the Sabres’ sorry state, the job is still attractive, Nolan said. The team possesses some coveted prospects and has a slew of high picks in the coming drafts.
“What makes the job so exciting is looking down the road,” he said. “What we have now is what we have now. You see some chunks of coal here and polish them up, they’re going to be some pretty good diamonds down the road.”
He added: “I really believe you got to go through those rough waters in order for those smooth waters to come.”
The deal, rumored to be close for weeks, was finalized Monday because with Pat LaFontaine’s March 1 resignation as president of hockey operations and the NHL trade deadline four days later, Murray and Nolan figured it was better to put the contract on the backburner.
It took about three weeks or a month to complete, Nolan said.
Now, the popular Nolan is really back in a city he “fell in love with” 19 years ago. Clearly, Nolan and the locals share a bond. Some fans never got over Nolan essentially getting fired after winning the 1996-97 Jack Adams Award for top coach.
Why does Nolan identify with the people here?
“I come from the same type of background,” he said. “Nothing was given to myself. You had to work for things. And this city, it’s a blue-collar town. They love to work, and if you give them an honest effort, you’re honest with them, that’s a key. You can’t lie. You can’t fluff things out that are not there.
“I think if you’re truthful and you’re straightforward, they appreciate much more. I try to be as straightforward as I can with the players.”
That has earned Nolan respect.
“He’s a great person on top of a great coach,” Ennis said. “I think that’s another reason everyone’s excited for him because he’s a good human being.”