TORONTO – Ron Rolston walked to a podium Thursday afternoon inside the Air Canada Centre, surveyed the landscape before him – about 30 reporters and a dozen cameras – and immediately cracked his first joke as the Buffalo Sabres’ interim coach.
“It looks like the same media coverage as Rochester,” joked Rolston, who replaced Lindy Ruff on Wednesday.
On Wednesday, Rolston was preparing his Rochester Americans for an AHL tilt against the Texas Stars. A day later, he was in charge of an NHL club playing a must-win game against the Maple Leafs in the self-proclaimed “Center of the Hockey Universe.”
Rolston’s inheriting a mess. The Sabres have lost four of five and rank 13th in the Eastern Conference and fifth in the Northeast Division. They got booed throughout their ugly 2-1 home loss Tuesday, forcing Sabres general manager Darcy Regier to fire Ruff after 15 seasons.
The 46-year-old Rolston, a noted talent developer with the Team USA junior program, has watched video of the Sabres.
“From what I saw, it was more there were just a lot of shortcuts … a lot of rest in shifts,” Rolston said prior to the Sabres’ 3-1 loss to the Leafs. “The things that you just have to eliminate if you’re going to be a good hockey team.”
Rolston knows it’s his “job is to jumpstart this team and do it any way we can.” He brings a different style than the fiery, old-school Ruff, although he said there are some similarities. There won’t be any major system changes.
“I’d probably be considered a little more analytical in approach and making sure the communication (gets there),” Rolston said.
Sabres captain Jason Pominville knows Rolston’s new ideas could take some time to mesh.
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Pominville said. “But we’ve got to believe in what he’s bringing to us, and we’ve got to get together to come out of this. We still have time to get ourselves out and get on a roll.”
Sabres defenseman T.J. Brennan, who played two seasons under Rolston, called him “a real positive guy” and a “players’ coach.”
“He really has a lot of patience,” Brennan said. “He works really, really hard. Basically, I think if everyone sees that and sees his intentions, sees where he’s coming from, I think it’s going to be great for us. It’s definitely a little bit of a change. Obviously, change can be good or bad.
“I think we got a really great group in here. I think everyone’s kind of looking for a little positivity to move forward. This could be it.”
Sabres winger Marcus Foligno said about Rolston: “He doesn’t really get startled. I think that’s one of the biggest things. He’s calm. He can think in tough situations. He’s really good at explaining.”
When Rolston’s phone rang a little after 3 p.m. Wednesday, he thought Regier was calling about Amerks captain Kevin Porter.
Instead, Regier had owner Terry Pegula on the line.
“At that point,” Rolston said, “I knew something was up.”
They informed Rolston he was wanted in Buffalo.
“It was a good thing I was sitting down at the time,” Rolston said. “I wasn’t expecting it, so certainly, yeah, it was surprising for me. I think you work your whole career to get an opportunity like this. I’ve been in Rochester for a year and a half now, so I wasn’t sure when that opportunity was going to come.”
Rolston finished preparing for the game, drove to Buffalo and then here, where he met with his players Wednesday night.
Naturally, Rolston wants to shed his interim tag.
“That’s certainly a goal,” Rolston said. “But our focus right now is to start moving in the positive direction we want to.”
When Cody McCormick cleared waivers at noon Thursday, officially freeing up a roster spot, Porter hit the ice inside the Air Canada Centre.
His new teammates tapped their sticks in appreciation before the center joined the workout.
The reeling Sabres desperately need an on-ice savior.
Porter, a 14-goal scorer with Colorado two years ago, probably won’t be that guy. But Rolston believes the 26-year-old will help his struggling team. Porter has 15 goals and 44 points in 48 AHL games.
“He just brings a lot of character, a lot of jam, speed, low maintenance,” Rolston said. “He just goes out and does his job. He’s a leader for us in Rochester.”
Porter wore No. 12 on Thursday and mostly centered Nathan Gerbe and Steve Ott.
“The season was going really well down there,” said Porter, a spare part last season with Colorado. “With the lockout, I wanted to get there and play games and make sure I was still in shape in case I did get this call.”
McCormick, meanwhile, will report to the Amerks, his first AHL stint since 2009-10. The 29-year-old played eight games this season before he was yanked from practice Wednesday.
“Middle of practice, too,” Sabres winger Drew Stafford said. “Sometimes you forget how ugly the business of hockey can be. We saw that in two ways (Wednesday).”
Defenseman Jordan Leopold, a healthy scratch Tuesday, hurt his hand during practice Wednesday and sat against the Leafs.
Meanwhile, rookie center Mikhail Grigorenko was scratched for the third straight game.
“We’re going to get him his development time when we can,” Rolston said.
Defenseman Andrej Sekera (charley horse) is nearing a return but missed his third contest.