TORONTO – Ron Rolston walked to a podium this 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.
A day ago, Rolston was preparing his Rochester Americans for an AHL tilt against the Texas Stars. Today, he’s in charge of an NHL club that’s 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 after leading his first on-ice workout as coach. “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.”
When Rolston’s phone rang a little after 3 p.m. Wednesday, he thought Regier was calling about center 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.”
In other news, Porter will play tonight. He joined the team’s skate right at noon when forward Cody McCormick cleared waivers. The likable veteran will go to Rochester.
Defenseman Jordan Leopold (upper body) is out tonight. Rookie center Mikhail Grigorenko will sit his third straight game.