The Buffalo Sabres announced that the franchise had removed the "interim" label from coach Ted Nolan this morning and signed the bench boss to a reported three-year contract extension. In doing so, the Sabres have shown confidence in a man who once won the Jack Adams Award with the franchise and has brought back at least a modicum of confidence to a team currently in the very depths of a rebuild.
Nolan, who originally coached the Sabres from 1995-97 and took the team from worst to first in their division, came in for a second stint after 20 games this season once it became clear that coach Ron Rolston was way over his head at the NHL level. In terms of results, Nolan's points percentage so far is .370, thanks to a record of 16-30-8. As poor as that sounds, Rolston had the Sabres at 4-15-1 for a points percentage of .225.
Is it realistic to expect Nolan to turn this team around again in one season? No. He lost his franchise goalie and a great leader when the team sent Ryan Miller and Steve Ott to St. Louis at the trade deadline and those players don't just pop up out of nowhere. But if Nolan proved anything as coach of the Latvian Olympic team in February, it's that he can get the most out of a roster.
The Sabres are loaded with great young talents and thanks to deals made by since-fired GM Darcy Regier (and carried on by his replacement, Tim Murray), Buffalo has an insane amount of high draft picks in the next two years. On top of that, the franchise already has two great-looking blueline prospects in Nikita Zadorov and Rasmus Ristolainen, plus two blue-chippers down the middle in Zemgus Girgensons and Mikhail Grigorenko.
Sure, there is a void of talent and cohesion right now – the team is in last for a reason – but there are building blocks to work with. Buffalo is not a big market for free agents, so getting the right kids is important. Nolan is a no-nonsense kind of coach who also had success at the major junior level with the Quebec League's Moncton Wildcats and Ontario League's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. He won a QMJHL title in his only season with Moncton (2005-06), while driving the Greyhounds to three straight Memorial Cups, winning it all in 1993. So getting the most out of young players is not an issue.
The task at hand now is to forge a solid lineup from the veterans remaining and the kids coming up in Buffalo. Next year will most likely be another trying one in Sabreland, but at least it will be results-based. With Ott gone, the team needs a new captain. Is it Cody Hodgson, Drew Stafford or Christian Ehrhoff, or somebody else?
And what happens to an underperformer such as Ville Leino, he of the insane contract that no one else would ever trade for? Does Nolan coach him up, or ask management to bite the bullet and send him packing, no matter what it costs?
Most importantly, how fast do all the kids come up? Grigorenko has been put through the ringer by this franchise already, bouncing from junior to the American League to the NHL and back again. He needs to be treated right next year.
There are so many questions to be answered in Buffalo, but at least they have a strong personality and consistent winner confirmed behind the bench for the near future now.