James O'Brien

Hockey Daily Dose

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Dose: Sabres make big changes

Thursday, November 14, 2013

This still-young 2013-14 season seems to spawn theme weeks. Unfortunately, those themes have frequently dabbled in the darkly comic, if not flat-out awful.


One week, it seemed like we couldn’t go more than 24 hours without the stomach-churning term “stretchered” being thrown about. During another period of about seven days, the disturbing pattern involved players suffering from scary lacerations. This week seems all about coaches and/or general managers getting canned.


Wednesday brought about the stunning/inevitable dual firing of Buffalo Sabres head coach Ron Rolston and Rasputin-like general manager Darcy Regier. This follows the Florida Panthers’ decision to part ways with Kevin Dineen.


Sabres fans shouldn’t be too rattled that the team is parting ways with the past, however, as the replacements seem retro in their own right.


Technically, former Sabres star Pat LaFontaine is the president of hockey operations, so it’s possible he might not serve as the GM as well. But he also might, more or less, do just that. (It’s possible that he’ll have powerful sway in such decisions, yet in a vaguer way, like Joe Sakic with Colorado.) The biggest eyebrow-raiser was probably that Ted Nolan was named the new head coach, a lot like an old head coach, though …


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If you’ve been paying a decent amount of attention to hockey rumor mills for the last 15-20 years, you know that Ted Nolan has faced his share of controversies. (Whether there’s fire to go with all that smoke, one can assume that the Sabres’ 90’s-laced nostalgia will probably stop before it includes Dominik Hasek taking a front office role.)


Fantasy owners don’t need to pay that much mind, beyond the possibility that he might have a falling out with certain players or he could very well favor certain hockey player types (boon for Steve Ott, maybe?) over others.


The bottom line is that it’s difficult to ascertain how Nolan will adapt to the NHL in 2013-14. He only has four seasons of NHL experience - two with the Sabres (1995-96 and 96-97) and two with the New York Islanders (2006-07 and 07-08) - so the sample size even just looking at his past is pretty slim.


With that word of caution out of the way, here’s my best effort at forecasting his impact.




For the sake of brevity, let’s ignore the existential question of “How much do the Sabres really want to succeed during a season in which it’s obvious they should tank?” and instead focus on the present and past … even if Buffalo should have its eye on the future.


There’s not a ton of “literature” on Nolan’s coaching style, so instead, I consulted Hockey Reference’s handy season guides to try to get at least a vague idea of what we’re dealing with here.


1995-96, first with Buffalo

Record: 33-42-7

Goals For: 247 (league average: 258); Goals Against: 262 (league average: 258)

PP%: 15.93 (average: 17.93); PK%: 83.95 (avg: 82.07)

Top scorer: Pat LaFontaine with 91 points. Next best was Randy Burridge with just 58.

Dominik Hasek in net (.920 save percentage)



Record: 40-30-12 (won the Northeast Division title, lost in second round to Philly)

Goals For: 237 (avg: 239); Goals Against: 208 (avg: 239)

PP%: 13.19 (avg: 16.27); PK%: 83.79 (83.73)

Top scorer: Derek Plante with just 53 points.

Dominik Hasek won the Hart, Vezina and Ted Lindsay Trophies that season.

Nolan won the Jack Adams Award.


2006-07, first year with Islanders

Record: 40-30-12 (lost in first round of playoffs)

Goals For: 248 (242); Goals Against: 240 (242)

PP%: 18.10 (17.58); PK%: 81.76 (82.42)

Top scorer: Jason Blake with 69 points

Rick DiPietro looked like top pick material (32-19-9, .919 save percentage)


2007-08, final year in NHL before this hiring

Record: 35-38-9

Goals For: 194 (228); Goals Against 243 (228)

PP%: 14.55; PK%: 81.87 (82.25)

Top scorer: Mike Comrie with 49 points.

Ricky D regressed.


Looking at those teams, it’s a marvel that Nolan managed to win a division title. It’s amusing that LaFontaine wasn’t just the best scorer he’s ever had … he’s the top guy by more than 20 points. And that was in the meat of the worst obstruction days.


Aside from the LaFontaine-and-everyone-else year, Nolan’s teams have experience balanced scoring … but probably because he dealt with rosters full of jabronis.


He should feel right at home in Buffalo, then. Nolan might even feel spoiled to have a few extra talented players here and there. Hopefully he’s indeed smart enough to do one thing Ron Rolston seemed to do correctly: ride Cody Hodgson and Matt Moulson as far as the two could take them.




With just four seasons (and two two-season sets separated by about a decade) to work with, it’s tough to do anything but paint in broad brushstrokes. My gut feeling is that “grinding” might be the only phrase that really fits the bill, and that might be a matter of necessity rather than Nolan’s preference.


If nothing else, Nolan has shown that he can get the most of ragtag groups, although it’s possible that his methods might also produce rapid burnouts. Or maybe it’s just a couple of coincidences, as he’s only received two kicks at the can.


At least now the Sabres are embracing change, acknowledging that things were indeed going wrong and are worth half-watching again. That might at least make the crowds less dour in Buffalo.


After the jump: Kadri makes some Wild enemies and other game notes.


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James O'Brien is the Hockey Daily Dose's author and has been a contributor to NBC's Pro Hockey Talk for more than four years. Follow him on Twitter.
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