Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The second time around

Veteran Buffalo Sabres' fans remember Ted Nolan's first tenure as coach of the Buffalo Sabres. It was one of the oddest times in the history of the franchise.

General manager John Muckler and Nolan were barely speaking by the end. Muckler wanted to fire Nolan in the middle of a successful 1996-97 season, but wasn't allowed to do so by team management. Players on the team were split into sides, most famously in the case of Dominik Hasek (Muckler) and Pat LaFontaine (Nolan). As team member Derek Plante once said, he didn't mind missing his usual soap operas on TV; the drama at the rink each day filled that need nicely.

Muckler was fired right after the 1997 playoffs, and Nolan left after turning down a one-year contract offer from new general manager Darcy Regier.

Yet that might be the second-oddest period of Nolan's coaching career in Buffalo. That alone says a lot about what to think about his latest departure, a day after the end of the regular season. It's sure tough to put "Nolan II" into perspective.

To recap, Nolan was brought in as interim coach when LaFontaine arrived as the top hockey executive when Regier and coach Ron Rolston were fired relatively early in the 2013-14 season. Fans, who always had a great relationship with LaFontaine and Nolan, reacted in some cases like MacArthur had returned to the Philippines. Yes, the team had a massive rebuilding job in front of it at that point and wasn't going to be good for a while, but having Nolan around made the idea more tolerable for many. Eventually, Tim Murray was brought in from Ottawa as the new general manager.

Then with a month or so to go in the 2013-14 season, LaFontaine abruptly resigned his position. And at that exact moment, Nolan knew that the countdown toward unemployment had begun.

Nolan knew first-hand that general managers want their own people to be head coaches most of the time - and probably for good reason.He went through that when he coached the Islanders, as he and general manager Garth Snow didn't get along philosophically - whatever that means. Come to think of it, if Nolan had taken Regier's one-year contract contract offer, he probably would have exited after the 1997-98 season. Regier obviously valued a close relationship with a coach, and had that sort of friend in longtime Sabre coach Lindy Ruff. Shotgun marriages usually don't work, in hockey and in life.

It's very, very difficult to judge how Nolan did as a coach in Buffalo the second time around. Most of the veteran talent was sent elsewhere for prospects and draft choices, leaving a roster that slowly deteriorated to the point where it often wasn't competitive once the calendar flipped to 2015. We know that Mark Pysyk was kept in Rochester for most of the season against the coaching staff's wishes; we don't know if there were other such disagreements. A few of the kids seemed to take some small steps forward at times, but it's still a little tough to guess how many of them will be part of a better Sabres' future. There's Zemgus Girgensons and Rasmus Ristolainen ... well, the Magic 8 Ball replies to those questions about others with "Ask again later." Plus, all the speculation of a deliberate, year-long (or perhaps longer) tank attempt by the front office poisoned the atmosphere.

I've heard that some of the players had mentally packed in the season a few weeks before the actual conclusion, but the team didn't completely fall apart. It almost broke the hearts of some Sabres' fans by not finishing last with a little rush at the end. Nolan is known as a motivator and not an X's and O's genius, but this season certainly tested those skills. Ted is a survivor, and at least seemed to roll with the punches as well as could be expected. Meanwhile, a member of upper management said recently that the season was toughest on the team's front office, which sure sounds like someone who is a little too insulated for his own good. It was tough on everyone, right down to the last fan in the 300 level.

No one should feel too sorry for Nolan. He walks away with a nice golden parachute of a few million dollars for his efforts, paid out through 2017. Consider it a lofty 401K payment.

Nolan also leaves as someone who has gone 0 for 3 in terms of getting along with his boss at the sport's highest level. It seems unlikely that he'd get a fourth chance somewhere.I'd argue that the Sabres' front office probably got good value for what it paid, and will pay, Nolan. I'm not sure anyone else could have calmed the fan base that much during the past two years of losing. People still came to games throughout the season and watched on television.

Now that the page has been turned, though, it's fair to say the Sabres had better swing for the fences, to borrow a baseball phrase, when it comes to hiring the next coach. Teenagers Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel can't be expected to do all the work concerning good will around here. After all the talk about the Sabres being deliberately bad, a "name" coach would go a long way toward putting a bizarre and often unwatchable season behind them as quickly as possible.

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