The longtime season-ticket holders behind the Buffalo bench will undoubtedly do double- and triple-takes tonight in First Niagara Center. After 16 years of looking at Lindy Ruff and his designer ties, they’ll see Ron Rolston and his Burberry glasses. It’ll take some getting used to for everyone involved.
The Sabres learned that quickly during Rolston’s coaching debut.
The forwards heard a new voice handing out assignments and sending them over the boards Thursday in Toronto. Though the transition from Ruff to Rolston went seamlessly — the Sabres weren’t penalized for too many men and never missed a shift change — it was different.
“It’s just awkward when you hear a different voice,” Sabres captain Jason Pominville said. “Lindy’s been a leader of this organization for 16 years, so he’s been the guy that everyone’s been used to hearing, whether it’s on TV, in the media or in the locker room.
“It’s nothing against Ron. It’s just different. It’s going to take a little time for everyone.”
The problem for the Sabres is there’s not much time left to salvage this season. They welcome the New York Islanders to town tonight as one of the NHL’s worst teams, one that has lost three straight and eight of 11.
“Certainly coming into the situation that we’re in now is a challenge,” Rolston said Friday after practice in Northtown Center at Amherst. “It’s something I’m looking forward to, and the team has been very responsive to date. That’s our mind-set right now is making sure we’re always keeping faith in what we’re doing and we’re staying positive in what we’re doing.”
Rolston has decided against any immediate, jarring changes on the bench. The interim boss has taken over the forward lines, a duty Ruff handled, while assistant coach James Patrick is still in command of the defense pairings.
“I thought we were pretty dialed in on the bench,” Rolston said. “We were plugged in to what needed to be done. I liked our bench Thursday night. I liked what we were talking about all the time and what guys were focusing on, and it was the whole night that way.”
Rolston’s biggest decisions usually center around faceoffs. He needs to quickly analyze where the puck will be dropped, which center is better on that side and which line is appropriate for that zone, whether it’s offensive or defensive.
“I’m still getting a feel, first game, for the team,” Rolston said, “so there’s a lot of things still that we can continue to iron out until you learn the players and what they can do and get more comfortable with that.”
Rolston let the holdover assistants handle the video scouting of the Maple Leafs prior to the 3-1 loss because he wanted to focus on his new team. But with three days on the job, he planned to change that for today’s game. He should have a feel for opponents based on his preparation.
“I’ve been watching video on the Sabres and NHL teams the whole year,” said the former Amerks coach. “We have a server in Rochester that has all Buffalo’s games in four different angles, so I continually watched all the other teams that come into town along with the Sabres. I try to stay up with that as much as possible with the trends and how teams are playing.”
Folks who keep an eye on Rolston during the game will frequently observe him taking notes, which he writes on a card that’s kept in the inside pocket of his suit coat. Occasionally, he’ll choose to look down and briefly stop watching the action. When intermissions came in Toronto, he waited on the bench until all his players had departed before heading to the dressing room. Ruff was usually among the first down the hallway.
Another change came after the game. Ruff almost always addressed the team at the conclusion, and his theme would be repeated by players in postgame chats. Rolston does not make a summary speech, which will leave the players to sort out the win or loss in the immediate aftermath.
“I don’t talk to them after a game,” Rolston said. “I like to go and watch things and really get focused on what the message needs to be instead of just emotionally throwing something out there that’s not really what you want to get across to the guys.”
Rolston’s message during his first full practice day was the team needs to be quicker in its decisions and stop making crucial mistakes.
“We have to play at a different pace right now,” he said. “We don’t put enough pressure on teams right now, just playing a little bit too slow.
“If you lined all the players up on the goal line across the league, it’d be a pretty close race from end to end, but a lot of teams play faster than other teams with puck movement and guys knowing what other guys are doing on the ice. We’ve got to make a concerted effort at doing that, just putting teams in pressure situations more than we do.”
Rolston essentially lost his debut during the second period. The Sabres played a bad middle frame but nearly escaped with a 1-1 tie, then they made multiple mistakes to allow the Leafs to go end-to-end with only 1:56 remaining.
“When you’re on the road like that, you want to be able to go into, for example, the third period 1-1,” Rolston said. “What happens right now with our hockey team is we’re the team that blinks first when you have a staredown. In other words, if the faceoff’s in the zone and we make a mistake in execution, the next thing you know it’s a 2-1 game going into the third.
“That’s part of the reason why things aren’t going the way we want them to go is because there’s times in the game we execute for a long period of time, and then in this league if you have even a short span of a couple of shifts where you don’t execute, that can be the difference in the game. A lot of times it’s been the case here.”
Andrej Sekera may return to the Sabres’ lineup after missing three games with a charley horse, while fellow defenseman Jordan Leopold missed practice again with an upper-body injury. Goaltender Ryan Miller took the day off after a 33-save performance.
“Everyone here knows the value he has to the organization and our team,” Rolston said. “Just more of a maintenance day for him to make sure he’s in the right place.”