Ron Rolston’s first 16 days in the NHL were a blur. He coached eight games for the Buffalo Sabres and traveled from Toronto to Florida and various spots in between.
During the whirlwind, he maintained his reputation of being a calm, even-keeled teacher with knowledge of the game.
“I think Ron is Cool Hand Luke when it comes to a lot of this stuff,” Sabres President Ted Black said Friday. “He doesn’t get rattled. He pays attention to detail. He’s certainly not looking up at the ceiling the first time he’s in a building like your first time in New York City as a country bumpkin.
“I really like what I’m hearing from the players. They’re playing a little bit better right now.”
The Sabres have gotten points in five of Rolston’s games, going 3-3-2 since he stepped behind the bench Feb. 21. They lost the opening two games while dealing with the departure of longtime coach Lindy Ruff, meaning they’ll head to Philadelphia on Sunday with a 3-1-2 mark in their last six.
While they still make mistakes that befit their 27th-place standing in the 30-team NHL, it’s a step up.
“I just enjoy right now the challenge of things,” Rolston said. “I enjoy coming to the rink and just trying to get better on a daily basis, knowing that there’s going to be speed bumps.
“It’s not always a steady climb. There’s usually a plateau or a little dip, and then you build back up again. It’s part of any learning curve. We’ll get better. As guys get healed up here and we get more of the concepts we want to use and the guys understand them more and get more comfortable in them, we’re going to get better.”
Rolston’s biggest coaching obstacle so far has been the Sabres’ schedule. While he’d like to hold long practices filled with drills and system work, he needs to keep sessions short so guys can be ready for the inevitable game the next day.
“The biggest differences you see just talking to people about the lockout here is just the practice time and what you can get done without beating the guys up completely and keeping their energy for the next game but also trying to get things done in practice,” said Rolston, who has relied heavily on video to complement on-ice work. “Because of the limited practice time, we have to do video and do as much teaching as we can there. We’re just trying to go with as many themes as we can get in.”
Rolston has been teaching in steps. One day there will be video centering on defensive responsibilities. The next he’ll show how to work better in the neutral zone. That might be followed by the importance of keeping sticks in a certain position.
“He’s an extremely structured guy,” defenseman Mike Weber said. “The message is almost to be machine-like in a way with systems, the attention to detail, stick positioning and all the little things in and around the game that make it easier as a team to play.”
“He keeps them pretty short, which is good,” Weber said of the daily videos. “You get a video session over 10 minutes, guys are starting to stare at the ceiling. He’s kept them short, kept them interesting. He gets all the assistants involved, too, doing different things. You’re hearing from everyone.”
The players admit it’s different not hearing from Ruff.
“It’s more of a learning environment,” right wing Drew Stafford said. “You can’t really compare him to Lindy in that aspect. Lindy, obviously, taught as well, but I think he’d been around so long and it’s kind of the same guys, we all kind of knew what was going on. It was more he’d just give us a kick in the butt when he needed to change something.
“I think so far that’s probably the biggest thing I’ve noticed.”
Defenseman Jordan Leopold, who is hopeful of returning to the lineup Sunday after sitting out since Feb. 19, has noticed a matter-of-fact approach in terms of Rolston’s message to the players.
“He says this is how we’re going to play, and this is how we have to play together in order to win,” Leopold said. “That’s the message we need. We’ve got a lot of young guys in the locker room, and to be able to teach the game is one thing and for guys to be able to listen and go out and execute in a game is another.
“We’re simplifying things. Watching upstairs, we’re a lot better positionally. We were running around a little bit and couldn’t really keep our composure. Not to say things are perfect, but we’re making progress in that aspect of the game. We’ve been able to get points.”
The Sabres, who will be without injured Ville Leino and Andrej Sekera when they meet the Flyers, are in the midst of a rare two-day break. It should allow Rolston to get at least a little settled after a crazy couple of weeks.
“It’s been kind of a blur early on,” he said. “You’re coming over. You’re living in a hotel, and then you’re right on the road. You’re basically playing every other night, practice time is limited.
“More than anything, what’s happening is I’m feeling more comfortable as we go on because we’re starting to have some repeat games. So now I know a little bit more about New Jersey as we move forward in the schedule. That part of things is getting better, but any job you take there’s challenges.
“There’s always things that you walk into that you have to make adjustments to. I’m going through that right now, and every day I’m learning and I’ll probably still be learning as we move forward at the end of the season.”