Let’s examine job descriptions as they pertain to the Sabres and the season ahead. It marks the first full season since Tim Murray was hired as general manager and Ted Nolan returned as coach. Murray did not bring Nolan aboard but retained him to maintain stability after the Pat LaFontaine debacle.
It’s important to remember that they had no previous relationship and may not have a strong one now. Their allegiance is to the team, not to each other. They don’t need to be beer buddies, but they must understand what the other is trying to accomplish for their relationship to work.
In an ordinary season, the general manager and coach generally have the same ideals. The GM assembles the best team possible with the idea he has enough talent in place to contend for the playoffs. The coach does everything he can to maximize potential with the same goal in mind.
This is not an ordinary season.
Murray and Nolan aren’t about to hold a news conference saying as much, but they have different agendas. It doesn’t mean they have a contentious relationship. Murray will say that he wants to win ASAP because he can’t send any other message to his players, to the fans, to the league.
But his job calls for doing what’s best for the long-term success of his hockey club. This year, losing also means winning. The more Buffalo loses, the greater its chances of getting the first pick overall. It would allow the Sabres to draft Connor McDavid, the top prize of the 2015 draft.
McDavid is expected to be a franchise player, one who comes along once in a generation. He’s already been compared to Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby, two of the best players in NHL history, the kind of players who can lead an entire franchise on the right course for a decade or longer.
Owner Terry Pegula has a crush on the kid, and understandably so. He has made it clear within the organization that Buffalo should be doing everything possible to increase its chances of landing him. Murray is trying to strike a balance between improving his team and finishing last.
It’s quite a tightrope, but it explains why he didn’t add an established goaltender this summer. There is no better way to get maximum effort from his players and minimal results from his team.
Nolan will be doing whatever he can to win because, for no other reason, he needs to sleep at night. He’s not going to become a problem child. He’ll also say all the right things when the Sabres open training camp. He’ll talk about his commitment to making young players better. He’ll say he understands the process, how it takes time to turn around a franchise.
But that will be for public consumption.
In private, his players will hear a different tune.
I’ve known Nolan for nearly 20 years, and I can see where this is headed. He’s wired to win every game possible by any means possible. He’s a proud man who persevered through years of inequity and indignity. He’s stronger now than he was 17 years ago, when he was pushed out of the NHL.
Nolan didn’t cower to anyone in 1997, so he’s certainly not going to back down now. It’s why players respect him. They would know if he took his foot off the accelerator. He’s certainly not going to deliver a half-hearted message about effort when effort goes to the core of his coaching philosophy.
This is where Nolan is best. He enjoys nothing more than taking underdog teams and showing them they can win. You saw it the first time around with the Sabres, when he was the popular coach of a lovable team, and with the Islanders, who made the playoffs in 2007 while having last-place talent.
Nolan wouldn’t be the first coach to rally his players around the idea that their own organization lacks faith in them. Coaches embrace the Us-vs.-Them approach whether the opponent is the other team, the media or even their own organization. The trick for him is turning effort and chemistry into winning.
Bet the house that respected veterans such as Brian Gionta, Josh Gorges and Matt Moulson didn’t sign up for losing.
Nolan would take great joy in proving people wrong, in building confidence among his players and winning sooner than expected. He feels a responsibility to prove LaFontaine was right to hire him before his friend and former boss lost a power struggle and was shown the door.
Murray is left doing what’s best for the greater good, which means losing and moving closer to the No. 1 pick. Nolan is trying to get the most from his players, which meaning winning and moving away from the first pick. The conflict isn’t with them but in their job descriptions.
For now, anyway.