Ted Nolan was asked Monday if he thought Latvia’s performance at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi would affect his “interim” status with the Sabres. Predictably, he wasn’t biting. Nolan turned his attention toward resuming the season and fulfilling obligations outlined when Pat LaFontaine hired him.
“Would I like to stay? Certainly,” Nolan said after an hour-long workout in First Niagara Center. “Would I like to continue? No question, but the No. 1 thing is that Pat asked me to come in and do this, and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability. Hopefully, it’s good enough to stick around.”
Nolan said had not been offered a contract extension Monday, but he’s not going anywhere. Whether the Sabres make it official this week, next month or after the season, retaining him should be a formality. They would be wise to lock him up for the foreseeable future and continue developing a young team into a winning one.
This is a no-brainer.
Nolan never lost his gift of inspiring players and getting them to exceed their own standards. His knack for maximizing potential was evident again during the Winter Games, when a collection of nameless, faceless Latvians reached the quarterfinals and nearly knocked off a Canadian team that was one of the best ever assembled.
You could almost hear NHL executives second-guessing themselves during the Olympics for not hiring Nolan during his time away. His absence was one of the great injustices in sports, but it was as if people forgot what made him effective. LaFontaine had the sense to know Nolan would help change the culture.
The Sabres are similar to Latvia. They lack skill and experience. They’re learning how to win. If they adopt the same attitude Latvia had, they’re bound to improve. It begins with believing in themselves and one another. They could have all the faith in the world, but it’s useless unless GM Tim Murray finds Nolan more talent and depth.
Canada had a lineup stocked with NHL all-stars whose combined contracts amounted to $149 million. They had some of the best coaches in the business, including Lindy Ruff. Latvia had one NHL player making $894,000, Sabres rookie Zemgus Girgensons, and a coach, Nolan, who for years was inexplicably pushed aside by the establishment.
Latvia gave Canada all it could handle and was the last team to score against Canada, which more than the U.S. team could say before taking a vacation in Sochi. Can imagine the tenor north of the border if Latvia pulled off the upset and sent the Canadians home without a medal?
The Latvians were one shot here, one save there, from making it happen. They played with intelligence. They blocked shots. They were resourceful and disciplined. They had great goaltending. They played harder than Canada. They gained confidence under Nolan and threw a good scare into an entire country before talent took over.
LaFontaine couldn’t have played his hand any better. He was right when he gave Nolan the “interim” tag because giving him a long-term contract would have undermined his search for a general manager. LaFontaine all along knew Nolan, if given enough time, would win over any general manager he hired.
Murray shouldn’t need to see much more. He’ll have a major say on who coaches his team along with LaFontaine and Craig Patrick. Anyone in the Sabres’ dressing room would attest that Nolan is a major upgrade over Ron Rolston. The atmosphere around the team is far more upbeat than it was before the changes.
The Sabres’ record could be worse next year if they lose veteran free agents Ryan Miller, Steve Ott and Matt Moulson and aren’t able to replace them. They’ll be left with more young players who can benefit from Nolan’s positive influence and no-nonsense approach. It’s a matter of when, not if, they get better results.
It starts with effort. He kicked John Scott out of practice Monday after watching him fumble around with the puck and go through the motions. Scott, who stormed off the ice, might as well keep walking. Nolan doesn’t need his attitude, not after watching Latvians give everything they had without making a dime.
For years, the rap on Nolan was that X’s and O’s weren’t his strength, as if developed players without understanding the game. It was unfair. Nolan never coached an abundance of talent in the NHL. In 1996-97, when the Sabres won a title under him, their top two scorers were Brian Holzinger and Derek Plante.
Dominik Hasek played a huge role in their success, of course, but that team was effective because it outworked teams all season. They also won a playoff round that year. Nolan was named Coach of the Year, and his reward was a one-year contract offer and a pay cut. If he won the division with that team, imagine what he would do with more talent.
Clearly, he knows the game. He took the lowly New York Islanders to the playoffs in 2006-07. If you remember, they played five tough games against the Sabres before Buffalo’s talent took over. Coaching wasn’t the Islanders’ problem at the time, and it’s not the issue with the Sabres now.
Murray needs better players, so Nolan can complete the job LaFontaine gave him.