Two of Tim Murray’s major immediate questions as the Buffalo Sabres’ new general manager are obvious.
When it comes to Ted Nolan and Ryan Miller, do you keep the interim coach and can you keep the franchise goaltender?
Miller wasn’t talking Thursday about the Sabres’ new front office personnel, understandably preferring to sit down first with Murray and new special assistant Craig Patrick. But President of Hockey Operations Pat LaFontaine made it clear the Sabres want to keep Miller if he wants to stay.
As for Nolan, LaFontaine’s loyalty to him is unquestioned. Speaking prior to the team’s game against the Florida Panthers, Nolan initially tried to downplay talk of his status now that a new GM is in place to decide his fate.
“It has always been the same since Pat asked me to come here,” Nolan said. “I’m going to coach this team the best I can. I’m not worried about tomorrow. I’m just worried about here today and I really mean that in a sincere way.”
But pressed on the issue, Nolan reiterated he wants the job for the long term.
“Definitely. I made no secret about it,” he said. “If I had a crystal ball where I could pick one place to do this job in the best league in the world in the best city in the world, this would be the place.”
The Sabres entered Thursday’s game with an 8-11-3 record under Nolan after going 4-15-1 under Ron Rolston. Murray has no prior relationship with Nolan, noting he’s simply seen him around arenas.
“I’m open-minded about this coming in,” Murray said. “I want to establish a relationship with Teddy and his staff and move forward doing that.”
Asked by The News following his introductory news conference if there were specific instructions during the interview process that he must retain Nolan, Murray gave a blunt answer: “I was never told if I take this job that I have to keep Ted Nolan as the head coach.”
Nolan knows he’ll have to forge a relationship with Murray.
“Some of these players before I got here, I didn’t know too much,” he said. “I just know of them. Same thing. I know of Tim Murray. I knew of Steve Ott. So the relationship that Steve and I created is one of those ones you go into and work along with. Once Tim sees the type of guy I am, hopefully he likes it and we continue.”
LaFontaine said he’s pleased with the job Nolan has done behind the bench so far.
“It took a general manager with a very open mind to understand who’s there now and be willing to give Teddy the opportunity because he is a great coach,” LaFontaine said. “Teddy is proving himself and Tim said, ‘Hey, I really like Ted Nolan. I’d like to get to know him. I’d like to know what you think of him. I like what the team is doing.’
“It’s about changing culture. Tim Murray has paid his dues. He’s earned this opportunity every step of the way. He knows Teddy has done the same thing. Let them get to know each other. A general manager and coach have to work tight together. They have to be a good team. He was very open to doing that.”
LaFontaine is hoping Miller is open to staying and signing a long-term extension, something the team seems likely to present to him in the coming weeks prior to the March 5 trade deadline.
“The most important thing is to listen to what Ryan Miller wants to do,” LaFontaine said. “Obviously you’d love to keep a great goalie like that. He knows Buffalo. Everybody loves him here but at the same instance I’ve got to know what he wants to do. If it fits into the plan long term and financially it’s a good fit, Ryan Miller will be here. If not, if he doesn’t want to be here, we’ll make the best choice for the future of our organization.”
Murray, of course, raised plenty of eyebrows during his remarks when he reminded the media anyone can be traded off the NHL’s 30th-place team and that “our phones will ring off the hooks here” regarding the team’s pending unrestricted free agents.
Still, LaFontaine acknowledged keeping Miller could accelerate the team’s rebuilding process.
“To come by a goalie like that who wants to stay here should he choose to want to stay here helps our team grow,” he said. “It gives us an opportunity to develop. If he wants to be here under the right terms, I think you’d love to keep Ryan Miller.”