When things are at their bleakest for a sports team, the coach needs to do more than juggle lines or design plays. He needs to be a psychologist, support-group leader and illusionist, someone who can make players feel better and distract them from their lowly state.
Ted Nolan knew he needed to expand his job description Monday. The Sabres are as inept and injured as they’ve been all season. The inevitable arrived over the weekend as Buffalo became the first NHL team eliminated from playoff contention. It was a formality 11 months in the making.
So when the Sabres arrived for a meeting in First Niagara Center, Nolan didn’t just roll video or scribble on the whiteboard. He handed each player a piece of paper that featured the following sentence – “Finished files are the result of years of scientific study combined with the experience of years” – and told everyone to count the F’s.
Nearly 100 percent said the answer was three. Read it again, he told them. More often than not, the answer was still three.
It’s actually six. The brain, Nolan explained, is wired to jump from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. It misses small things like the word “of,” which is home to the overlooked F’s.
It’s the small details Nolan wants the players to focus on during the final 14 games of the season, including tonight’s visit to Calgary.
“We talked about details, and I told them we’re going to do our best and we’re going to work as hard as we can every day and try to get better,” the coach said. “We had a little test, and they had a little fun with it, but the big thing is playing together and working together.”
While Nolan hopes the small details help the Sabres improve in the coming years, the big thing for the present is finding out who’s healthy enough to face Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Montreal and Nashville on the 11-day journey.
The Sabres vacated their arena to make way for the NCAA Tournament, and they sorted the equipment bags in two piles. One was for the guys making the trip, and the other was for those staying home. Both piles were big.
Jhonas Enroth, Tyler Myers, Zemgus Girgensons, Alexander Sulzer and Chris Stewart are among those who skipped the plane ride. Myers could join the Sabres on the road at some point, but the others will stay in Buffalo.
Goaltender Michal Neuvirth took the flight but remains day-to-day with a lower-body injury, so the team summoned Matt Hackett from Rochester. It was the second straight day the organization called up an Amerks goalie on an emergency basis. Nathan Lieuwen got the call Sunday with Neuvirth unavailable for the game against Montreal, and the rookie’s ticket to Calgary was punched when Enroth suffered a leg injury during the loss.
Enroth posted a picture of his right leg in an air cast on Instagram and wrote that he will be in it for the next couple of weeks. Less than four weeks remain in the season.
Neuvirth will be able to play at some point during the longest trip of the year, but it’s not clear when. He says he was sore Friday after a 51-save performance Thursday in Carolina, yet he was healthy enough to practice, warm up and back up Saturday on Long Island.
“It’s frustrating to be not playing, but I can’t wait to get into the net,” Neuvirth said. “We didn’t want to play one game and get hurt again and be out for even longer. It’s up to coaches. When I feel better, I definitely want to play a game.”
Lieuwen showed well during his NHL debut, stopping all 10 shots.
“I was really happy for the young guy,” Nolan said. “He did himself proud, and I have no hesitation of putting him in.”
While the 22-year-old Lieuwen would love to play anywhere, the British Columbia native is relishing the thought of heading to the crease in western Canada.
“I’m not too upset about that,” he said with a smile. “If I end up in the net again, I’ll play my best and do what I can to earn more.”
Fans who’ve been picturing the Sabres picking first in the 2015 NHL draft may need to alter their thinking. The league is considering changes to the draft lottery, according to Elliotte Friedman of CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada.”
He reported Monday that the first three or five picks may be subject to the lottery system. As it stands now, the team that finishes 30th selects no worse than second. Under the new proposal, the last-place squad could draft as low as sixth.
Friedman wrote that the lottery odds could change, too. Rather than giving the season’s worst team the best chance at selecting first, the NHL could base the odds on the results of the previous five seasons combined. Details are still being discussed, according to the report.
The league is sensitive to teams trying to play poorly on purpose next season because the top draft-eligible prospects for 2015, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, have franchise-altering talent.