Ron Rolston met his assistant coaches years ago, but it’s not like they were on his speed dial. Joe Sacco, Teppo Numminen and Jerry Forton were casual acquaintances, guys in the hockey fraternity who would say hello and maybe share a quick story.
That’s about to change. Coaches get to know each other well when games start, and the puck drops tonight for the Buffalo Sabres.
Training camp scrimmages have transitioned into NHL exhibitions as the Sabres visit Montreal for the teams’ preseason opener (7:30 p.m., Radio 550 AM). It’s also the debut of Rolston’s coaching staff, which he put together over the summer after getting the interim tag dropped from his title.
“That was my first time of really constructing a staff of this magnitude,” Rolston said in First Niagara Center. “The whole process was a good experience for me. I think at the end of the day we got what we wanted here.”
Rolston, Sacco and Numminen will be on the bench in Bell Centre, while Forton will be upstairs watching with goaltending coach Jim Corsi. Rolston plans to handle the forward line changes. Numminen will change the defense pairs and direct the power play. Sacco will head the penalty kill, communicate with players and talk with Forton through a headset.
They’re still learning about each other, and Rolston says the chemistry is good so far.
“I’m just excited about the future,” the head coach said.
Numminen is a holdover from the Lindy Ruff era, but he’s getting a big bump in responsibility. He used to hold Forton’s role upstairs and is excited to get back to ice level.
“The role I was in, it was a good role to start with,” Numminen said Saturday. “Before as a player and defenseman, it was just focusing on defensemen. Now being upstairs for two years, it was working with forwards. I learned a lot about the whole game and how much focus goes into being a coach and being with the team.
“You’re closer to the game on the bench. You’re more into the game. You can get involved quicker. Being upstairs, you can say what you think, what you see upstairs during the periods and kind of get involved the next day, but now you can get involved right away, which is really, really nice.”
Numminen was known as a coach on the ice when he played. He prepared well for opponents, and he brought that prep work into his interview.
“He showed that there was a lot of detail and organization in moving to that step and wanting to take over more responsibilities here to make things happen,” Rolston said. “He’s in a role now where he’s really going to be able to make a big difference on the hockey team.”
Sacco is an assistant for the first time since 2007. He was a head coach for six seasons, including the last four with the Colorado Avalanche.
“He’s been with young teams in Colorado and knows what that situation is about, how to develop,” Rolston said. “He was excited about Buffalo. When he came in, it was an opportunity where he saw our team, saw the youth in our team but saw we had a lot of talented players. He was comfortable with the direction we’re going.”
Forton, a Buffalo native, is new to the NHL. He spent 18 years in the college ranks, assisting at Niagara, UMass-Lowell and Harvard.
“He does a good job developing,” Rolston said. “He’s an outstanding communicator and relationship builder. He brings another perspective to the game with his knowledge.
“He’ll obviously be involved in the practice and the development part of things but will be somebody that can bring upstairs perspective at game time, decisions throughout the game and between periods with an overall analysis.”
The analysis and relationships go into overdrive with a game on the calendar. The coaches have examined film of their team and the Canadiens. They’ll conduct pregame meetings. They’ll talk between periods. They’ll have postgame evaluations with more video breakdowns.
“Those are all new steps, especially for a new staff,” Rolston said.
The coach declined to say who will be in the lineup tonight for the first of seven exhibitions. He said goaltenders will share the first few games to ease them into full games. Prospects and bubble players will get scrutinized.
“You’ll probably see a lot of different combinations throughout the course of exhibition,” Rolston said. “We’re trying to find the right pieces. We had a little bit at the end of last season where I had some experience with guys, but we’re still trying to find those combinations. That along with giving some of these younger guys some real good looks, giving them good opportunities to play with good players and see where they’re at, if they’re going to step up and take those opportunities or not.”