You may be part of the “Fi-re Dar-cy” crowd in the upper reaches of First Niagara Center but the facts are these: Buffalo Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier has been here since 1997. He has built up quite a cachet with owner Terry Pegula and senior adviser Ken Sawyer, and has been put in charge of yet another rebuilding project.
Team President Ted Black even said last week on his weekly radio show that removing Regier would equate to a panic move.
The same, however, may not apply to coach Ron Rolston, even though Regier elevated him to the top job in May without interviewing any other candidates. With the Sabres holding a 1-8-1 record and off to the worst start in franchise history, the target is growing bigger on the coach’s back.
Rolston has coached 41 NHL games – exactly half a season – since taking over for Lindy Ruff on an interim basis in February.
His record is 16-19-6. But dig deeper and you’ll see that half of his triumphs are in overtime or shootouts, so Rolston has only eight regulation wins in those 41.
The Sabres are last in the NHL in goals per game (1.2) and seem woefully ill-prepared at the start as they’ve been outscored, 13-1, and outshot, 141-77, in first periods. They’ve scored first just one time in 10 games – and led for a grand total of nine minutes, 35 seconds the entire season.
The last two games, home losses to Vancouver and Colorado, have been particularly hideous at the start. The Canucks had 11 of the game’s first 12 shots while the Avalanche had the first 12 until Drew Stafford was credited for a meek one at 14:09 of the first period, bringing a loud Bronx cheer from the home fans.
“That’s a low moment. I don’t know what to say, man,” admitted veteran defenseman Henrik Tallinder.
NHL coaches have been fired for far less. The Philadelphia Flyers, for instance, whacked Peter Laviolette after three games this season, and he has a Stanley Cup on his mantle from Carolina (2006) and was two games away from another with Philly (2010).
Reminded after Saturday’s game the coach usually takes the fall in these situations, Rolston said he wasn’t going to get caught up in talk of his status.
“You don’t think I’m aware of that?” Rolston said. “I come and I do my best tomorrow and I do my best on Monday and I do my best on Tuesday. That’s all I worry about. That’s all I can control.”
Rolston’s postgame dealings with the media have become increasingly tense, topped by Saturday’s back-and-forth about his role in the team’s sluggish starts.
The prevailing fan wisdom is that Rolston is a college/AHL coach who is in over his head in the NHL. The record might say the same. At least right now, the players don’t.
Rolston earned plenty of praise from players during training camp, his first as an NHL head coach, for having the right mood around the team. Players clearly liked the departure from Ruff, who became increasingly autocratic as the years moved on.
You still don’t hear much behind-the-back chirping about the coaches.
“They prep us pretty good before the games. It’s definitely a mental thing,” scoffed Tallinder. “Are we thinking too much or are we not thinking at all? We’re not playing hockey, that’s for sure. Prepare yourself. That’s all it is in this league. Prepare yourself to play hockey. It doesn’t matter. No excuses.
“It comes down to every guy’s will. It’s a matter of being ready to play,” added Tyler Myers. “The last two games, shots 10-nothing or whatever to start the period, it just proves that we’re not ready to play, not ready to start a game. We really have to change that.”
The younger players who came up with Rolston through Rochester last year like his style and say they’re learning.
“He’s a great coach, a great mind for the game,” said defenseman Mark Pysyk. “He’s an excellent teacher. He’s always looking around during and after practice. He sees something, he’ll go correct it.”
“He’s a teaching coach, a motivator definitely,” added 19-year-old winger Zemgus Girgensons. “He’s an unbelievable coach. You just have to understand the way he teaches.”
The Sabres will be back on the ice today, preparing for Wednesday’s visit by the Boston Bruins. After that, they’re on the road for six of their next eight games. Things were quiet in Sabreland on Sunday as the team was off.
Many veterans on this club are woefully underachieving. Myers, Steve Ott, Christian Ehrhoff and Mikhail Grigorenko are among those who don’t have a goal. Stafford and Tyler Ennis have just one apiece.
The Sabres could easily dump Rolston and replace him with assistant Joe Sacco, who coached the Colorado Avalanche the last four years. Still, Rolston clearly has not lost his team entirely. Play improves as games go on, obviously in part because opponents take their foot off the gas pedal.
The Sabres’ shot advantage in the third period over the last two games is a stark 27-10. The secret is to have that kind of will and desperation from the opening draw before yet another deficit is built.
“It’s always a concern when you’re not playing the way you want to and not having the success,” Rolston said. “It’s your job to make sure guys are enduring situations like that, making sure the veterans are up and the young players keep their energy at the rink. Especially from the young guys, we’ve seen they’re bringing the same thing to the rink, so that’s been a real positive.”