Ted Nolan rose to coaching prominence by winning championships in junior hockey, so he knows the difference between an NHL team and a developmental squad.
“We have so many young guys here, and it’s almost like going back to junior hockey in some sense,” the Sabres’ coach said Monday.
That’s going to change now that Nolan and Pat LaFontaine have a say in the matter.
Buffalo’s coach and new president of hockey operations have met the players, watched two games and had an off day to reflect on the roster. They want more NHL-ready skaters in the lineup, and the changes could start tonight when the St. Louis Blues visit First Niagara Center.
“You see some good organizations and how they go about it,” Nolan said. “You don’t force-feed somebody and say we’re a rebuild. Rebuild is important, but how you rebuild is really important.
“Patty and I have been talking about it since we got involved. I think you can have some young kids, a few of them, but not as many as we have.”
This season’s original plan, put in motion by former General Manager Darcy Regier and owner Terry Pegula, was to lose with young players and get a high draft pick. The Sabres have four teenagers – forwards Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons, and defensemen Nikita Zadorov and Rasmus Ristolainen – plus five other players under age 24.
“Some of these guys haven’t matured into their bodies yet, and matured mentally and physically,” Nolan said. “Girgensons, for example, he seems a little bit more mature for his age. Those type of guys can play. You look and some other people maybe just need a little extra hug and tender care with them and be able to be in a situation where a mistake doesn’t cost you a hockey game.
“I didn’t realize how young they really were and the positions that they’re in and the capabilities of what they can do besides playing here. There’s some maneuvering room we can do here.”
Zadorov and Grigorenko, both scratched during Nolan’s opening two games, can return to their junior teams. Ristolainen, center Johan Larsson and right wing Brian Flynn can play in Rochester. With defenseman Mike Weber ready to come off injured reserve, at least one player is going somewhere.
As of Monday afternoon, the Sabres had not yet talked with Quebec coach Philippe Boucher about returning Grigorenko to juniors, according to a Remparts spokesperson. Zadorov hadn’t heard anything.
“I’m just working hard,” he said. “We’ll see what’s going on, if I’m in the lineup. I’m just waiting.”
Nolan made it clear anyone who departs shouldn’t take it the wrong way.
“It is part of their growth,” Nolan said. “Sometimes you look at it as a demotion. It’s not really a demotion. It’s an enhancement of your career.
“We’re going to try to get this thing on proper footing going forward and putting people in position of success versus force-feeding them.”
Weber may not be the only addition to the lineup. Nolan and LaFontaine have taken a look at the roster of the Amerks, who are 7-4-4 and lead their division.
“There’s a couple players playing exceptionally well down there that deserve an opportunity,” Nolan said.
Forward Luke Adam is tied for the American Hockey league lead with 13 goals in 15 games. Defenseman Brayden McNabb has 10 assists, 12 points and a plus-5 rating. Forward Phil Varone averages better than a point per game (13 assists, 17 points) and center Mike Zigomanis is just off the pace with seven goals and 14 points.
Nolan said he likes the Sabres’ first and fourth lines, but “we’ve just got to tweak in the middle.” He’s more impressed with the team in person than he was watching the pitiful performance on television last Tuesday, the 3-2 shootout win over Los Angeles in Ron Rolston’s last game on the bench.
“From the perception I had from that game to the game we played in Toronto was night-and-day difference,” Nolan said. “These guys, they’re not that bad. We just need some direction on how we’re going to play and make these guys feel good about themselves.”