John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Has Ron Rolston Earned the Head Coaching Job of the Buffalo Sabres?

Feb 21, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Buffalo Sabres assistant coach James Patrick (left) and interim head coach Ron Rolston (center), and assistant coach Kevyn Adams (right) talk to their players during a break in the action against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the third period at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Buffalo 3-1. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks ago, a reader asked me for my take on Ron Rolston.  Did I think Rolston was going to be promoted from “Interim” to “Head” coach?  Or did I feel he would be sent back to the Rochester Americans at the conclusion of the season?

At the time I was asked, I really did not possess a clear vision of Rolston’s future.  Not much has changed since then – I still don’t know where the Buffalo Sabres plan on using Rolston next year – but at least now I have an opinion of what I THINK the Sabres should do with Ron Rolston.

Before I get to my two cents, let us examine Rolston’s biggest pro and most damning con:

Pro: He has a proven track-record at developing young talent

The entire reason we are even discussing Rolston this year is because of the success he has had working with young talent.  As an assistant coach at Lake Superior State University, he won two national championships.  As a coach for the U.S. National Junior team, he won a bronze medal in the 2007 International Ice Hockey U20 championships.  And oh, by the way: Ron Rolston is the most successful USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program coach ever.  He spent seven years as the USA NTDP coach, and became the only coach in USA history to win three gold medals at the International Ice Hockey Federation World Under 18 Championships.

All of his success with young talent is the reason why he was given the coaching job with the Rochester Americans of the AHL – but did his past history translate into coaching success at the NHL level?  Our very own Andrew Amerk wrote a nice piece back in March in which he outlined how the players on the Sabres’ roster have fared under Rolston.  Suffice it to say, the young players of the Buffalo Sabres have performed quite admirably under Rolston, with the majority of them showing improvement under his guiding hand.  Cody Hodgson, Brian Flynn, Kevin Porter, Mark Pysyk – if you are a Sabres fan, you have to be excited about the future of the team if these players continue to grow as they have done this season.  For many of these players, the season was a trial by fire, especially their last visit to TD Garden, when they payer the Boston Bruins just days after the Boston Marathon bombings and earned a hard-fought  3-2 shootout victory when practically everyone in this country was pulling for the Bruins to win.  I think it’s safe to say this much: Ron Rolston is the guy you want working with developing hockey players.

Con: He is a weak in-game coach

I don’t get a lot of chances to attend Rochester Americans games, so I was not very familiar with Rolston before he was handed the Interim Coach position with the Sabres.  In an effort to educate myself, I naturally did some research, looking at both straight-forward descriptions of his coaching experience as well as Amerks fan forums.  What I found was interesting, to say the least: many Rochester fans were actually glad to be rid of Ron Rolston altogether!  Now, those were the more extreme reactions; many fans liked Rolston, but didn’t feel he was a good enough coach to man the Sabres.  All in all, most of the comments that I read expressed doubt that Rolston was qualified to be a coach at the NHL level.

Did their fears pan out?  Ron Rolston’s first game as the interim head coach for the Sabres was on Thursday, February 21.  At that time, the Sabres were 6-10-1.  At the time I am writing this, the Sabres are 20-21-6, with a chance to even their record at .500 if they beat the New York Islanders tonight.  Doing the math, I see that Rolston has gone 14-11-5 with the Sabres.  Those numbers certainly suggest that he wasn’t totally in over his head, especially when you consider the fact that Thomas Vanek missed a number of games due to injury, and that the Sabres roster was in a constant state of change, with four trades going down and a number of players being pulled up from the Rochester Americans in order to fill those holes in the roster.  After the Jason Pominville trade, Rolston found himself with the youngest team in the NHL – and still managed to lead the Sabres to within two points of a playoff spot before Buffalo finally went belly-up a week ago today.

Were there glaring, “in-game” decisions that Rolston made that made me doubt his ability to coach this team?  None as glaring as some of the fans down in Rochester would have me to believe.  With any coach, there are times that we fans question what is happening out on the ice, because it’s easy to from where we sit; for example, skating a pretty young line that had trouble with the forecheck of the New Jersey Devils, causing fans to famously boo the players.   But are there any games that I look at say, “The Sabres would have won that, if only Rolston hadn’t . . . “?  No.  Given the roster he was handed, I feel Rolston had the Sabres competing night in and night out, which is all we should have expected of him under this year’s circumstances.

So – I’ve examined the arguments, and have come to the conclusion that Ron Rolston has earned the opportunity to coach the Buffalo Sabres for the next 3-4 years.   The Sabres have a young group of players with nearly unlimited potential, and with a wealth of draft picks in their back pocket, they don’t seem to be poised to get older in a hurry.  A 14-11-5 record (which easily could have been about two wins and two overtime losses better, damn shootouts!) with a team that at one point was ranked the worst team in hockey in the power rankings of every major sports network that covers the NHL is worth a full-time job, in my eyes – especially if the Sabres are truly in for a rebuilding phase.  Rolston has a proven record working with up-and-coming players, and he gave fans a legitimate reason to be excited about a team that looked dead in the water in February.  Ron Rolston, for what it’s worth, you have my vote!

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