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!

Tags: Buffalo Sabres Ron Rolston

  • Kevin

    I agree, and we may be in the minority among most fans only because they think they need to bring in a drill sergeant type coach. I say be careful what you wish for.

    • Richard Spalding

      A drill sergeant type coach might work with young kids in college or the minors, but at the NHL level, players should respect their coach, and fear the front office. If you get rid of people who are not performing or don’t mix well, the players will get the picture and start doing their jobs. Just my opinion, but I see a lot of “players coaches” doing quite well in the world of sports today, you know?

      • Craig C.

        I would give him a two- year deal with the promise that the contract will be extended another year or two if the team, let’s say, makes the playoffs next season.That might sound unrealistic but I’m not convinced enough to hand him a 3-4 year contract, at this point.

  • [email protected]

    My opinion on him is that since we have such a young team, he should stay on the job with the Sabres. His goal with the Amerks was to prepare those players to be ready to play at an NHL level. I really like that he tried up different lines, he wasn’t afraid to play a line to see how it panned out. I know that lines stay static a lot so players can find chemistry, but I think that players should be ready to play with anyone on the team incase of injuries or be able to change up lines based on the team they are playing. I feel Ruff never did that enough, he put too much stock in the idea that the 1st line was for top players and so on, rather than the idea that line number isn’t a rank. If not Rolston, who else is out there?

    • Richard Spalding

      My thoughts exactly. If the Sabres are going to dress a young squad, hand the reins to a guy who has a proven track record of developing, and winning with, young talent. At the very least, reward him for taking a squad that looked listless, uninterested, and over-matched at times and compiling a winning record with them!

    • Jacob Breunig

      No offense but I’m not sure what team you’ve been watching for the past 16years, but Lindy Ruff was notorious for rotating lines constantly and never giving guys time to build chemistry. This year was probably the longest I’ve seen one line(vanek-hodgson-pommer) stay together in the past 5-6 years. When Ruff was fired, a lot of the flack against Ralston was that he did the exact same thing and adjusted his coaching to be like Ruff’s so the young guys would be ready. While I agree this is true, I also agree with you, that he should be given a chance. The team is young and he has shown to be able to coach a young team. Let’s just see where this goes from here.

      • [email protected]

        No offense taken, I’ve been a Sabres fan forever but I haven’t followed things as close as do now until a few years ago. In those few years I felt like Ruff didn’t switch things up enough. Thanks for your comment!

        EDIT: Just realized I was 10 years old when Lindy became coach…damn

  • PaulR

    Its hard to tell if Ralston has earned anything. He was put in charge of team that was the equivalent of a kitchen grease-fire, with a crappy “core” and low-level talent. He was desperate for wins, so was forced to bring up his team from Rochester. Who can say?

    What it DOES prove is that Darcy Regier has completely WASTED his last 6 years in Buffalo. The guy collected, nurtured, developed, promoted and paid his “core” and they were a complete failure. They never achieved anything, were soft, short on talent, and in an odd, shortened year without camp, etc… they completely didn’t show up.

    If Pegula doesn’t see this, he is a fool.

    • Richard Spalding

      I agree with your assessment of what Regier has done – which is precisely why I believe Rolston has done enough to earn one REAL shot at coaching at this level. If he can win with the sort of players you described . . . .

      • PaulR

        But if Pegula “cleans house” (which I doubt he will) then any new GM would not want a left-over coach from the previous regime.

        I agree Rolston seemed to do an OK job, having been dealt a very bad hand, but there are other factors involved that dictates whether he should stay or go.

        • Richard Spalding

          Certainly, there are tons of circumstances to consider, a new GM being one of them. I simply think Rolston was given a job, and performed well under the circumstances. He may not get the job, but in my eyes it won’t be because of his performance.