I like the hiring of Ted Nolan. I don’t love it, but I like it. Nolan has twice rejuvenated really crappy, really young teams into decent, playoff bound squads. On the surface, it makes sense. The hiring comes with plenty of risk though, and others have been quick to point out that the interim tag placed on Nolan is kind of odd. While it seem questionable to make an outside hire for an interim coach – usually that label is reserved for AHL coaches or assistants who are promoted mid-season after a firing – this situation warrants the tag for a few reasons.
The first reason is the other guy Buffalo hired today. Pat Lafontaine specifically turned down the offer to be the team’s GM in favor of being team president. He doesn’t want to pick the guys, he wants to pick the guys who pick the guys. And then pick the guys who will then pick–oh never mind.Lafontaine has no experience as a GM of a fantasy team, let alone a hockey team. So instead of putting the onus on a new GM to work with a notoriously cantankerous coach, Lafontaine buys himself the entire season to find the right GM, then gives that guy the keys to the car. You want Teddy to stay behind the wheel? Fine. If not, he’s just an interim and the job was never promised to him to begin with. There’s a reason Nolan has only coached for two of the last 16 years in the NHL after having won Coach of the Year. We may not know it, but someone does and that someone is playing this cool. Remember, this whole situation brewed just over the past ten days. Clearly, the team needed to move on not just from Regier, but from Rolston, and they wanted to get a coach in there ASAP. Who’s been more available than Ted Nolan? And who’s going to jump at the chance to coach in Buffalo after Darcy Regier has left more than Ted Nolan?
There is of course the issue of Nolan’s previous tenure with the Sabres and the ensuing tenure a decade later with the New York Islanders. While no one can blame him for not getting along with Dominik Hasek (no one ever did) there was still enough acrimony surrounding Nolan that it took him a decade to find a new job. By placing the interim tag on the hired, Pat Lafontaine avoids the same pressure on a new GM that Islanders owner Charles Wang placed on Neil Smith when he hired Ted Nolan permanently in 2006 before Smith arrived. It can often be an awkward situation for a GM to deal with a coach he hasn’t signed off on, especially one with, again, a kind of dickish past like Nolan has.
Nolan aside, what about this team? Yes, Ted Nolan is a great fire-in-your-belly coach, but that doesn’t mean he can coax more wins out of a team that’s too young to win in the next few years. Lafontaine and company might have decided to hold off for the season, let the team keep losing because really that’s the only thing they should be doing the rest of the season (Tankapalooza here we come!), then let a more experienced, accomplished head coach take over after another batch of draft picks have been funneled into the system. Remember that right now, any head coach of the Buffalo Sabres isn’t dealing with all the pieces he’ll get in the next few years. The Sabres are going to have a massive youth infusion coming in and we don’t know what the team will look like in a few years. This year’s and next year’s coaches don’t matter nearly as much as do the guys who man the staff on the team after the 2015 draft (AKA the Connor McDavid year).
The biggest thing the Sabres gain from hiring Pat Lafontaine is a much-needed infusion of class. They aren’t going to haggle and wash coaches aside like past GMs have. I think a part of that comes with making promises you can keep. Lafontaine and Ted Nolan go way back and have a strong friendship, but that doesn’t mean Patty is going to cling to Ted for 16 years while Ted remains mired in mediocrity. I mean, who would ever do that? If Ted Nolan doesn’t work as a coach, then the Sabres are under no obligation to keep him around. He was an interim coach. Fans will root for him, and the team will give him every chance to succeed. But if it doesn’t work, then there’s no hard feelings and the new Buffalo GM can do an exhaustive search for The Guy. At least for this season, a lost one by any measure, that’s how it should be.
Cory Buck is a staff writer for Sabre Noise. You can reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @TheBuckMopsHere.