Buffalo Sabres Ted Nolan Can’t Win For Losing


Buffalo Sabres head coach Ted Nolan is in a not-so-enviable position this hockey season. Caught between a rock and a hard place, he can’t win for losing. And any other tired, overused phrases or idioms that might apply.

First, for those who may be unaware, the back-story.

Nolan returned to Buffalo along with Sabres legend Pat LaFontaine, when new Sabres owner Terry Pegula finished the housecleaning that had begun earlier with the ouster of head coach Lindy Ruff.

Pegula canned long-time Buffalo General Manager Darcy Regier and Ruff’s replacement, Ron Rolston. Nolan was installed in Rolston’s place and then LaFontaine, who didn’t believe himself experienced enough to be GM, brought in Tim Murray to replace Regier.

Then a few months later Lafontaine unexpectedly bowed out of the Sabres Front Office, leaving Murray as a GM with a head coach whom, though he kept, had predated his tenure and in whose hiring he had had no say.

However with Murray’s obvious-to-all short-term plan (which I heartily agree with) being to sink the Sabres to the cellar in 2014-15, there was really no reason to replace Nolan this season whether he has Nolan in his long term plans or not.

They weren’t supposed to win, everybody knew it, and Nolan would be a good motivator for the young players who did stick around on the Swords NHL roster.

For next season Murray will quash the tailspin, flip the Sabres into Drive and move them forward. At that point thanks to the Pegula Money Tree, if he so chooses, he can eat the rest of Nolan’s multi-year contract and bring in whomever he wishes to coach.

In actuality, that strategy is sound and is a win-win for everyone, right? Well, maybe not everyone.

In the 20-year span since the former Hartford Whalers assistant left us here in Connecticut for his first head coaching job in Buffalo, he’s only held that position at the NHL level for what will shortly be five seasons.

He spent two years in Buffalo then, after nearly a decade off, coached the New York Islanders for a pair of campaigns. Then after another half-decade off he was back with the Sabres.

During those brief periods he brought some success to both his employers. In Buffalo he won the Sabres a Division and himself a Jack Adams award. Years later, he brought the Isles back to the playoffs.

Both in between and during his NHL gigs he’s served as a head coach both in Juniors and for the Latvian National Team.

But a coach’s goal is always the NHL, and that’s his current Catch-22. Nolan’s a (Warning: more clichés ahead) fierce competitor who really wants to win. And now that he’s finally back in the big leagues with that chance, he’s been stuck with a roster that was intentionally built to lose; albeit temporarily.

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At times throughout this season Nolan’s frustration has been evident, and it should be.

If Scotty Bowman, Toe Blake and Mike Babcock merged into one coach, even he/they couldn’t coach this roster up to 25th Place. And that that was his situation should be apparent to other clubs if Murray decides to hand him his pink slip at season’s end.

But there are only so many Bench Boss vacancies in a ‘what-have-you-done-for-me-lately’ 30-team league, and your record’s your record. So the question is how many more opportunities will there be for this 56 year-old?

Hopefully, there’s at least another. Whether it’s remaining in Buffalo or elsewhere, Nolan deserves one more chance with a real roster to show if he still has the magic he briefly conjured up at his previous coaching stops.

And sure anyone can-and probably will-say that he knew what he was getting into. But so what? So did Ron Rolston before him, and many other coaches before them. You can’t show your talent from the sidelines, but when you’re in the game there’s always a chance you can pull off a miracle.

If professional athletes and coaches didn’t fully believe in their capabilities, they wouldn’t be professional athletes and coaches.

Unless your name happens to be something along the lines of Bill Parcellls and you can write your own ticket, it’s generally unwise to turn down any top job in pro sports when you have no idea when, or if, there will be another. So yes he took the job.

I can’t imagine that any of us would not have, either.

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