Making a case that there’s no case for Ted Nolan
For most fans, there isn’t much to like about this current Buffalo Sabres team. They’re not good. They lose. They lose a lot.
But there’s one guy who many fans embrace, longing for the days of hard-working blue-collar hockey, who seems to try real hard in spite of it all: Ted Nolan.
Ted Nolan, the beloved former coach who heroically returned to right the ship after that total nerd Darcy Regier ruined everything with his video and calculators, is continually embraced by a large segment of the Sabres fan base. Fans who remember when the team was led by players like Rob Ray, Brad May and Matt Barnaby, and pine for the days of trap-filled physical hockey. Even after a decade and a half away from the organization, the legend of Nolan lived in Western New York, that there was a coach out there who got the most of his teams and got a bad rap for it.
And despite years of dealing with “I’ll hang up and listen” calls to talk shows about bringing him back behind the bench, there he was that November day when Pegula pulled the plug on Regier and Ron Rolston. It was surreal. It still sort of is.
Now, after the dust has settled, and with Tim Murray at the helm, and with losses piling up, the question is… why is he still here and when is he leaving?
We could rehash the history of Nolan’s coaching career. Facts are facts. In 1997, after winning the Jack Adams as coach of the year and getting his GM fired, he walked away from a one-year contract extension from a new general manager. Years went by and the fallacy of him being fired stoked the flames of the blue-collar fans who felt he was given a raw deal. He disenfranchised his superstar goaltender, maybe the best player to ever wear a Sabres uniform, and divided a young team and the front office. And he walked away from a contract offer.
The new GM (Regier) and the new coach (Ruff) tweaked the roster over the next couple years and got them within two wins of a Stanley Cup. Somehow, fans still felt that it was Nolan’s team, despite key roster moves that said otherwise. It wasn’t with guys like Brad May, who was dealt for Geoff Sanderson. It wasn’t with guys like Matt Barnaby, who was dealt for Stu Barnes. Despite many of the same faces, it was a different team. It needed to be.
So years went by, he coached the Islanders for two years, he coached the Latvian national team, and he never really won anything. Then he walks in to First Niagara Center and here we are.
His trophy cabinet contains nothing more than a few junior titles. He won two OHL titles in Sault Ste. Marie and one in Moncton, and won a Memorial Cup in 1993. As far as the NHL goes, his pedigree extends as far as a division title in 1997 on the back of one of the greatest goaltenders to ever play the game and a seven-game series win over a seven seed that spring.
Taking that into account, what is the real case for not kicking him to the curb, be it this spring or this weekend?
The Sabres are the worst team in the NHL. Their record doesn’t officially show it yet, but it will soon. They get dominated in possession, in shots, and on the scoreboard. That unsustainable streak of luck in November-December be damned, this team has flat out sucked.
Goals? Sabres are 30th, at 1.76 per game. Goals against? Sabres are 30th, at 3.39 per game. Special teams? Power play is dead last, at 9.7% success rate (no team has been below 10% in at least a decade) and the penalty kill at 75% is a respectable 29th.
They give up the most shots on goal a game in the league and put the fewest on their opponents. Their Corsi and Fenwick rates are running away from the pack in terms of awful. The guy even compared analytics, something being embraced and already accepted by the better teams in the league, to heart rate monitors.
“My number one analytic is you score one goal more than the opposition, you win,” Nolan said. His team has 20 regulation/overtime wins in 103 games behind the bench. With that sort of record, disregarding information is the mark of a coach who’s ill-equipped to coach today’s game.
Where is this team overachieving, other than the shootout?
His roster moves and decisions are questionable. Remember when Brian Flynn couldn’t crack the lineup for the first month of the season? Well, he doesn’t hit guys, so obviously he’s not a Nolan-type of player, but he’s been one of few reliable players for this team all season. How do you explain a smart, two-way guy who’s been contributing on all special teams since being inexplicably left out of the lineup for a month?
You can even question what he’s doing to individual players. Cody Hodgson is struggling terribly this year, with just six points in 40 games. He’s been relegated to third line duty, playing with other players who aren’t producing. Hodgson, in the second year of a six year deal with a $4.25 million cap hit at age 24, is regressing terribly. Under Nolan he has 35 points in 92 games with a -38 rating. (Under the ineffective, hated Ron Rolston: 34 points in 51 games with a -5 rating)
The guy who allegedly “gets the most out of his players” is getting the least out of a key player on a long contract. Is this defensible because a throwaway guy like Nick Deslauriers is having a solid year? What’s more important for the growth of this group of players? Was it better that he spent the first month of the season throwing Tyson Strachan, a veteran signed for Rochester, into the lineup every night in spite of Nikita Zadorov?
Now there’s questions about the future of one of the team’s better prospects, Johan Larsson. Larsson, a skilled two-way center who’s a free agent at the end of the season, was just relegated back to Rochester for lack of production after spending the majority of his time centering fourth line grinders. For what reason is it in anyone’s best interest to discourage and disenfranchise a highly regarded young player?
It’s understandable why Nolan is liked as a person. He’s an incredibly kind, genuine person who’s honestly very charismatic and likable. But his reputation doesn’t justify his results. His teams have a reputation of hard work because he gets hard workers to produce instead of getting productive players to work hard. Deslauriers, a young converted defenseman, is fifth on this team in scoring. Torrey Mitchell (14:30) gets more ice time than Hodgson (14:04). He’s self-admittedly not an “X’s and O’s” guy, which is funny, because that’s an enormously important part of coaching.
This team is on the verge of a turning point this summer. Should everything go well, and the team finishes dead last, they’re going to get an enormously talented player who can elevate this team even faster than the deep collection of top prospects they have now. The future is bright.
So what reason does Tim Murray have to keep Nolan around?
Of course, he’s doing a great job at maintaining this team’s ineptitude. As noted before, they’re terrible. Murray didn’t hire him, as it was Pat LaFontaine who put Nolan into his current position. The GM would likely prefer to have his own choice behind the bench, someone who suits the talent he’s assembled.
Nolan’s track record in this stint with the Sabres has been marked by two key traits: horrendous play on a consistent basis, and a preference for riding unskilled veterans in spite of skilled players.
That kind of track record should have a pink slip waiting in the wings. Does it matter if they do it now, with the team in a 1-8-1 tailspin, or in April? It might not. There’s nothing to justify retaining a coach with a .359 winning percentage, who’s most recent accolade was finishing 8th at the Olympics. It doesn’t matter how hard his teams work, his teams don’t win. Not win as in games, win as in championships.
This franchise says they want to win a Stanley Cup. The first step was rebuilding the roster. The next step would be getting a coach who would know how to get there.