Beheaded Coach: Goodbye, Ted Nolan

Nostalgia has always reigned supreme in Buffalo, rarely to positive results.  Photo from thestar.com

Nostalgia has always reigned supreme in Buffalo, rarely to positive results. Photo from thestar.com

As the season came to an end, there were two things of which everyone was certain: the first overall pick will absolutely be Connor McDavid, and Buffalo Sabres’ head coach Ted Nolan would be fired. The NHL regular season ended fewer than 24 hours ago, and the inevitable has occurred – Tim Murray announced in a press conference this evening that the Sabres were severing ties with Ted Nolan and most of his coaching staff; only former NHL netminder Arturs Irbe escaped Murray’s scythe.

The move is far from surprising though — perhaps not for the most obvious reason. Finishing dead last in the league for the second season in a row should be the death knell of any professional coach, but from the outside, it seems that Nolan has been let go because he wouldn’t ‘play ball’ with management’s plans to field the most inept team possible. Nolan wasn’t

Did Nolan mishandle Zadorov and others? Photo from ourhometown.ca

Did Nolan mishandle Zadorov and others? Photo from ourhometown.ca

passive in his approach this season. He did his best to drive the team to be better. In December, after a particularly dismal streak, he called power forward Chris Stewart ‘soft,’ and benched him. Stewart responded, not only up the opposition, but lighting the lamp, becoming a key player in a mid-season win streak that surely had management sweating. Similarly, he came down hard on young defenseman Nikita Zadorov when the young defenseman missed a meeting following the all-star break. It turns out Zadorov’s plane was delayed, causing him to return to Buffalo a day later than anticipated, but Nolan wasn’t having it and Zadorov spent some significant time in the press box.

Not every player’s growth was the result of Nolan’s heavy hand. Latvia’s Zemgus Girgensons continued the development he put on display at last year’s Olympic games – a national team coached by none other than Ted Nolan. Defensive standout Rasmus Ristolainen seemed to flourish under this coaching staff. Despite poor overall numbers, the Sabres goaltending was incredible throughout the season – the team routinely gave up 40+ shots a game, and opposing teams spent most of their time in their offensive zone, but Buffalo’s goalies managed to make some really incredible saves, frequently keeping the team in games despite being distinctly outplayed.

The nation didn’t learn much from the press conference that officially marked the termination of the coach. Murray was asked if Nolan was let go because the GM hadn’t chosen him as the coach, and Murray responded as expected; “It was never an issue of ‘He’s not my guy,’…it was an issue of call-ups…[he] wasn’t consulted on moves at the trade deadline…”

The icy gaze of death.  Photo from sabresstop.com

The icy gaze of death. Photo from sabresstop.com

Murray intimated that Nolan frequently ignored scouting reports from the farm team and Nolan admittedly chose to ‘follow his gut’ over recognizing the importance of advanced stats. Murray seemed to feel that the youth of the team may have been mishandled; when asked about the young players, Murray said, “They have to work hard, but they have to get good instruction.” It seems that Nolan’s handling of Zadorov, among other things, was sub-par in Murray’s eyes. Ultimately, though, Murray admitted that it wasn’t all Nolan’s fault. “You have to find the perfect fit,” he said. “We both said after, it’s too bad it didn’t work out. It wasn’t a perfect fit. He’s not to blame for that.”

The sad truth is that Nolan was doomed from the start. He was carried back to Buffalo in a signature wave of nostalgia – a name that the city loved that would minimize the effects of the tank. Each game, we’d see that face behind the bench; the face that demanded hard work in the most Buffalo of ways. The face that had taken a similar team – lacking in talent and respect – and turned them into a winner. Unfortunately for Nolan, the organization did not provide him the support that the city may have – time and time again, the team was stripped of its talent and chemistry and splinted back together with duct tape and popsicle sticks.

Nolan did the best he could with the tools he had.  Photo from buffalohockeybeat.com

Nolan did the best he could with the tools he had. Photo from buffalohockeybeat.com

On the face lies the question of the Sabres’ next head coach, but honestly, who wouldn’t want this team? Whether we win the lottery or not, we’re going to nab a generational talent in the draft this year. Murray’s gathered a mass of veteran leadership, unstable talent, and youthful exuberance, and he’s prepared to bolster that with a seemingly bottomless well of cash dedicated to free agency, and an equally impressive war chest of draft picks he can easily trade. The next head coach is seemingly coming into a dream job – he’ll get a three year contract with a team set to explode over the next three years. The deeper question is whether Nolan has earned himself a new head coaching job in the NHL. Whether or not it is evident to the average NHL fan, the entire city of Buffalo knows that Nolan performed above and beyond what was expected of him – despite the better wishes of Murray, Sabres’ owner Terry Pegula, his right hand man, Ted Black and the entire damned city of Buffalo. Nearly everyone involved in this tank is complicit – whether or not we accepted it at first, by the end, we had all accepted our fate and were prepared to move on. Everyone, that is, except for Ted Nolan and his Band of Brothers. They fought to the very last horn, and that is commendable. Similar teams gave up far before the end of the season – remember the Avalanche during their tank? They were reportedly planning golf outings and Vegas trips in February. Nolan valiantly led these men to their metaphoric death, and it will be interesting to see if he’ll be rewarded for that. I’m inclined to wonder if perhaps another team of young, talented players who lack organization and direction (Edmonton?) could benefit from Nolan’s heavy hand and penchant for getting the best from the worst. Whether his home is western Canada or not, perhaps Nolan’s time in Buffalo has played him back into the NHL’s graces – a place he fell from over two decades ago.

This is the part where we thank Nolan. Whether he was a willing participant or not, the fact is that the Buffalo Sabres are on the precipice of something HUGE, and Ted Nolan undoubtedly played a part in that. Not a single person in Buffalo wants to see him drummed out of the league again – banished for breaking some unwritten rule or crime of ignorance. If Nolan is to take a spot behind the bench, though, he’ll have to have learned from his time here. No longer are gut instincts acceptable. GMs, owner, media and fans all have access to all of the stats. All of the information. If Nolan hopes to continue his career, he’s going to need to embrace the new NHL. He’ll have to adapt or he’ll end up extinct. Again. And given his time in Buffalo and all that he’s suffered, he’s earned himself a chance to prove he can be a head coach in the NHL today.

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UPDATE: At 9:54 this morning, NHL Analyst Matthew Barnaby tweeted that at least 1 team has already expressed interest in Nolan.  Who do you think it could be?  Does Toronto think Nolan could be the Kessel whisperer?

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5 Comments on “Beheaded Coach: Goodbye, Ted Nolan”

  1. mizdoc@gmail.com April 13, 2015 at 12:29 am #

    Sorry to see you get shafted, Ted. You were the best thing that every happened to the Sabres. (Murray is the worst thing, if he is responsible for you being fired). Hope you catch on with another team, as did Lindy when he was dumped, and show the Sabres what they threw away. You are a great coach! I’ve been a Sabres fan since its inception, but I’m thinking seriously of finding another team to support now.

    • Assford Pooniversity (@NO_LIMIT_HAMSTR) April 14, 2015 at 12:02 am #

      Murray is far from “the worst thing” to happen to the Sabres. He is only following through on what he inherited: a team that was in the middle of a two year long journey to the bottom of the league, and now that’s complete. He’s made the right personnel moves to ensure that it happened. Sure, it’s unfortunate for ol’ Teddy, but the Sabres were last in goals scored, last in PP and penalty kill % and second to last in goals allowed. The Sabres have far more talent than Arizona (who I watched on a nightly basis while following the race for 30th) and yet even they ranked 7th overall on the power play, showing that they were at least successful in one facet of the game. As the story says, Nolan was a nostalgia hire, brought here to make fans feel that not all was utterly lost. But, to say he was the “best thing that ever happened to the Sabres,” is hyperbole in its most comic form. Gil Perreault, Dominik Hasek, Mike Ramsey…..Lindy Ruff…..those were some of the best things to ever happened to the Sabres. You know you’re not going to support another team, so stop saying that. And, if you do…then goodbye. Don’t come back when either McDavid or Eichel is hoisting the Cup over his head in the next decade.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Beheaded Coach: Goodbye, Ted Nolan | ewollschlager - April 13, 2015

    […] Beheaded Coach: Goodbye, Ted Nolan. […]

  2. Red Wings go with Mrazek; Oilers re-sign Yakupov; Richards to lead Team USA (Puck Headlines) | Wolrd Blogs - April 14, 2015

    […] • Ted Nolan did an admirable job in a tough situation, but he didn’t stand a chance from the very start. [What’s Going on in Buffalo?] […]

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