Buffalo Sabres: Can Ted Nolan Survive the Season?


It’s certainly no secret that the Buffalo Sabres are a tire fire this season.

One of the few questions that could possibly remain for Sabres fans, aside from how bad the team actually could be, is the fate of head coach Ted Nolan

Nolan made a triumphant return to Buffalo last November alongside former Sabre great Pat LaFontaine, and the smile on the coach’s face said everything. Nolan had finally made it back to the NHL after a brief stint with the New York Islanders from 2006-08, something that probably seemed extremely unlikely a few years before. 

But that smile faded quickly.

The Sabres finished with a record of 21-51-10, including a 17-39-9 mark under the leadership of Nolan. LaFontaine, who was hired as the president of hockey operations, left the organization in March for reasons that no one is still entirely clear on. 

Yet despite all of that, Nolan was signed to a three-year extension at the end of March. This came as somewhat of a surprise, especially given LaFontaine‘s exit, but Nolan was given the opportunity to take this full-on rebuild to the contending stage. 

That brings us to this season.

Seventeen games in and the Sabres are a spectacular mess. Their 3-12-2 record is the worst in the NHL, and the supporting statistics suggest that they are lucky to have won three games. 

Of the three games they have won, two have been with a PDO─the sum of a team’s shooting and save percentage in a game─over 104. That suggests a high amount of luck on both ends of the ice and, more specifically for the Sabres, a couple of amazing goaltending performances. In their overtime loss to the Bruins a few weeks ago, the Sabres had a PDO over 105.

Essentially, what that is saying is that with even with above-average goaltending performances in those three games, the Sabres are likely 1-14-1. 

Even those who don’t take to the advanced stats cannot say they have seen anything that can refute what the advanced stats are saying. The Sabres have almost no transition game to speak of, and their offensive-zone play is almost hilariously bad. With two power-play goals to this point, the Sabres have essentially been giving opponents who take penalties a well-deserved two-minute breather.  

So, with all of this, Nolan has now found himself squarely in the crosshairs

While that may seem extremely premature given the expectations for the Sabres this year, it’s hard to turn a blind eye to what has happened on the ice. Yes, the roster is not a contending one, but the Sabres shouldn’t look like a college team. 

Nolan is beloved by (most) Buffalo fans, and a second exit would likely not go over entirely well with that segment of the fanbase, but as the season moves forward, and the team moves backwards, the decision might be an easy one.

The real problem is that the issues plaguing the Sabres and Nolan are ones that have caused many to question Nolan’s ability to coach in the NHL in the past. 

He is not an X’s and O’s guy and typically resorts to stressing hustle and heart over implementing any systems to help improve the team’s play. After Nolan’s extension was announced, Justin Bourne of the Score wrote that “Nolan is one of those motivational guys who think that if you’re losing, you’re not competing hard enough.”

That certainly has been the theory this year, as in pretty much every bad loss, Nolan has commented on the Sabres’ effort level as the main reason they lost. Not the horrific power play. Not the penalty kill that parts like the Red Sea at the worst of times. Not the sheer lack of shots on goal. 

John Vogl of The Buffalo News wrote an article earlier this week citing Nolan’s insistence that if the Sabres work harder, they’ll be more successful. While the players, especially captain Brian Gionta, seem to be buying in to that line of thinking, it’s hard to believe that it will last much longer if they continue to struggle at this level. 

Honestly, it’s almost insulting to hear over and over again that the reason the team is struggling so badly is their effort level when a casual observer can see that the team is not well-coached to begin with. 

And that point brings the other major criticism of Nolan to the forefront: his inability to develop young players. 

As a rebuilding team, the young talent on the Sabres is clearly the most important thing this season. As it stands, of the players that can be deemed prospects, only Rasmus Ristolainen has played significant minutes game to game. 

Nikita Zadorov is in limbo, but he has seen time in the last three games. Sam Reinhart was (rightfully) sent back to his junior team after spending a majority of his time with the Sabres on the fourth line. Mikhail Grigorenko, Mark Pysyk, Chad Ruhwedel and Joel Armia have all been sent to Rochester when one can make an easy argument that they should all be with the Sabres based on their talent.

The key to the future is not with Cody McCormick or Torrey Mitchell. The key is in any number of the young guys who could turn the franchise around.

If Nolan continues to be hesitant to give significant minutes to more of these players, general manager Tim Murray will send him packing as fast as he extended him.

Needless to say, Nolan may be working on borrowed time from this point forward. If the Sabres were not in such a hapless position, he could have very well already been handed his walking papers. But they sit in last place and seemingly with no answers about how to improve their plight.

Many will say that this was the plan given the treasure that lies at the end of this ugly, ugly rainbow, but Murray has to make sure he has the guy behind the bench to move forward with either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. 

So, while there is a lot more hockey to be played, Nolan’s fate could be one of the few mysteries left this season, and it’s a divisive enough topic to keep most Sabres fans interested. 


Advanced stats courtesy of war-on-ice.com.

Follow me on Twitter for NHL and Sabres news all season long: @SwordPlay18

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