His stunning return on Wednesday was such a whirlwind that Ted Nolan barely had time to leave the dais in the First Niagara Center pavilion, greet his team in the locker room, don a sweatsuit and take the ice to watch practice. Nolan did some talking but often watched his new assistant coaches run drills.
Not so Thursday. Nolan was completely in charge.
His whistle sharply chirping almost non-stop and his voice echoing through the empty arena, Nolan put the Buffalo Sabres through a 65-minute workout far above the tempo of any seen under the departed Ron Rolston.
How will that translate in the interim coach’s first game behind the Buffalo bench in more than 16 years? We get the answers tonight at 7 in the opener of a home-and-home series against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
At 4-15-1, the Sabres are obviously a major work in progress. So Nolan wasn’t throwing out any huge plaudits around when asked his view of practice Thursday.
“It went OK,” Nolan said, with the emphasis on “OK.” “We’ve got a lot of work to do. The biggest thing is to get these guys to feel good about themselves. If you feel good about yourself, you’ll get better.”
There was clearly more chattering, more playful hooting and hollering from the players during practice. Drills were high tempo and quickly transitioned from one to the next. The workout opened with simultaneous battle drills of three forwards and two defensemen in all four corners of the rink. There was skating, passing, breakaways, the works.
A couple of times, Nolan briefly stopped a drill or made a player repeat one if he felt it could be done better. The old adage of you-play-as-you-practice certainly applies.
“He definitely preached that. Make sure we have good practice habits and I think we did a good job today,” said winger Matt Moulson. “I thought it was a great practice. It was pretty hard when we were moving out there. It was a good tempo and we’ll try to bring that to the game.”
“It was good. Everybody was going hard,” said defenseman Mark Pysyk. “With a new coach nobody wants to sit back. Everybody was pushing each other and skating well.”
Nolan definitely pushed his new team and said afterward he would be checking in with strength and conditioning coach Doug McKenney about working on some players’ fitness levels.
“There’s not much we can do right now. We’re 20 games into the season,” Nolan said. “We got what we got. We’ve got to work with what we have. … These guys are all professional athletes and I’m quite sure they worked their tails off in the summer. Physically I don’t think there’s much of a concern. Mentally is the thing we have to work on.”
The pressure release caused by the dismissals of Rolston and General Manager Darcy Regier seemed to help the players in that area. Nolan will be coaching the Sabres tonight for the first time since they were eliminated in Game Five of the Eastern Conference semifinals here against Philadelphia on May 11, 1997.
“The feeling is that guys know this is a fresh clean slate and you’ve got to be at the top of your game,” said captain Steve Ott. “Nothing is given right now. I’m sure everything is going to be earned here, no matter if you’re a leader, a veteran guy, a young guy.”
“There’s a ton of energy. It was hard work today,” said center Cody Hodgson. “There was a lot of stuff that was new to us but we battled hard. It definitely was a good day. Any time a coach is fired, a GM is changed, stuff like that, you feel bad as a team, but we definitely need to respond and work harder.”
Nolan announced one key roster change, moving 19-year-old Zemgus Girgensons from the wing to center tonight between Ott and Tyler Ennis. Girgensons has been a top center for Nolan on the Latvian Olympic team.
Hodgson centered Moulson and Drew Stafford. Marcus Foligno was between Ville Leino and Brian Flynn while Cody McCormick centered John Scott and Corey Tropp. Mikhail Grigorenko and Johan Larsson were extra forwards Thursday.
Whoever plays tonight, it seems unlikely the Sabres will sleepwalk through games any more under a coach whose old Buffalo clubs were billed as “The Hardest Working Team in Hockey.”
“It was an up-pace tempo. The boys were skating,” said Scott. “It was up and down the ice, no breaks. He wants to play a certain type of game and he definitely drilled it in our heads. We better get used to that because it’s going to be like that the rest of the year.”
The Sabres are 20 games into their season but tonight is a second season opener in Nolan’s mind against veteran NHL coach Randy Carlyle of the Leafs.
“What happened yesterday is done. It’s over with. What happened in the first 20 games in your season is done. It’s over with,” he said. “We’re turning a new page, we’re starting a new chapter. I talked to some of the players and every stat they have is out the door. Forget about it.
“Against the Leafs we start anew and we’re going to compete. Toronto is a very good team. They’ve turned it around quite a bit in the last year or so. I know their coach demands a lot and we’re going to demand a lot here too.”