Teppo Numminen wasn’t speechless, but he was close. The assistant coach for the Sabres paused long and searched hard for the words to describe Buffalo’s coaching change from Ron Rolston to Ted Nolan.
“It’s an emotional week,” Numminen said over the weekend. “You always think what could we have done differently or do more.”
It’s certainly been a whirlwind for Numminen during his first coaching job. Hired by Lindy Ruff and promoted by Rolston, Numminen is working for his third coach in 10 months. For the second straight time, he’s sharing offices with a man he previously didn’t know.
“He’s an exciting personality,” Numminen said of Nolan. “We’ve got good, positive energy around, so it’s been a good couple days.”
Nolan inherited Numminen, fellow assistant Joe Sacco and the rest of Buffalo’s staff when he took over for Rolston on Wednesday. The assistants have needed to balance their emotions during the past few days.
Like the rest of Sabreland, they’re getting swept up in the good vibes brought by Nolan and Pat LaFontaine, the new president of hockey operations. However, it was hard seeing Rolston get let go after working with him daily.
“You never want to see guys that are friends of yours get fired,” Sacco said. “It’s been tough as far as that goes. I thought Ron did everything he could to get the team ready and prepared. It’s an unfortunate situation, but that also is part of the business that we’re in. We’ll move forward now from that and see where it goes.”
The general consensus is Rolston was in over his head in his first NHL job. He alienated players through lack of communication and couldn’t schematically prevent opponents from dominating games against his unmotivated team.
Rolston also had a roster short on talent and full of teenagers, and owner Terry Pegula conceded the Sabres “didn’t exactly put Ron in the best of situations after he came in as our head coach with some of the moves we’ve made and the direction we’ve been taking the franchise.”
“Coaching is not easy,” Sacco said. “Until you’ve sat in that seat, I think it’s hard for people to understand. Ron’s a very good coach. He was very well prepared, very detailed and did the best job that he could possibly do.”
Said Numminen: “Everybody’s done their best and what they thought was the right thing to do.”
It’s a new season now.
The Sabres have 60 games left, and Nolan used his assistants during his first two. Despite knowing Sacco only casually – they chatted at the world championships last spring when Nolan led Latvia and Sacco coached the United States – Nolan relied heavily on the former Colorado bench boss during the opening game.
“He’s been a head coach in this league, and he knows how important it is to have people helping support what you’re doing,” said Nolan, who added that Numminen also learned to support people during his 20-year playing career. “Coming fresh off playing, he knows it’s important to have a teammate and somebody to protect what you’re doing. They both did a great job.”
After a day off Sunday, the Sabres will reconvene today. While there could be roster moves and lineup changes, the assistants don’t expect a major system overhaul.
“Right now he just wants to try to keep things as simple as possible, not change too much early on,” Sacco said. “That’s just going to add confusion to everything. His message has been pretty clear to the players and the rest of the other coaches. Less is more right now, just letting them go out and play.
“We have X’s and O’s and systems that are in place, but at the end of the day it’s not about that. It is about compete level. It’s about winning one-on-one battles. It’s about being engaged in the game all the time for 60 minutes. I think that’s what he’s preaching more than the tactical part of the game right now.”
A couple of changes were evident during Nolan’s two outings, a 3-1 victory over Toronto on Friday and a 4-2 loss to the Maple Leafs on Saturday:
• Players are being encouraged to play hockey and not be obsessed with details. The defensemen have been more aggressive in the offensive zone, and forwards have skated into position to accept long passes.
“Ted came in and basically had one-on-ones with every guy in the room,” defenseman Tyler Myers said. “One of the things he brought up was don’t be afraid to jump up as much as you can. There’s mistakes that are going to be made, and that’s part of hockey. Don’t worry about it. It was a good feeling to hear that.”
• The Sabres clogged the middle better and collapsed more quickly while playing defense. (It should be noted that often comes easily against the Leafs, who have been outshot in 16 of their 20 games.)
“You give a bad player enough time, he’s going to make a good play,” Nolan said. “We have to make sure we get on top of people with the puck and back-pressure them. Get out there for 35-40 seconds, give everything you have, come back, have some rest and do it again.”
The Sabres still have a lot of work to do. They are 30th in the 30-team NHL with a 5-16-1 record. The roster remains thin on talent and experience. Losses are more likely than victories.
The Sabres worked for five of six periods over the weekend, though, which is a step up. They get a chance to continue Tuesday when St. Louis visits First Niagara Center.
“The players are going to try to impress the new coach, and that’s just the way it’s always been,” Sacco said. “It’s important that we try to maintain that, and that will be the key for us. We’re still a young team. We have a young lineup in there, but I think if we can show that type of energy and that type of passion in our game night in and night out, we’ll be in more games than not. I think that’s what people want to see.”