While watching Ted Nolan eke out overtime appearances with an overmatched hockey club, Sabres General Manager Tim Murray realized the coach should stick around Buffalo for three more years. Murray also noticed the most obvious truth of all.
“We have to get him better players,” Murray said Monday while announcing Nolan’s contract extension. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.”
The Sabres’ hockey department, once the definition of stability, is on solid ground once again with Murray and Nolan in place. The next step for the GM is giving Nolan an NHL-caliber team to coach. It won’t be in place tonight when New Jersey visits First Niagara Center, but the sides share a vision of what kind of players should be on the team.
It’s up to Murray to bring them in, to show them Buffalo is a worthy landing spot.
“This is the first step,” Murray said after removing the interim tag Nolan had worn since November. “Free agents want to go to a team that has a chance to win, so we have to change that. No. 2, obviously, they like stability. They like to think that the people in charge can change that if you’re not there yet.
“We have players here that were drafted or signed before him and I both got here. Some of them are NHL players, so we’re going to go forward with those guys. There’s some good young talent in the organization that I certainly had nothing to do with. He has had something to do with it because he’s got his hands on them between five games and 20 games, so he has had an impact on those guys.
“We’re going to draft high this year. We’ve made trades for young guys already, so going forward we’re going to have a different group in here at some point.”
Nolan is looking forward to the day when the words “30th place” and “Sabres” are not synonymous.
“When you have good players, it makes the game so much easier,” Nolan said in First Niagara Center. “You look at some of the teams we play and just their hockey intelligence gets them out of a lot of trouble. In order to have good players where we are, we have to develop those players, too, so I’m looking forward to that.
“Through Tim’s experience in finding that talent, it’ll make my job a lot easier. The only thing I’ll have to worry about is coaching and knowing that you’re going to be receiving some really good players.”
There aren’t many Sabres assured of sticking around, but those who are enjoyed the news of Nolan’s contract extension.
“He’s been a tremendous coach so far,” rookie Zemgus Girgensons said. “When you come in midseason it’s hard to get everything together, but I think he’s done a pretty good job of getting guys together and working hard and getting them mentally prepared. I think just the next three years, we’re going to improve every year.”
The players also like the renewed feeling of stability. The roster has been a mix of callups, acquisitions and waiver claims, while the front office and coaching staff have turned over like a restless sleeper.
“We’ve been feeling like the ‘Land of Misfit Toys’ here at times,” defenseman Mike Weber said. “It’s a good first step by upstairs to try to straighten the ship here and get a little bit of stability. We know who the guy’s going to be now for the next three years, and that’s a good sign.”
Nolan was set to sign the extension in February before the chaos erupted involving the departure of Pat LaFontaine, his friend and president of hockey operations. Nolan took a break to reassess the matter, and the contract has been in the hands of his agent for weeks.
“It was more the circumstances of the time than the want of getting it done,” said Nolan, who will assess his coaching staff after the season. “What makes the job so exciting is looking down the road. What we have now is what we have now, but you see some chunks of coal here. You polish them up, they’re going to be some pretty good diamonds.”
Murray determined through observation and conversation that he had the right guy to polish them.
“He’s been in a lot of situations here that haven’t been great, and a lot of nights I’ve liked the way our team competed,” the GM said. “I like his back and forth with young players. I like his teaching with young players. I like patience with young players. We’re not all going to be young. Our veteran guys like playing for him, too, so that’s not pigeon-holing him as a young-guy coach.
“In a losing situation, I have liked what I’ve seen.”
The job now is to make it a winning situation.