DENVER – Coaches usually join the profession as a way to stay in the game they love. They get to pass on knowledge to the next generation of players and become part of a long line of teachers who are vital to a sport’s history and future.
Somewhere along the way, the altruism fades to the background. A single-minded obsession takes over.
“When you’re in this business, especially as long as I’ve been around, your emotions really go with winning and losing,” Arizona coach Dave Tippett said. “Your whole life revolves around it.”
Having been around coaches on a daily basis for 13 seasons, one thing is obvious: The pain of losing trumps the joy of winning. The losses stick with the guys through sleepless nights and into the next restless day. Wins are forgotten by the time they leave the arena. The thought process has turned toward winning the next game.
Even short losing streaks can turn the jolliest of coaches into snarling souls. Imagine, then, what Tippett and Buffalo’s Ted Nolan are going through with the two worst teams in the NHL.
“It’s just miserable,” Tippett said. “Miserable. You never want to be in this situation.”
To avoid going crazy, the coaches have had to change their thinking. With a combined 106 losses in 149 games entering Saturday, they’ve had to accept that victories won’t be the defining moments of their season (and their lives).
“Everybody thinks you’re going to get in the playoffs and go a long ways and win the Stanley Cup,” Nolan said. “A dream and reality are two different things.”
The losses have forced them to go back to their roots. They’re teachers again, guys trying to pass along knowledge.
“We all know the situation that we’re in, but we expect guys to show up and put the work in, be dedicated to playing like a team,” Tippett said. “Right now it’s about trying to push players and evaluate players. … Are you part of the solution moving forward or are you part of the problem?”
Said Nolan: “It’s been a message for as long as I can breathe: You compete and you work and you battle. If you do that, you’ll get what you deserve at the end.
“If I’m not getting what I’ve got out of these guys, then I’d be very disappointed in myself. But from what I see, these guys are giving it everything they have. There’s some guys that aren’t capable of doing certain things at the moment, but that doesn’t mean they’re not trying.
“Am I frustrated? Not so much. I can go to sleep at night knowing these guys are coming to work every day and I’m trying to give them solutions to some of the problems they’re going through.”
Since the scoreboard is the enemy, the coaches have to get their winning fix elsewhere. For Nolan, a victory came last week when flu-ridden forward Tyler Ennis climbed out of bed to play in Dallas.
“When I see Tyler Ennis wanting to play when he shouldn’t even have attempted to play, that shows their attention to doing what we’re asking,” Nolan said.
Unlike the fans, the coaches can’t take solace in the fact a potential superstar might be on the horizon. While the thought of Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel can bring smiles in Buffalo and Arizona, it doesn’t ease the troubles of the coaches.
“On the day-to-day operations of a coach or a player, that’s not in your thoughts,” Tippett said. “That’s an ownership, a management thing. That’s not a coach thing.”
The coaches will get a chance to decompress when the season ends in two weeks. Someday, thoughts of winning will return if their teaching takes hold.
“It’s very frustrating,” Nolan said, “but it is what it is, and you’ve just got to stay mentally strong, keep fighting through it.”
Leafs are laughing stock
The Sabres may be in last place, but the biggest disaster in the NHL at the moment is just up the QEW.
The Toronto Maple Leafs team coming to Buffalo on Wednesday is a train wreck. The Leafs had lost seven straight entering Saturday night’s game against Ottawa. Worse, they hadn’t led in any of them. It’s the first time that had happened to Toronto since October 2009, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
It’s hard to believe the Leafs were once a playoff team. After beating Anaheim on Dec. 16, the Leafs were 10th overall in the NHL with a 19-9-3 record. They had outscored opponents, 109-86, for a goal differential of plus-23.
Since then, the Leafs’ record is 8-31-3. They’ve fallen to 27th overall and could drop below Edmonton to 28th before the season ends. They’ve been outscored, 155-85, in the 42 games, a differential of minus-70.
During practice Friday, forwards Phil Kessel and David Booth had a skirmish during a battle drill. Teammates had to intervene.
“Great,” interim coach Peter Horachek said with sincerity to Toronto reporters. “Guys are going to compete in practice. I think that’s a good thing. It used to happen all the time. Teams need to compete in practice, and that’s just the way it is. Part of the game.”
Kessel and captain Dion Phaneuf are likely in their final games with Toronto. Kessel has a limited no-trade clause (he reportedly can submit a list of eight teams to which he’d accept a trade), but a forward combination in Buffalo of left wing Evander Kane, center Sam Reinhart, McDavid or Eichel with Kessel on the right would be a legitimate No. 1 line.
On the fly
• Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon was reportedly scheduled to meet with Jaromir Jagr’s agent Saturday to discuss a contract extension. The 43-year-old Jagr, who had nine points in his first 12 games with Florida after being acquired via trade, will be an unrestricted free agent.
• With at least 20 wins each, Henrik Lundqvist and Cam Talbot became the third Rangers goaltending duo to accomplish the feat, according to Elias. Mike Richter and John Vanbiesbrouck (1991-92) and Ed Giacomin and Gilles Villemure (1970-71 to ’72-73) also did it.
• Winnipeg’s Drew Stafford will carry a career-best eight-game points streak into Sunday’s game against Chicago. The former Buffalo right winger has four goals and 10 points during the run, bringing his totals with the Jets to seven goals and 16 points in 19 games.