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The Sabres Observer

Nolan’s Implausible Return Is Invigorating

Throughout his coaching career, Ted Nolan has been a flawed man. 

He made mistakes during his first go-around here in Buffalo as a young, brash head coach who wanted to do things his own way.  There were more errors in his ways after he left.

He hasn't always respected authority, has occasionally overplayed the race card, and when necessary has used the media to undercut anyone blocking his path.

He has delegated technical game strategies to his assistants, disregarded player usage recommendations from his bosses and pressured them into transactions that would adhere to his agenda.

He is also my favorite Sabres head coach of the fourteen that have had the job since I entered hockey fandom as a kid, and it's not even close.

For whatever reason, I'm fascinated by sports figures with blemished and anguished personalities who are successful despite having their demons.  I guess that's why Jimmy Connors and Howard Cosell were two of my favorites, and Joe Namath would likely be there if I were older.

What Nolan brought to this city, after being hired in a cost-controlling move by John Muckler in 1995, was so powerful because his coaching style landed right in the wheelhouse of Sabres fans who had agonizingly watched their team get bullied and outworked by equally or less skilled teams year after year.

Nolan changed the culture almost instantly.  He didn't need an overdue revelation that his team had to become tougher to play against.  That was the only way he knew how to play.

Opponents who previously enjoyed comfortable nights against the Sabres suddenly couldn't stand playing them.  A fiesty but underskilled Buffalo squad won games not so much from intimidating other teams as much as from completely annoying them.  Nolan made sure he had the pieces in place to do it.

He persuaded the Sabres to acquire physical defenseman Bob Boughner, who had been Nolan's captain in Sault Ste. Marie.  A few days later, Boughner was fighting Eric Lindros at the old Spectrum and helping Buffalo emerge victorious in a long-time house of horrors where they had lost six in a row, and against a Flyers team that had muscled them out of the playoffs a year earlier.

Nolan was so tuned in to what his players needed in order to succeed that they raved about him.  Rob Ray alluded to this in his book Rayzor's Edge.  "Teddy had the best relationship with players of any coach I've ever had," Ray said.

The result of his tenure that ended too soon was that what Nolan brought to the table exceeded his faults by miles.  And it's not like Muckler and Dominik Hasek were blameless in the reality soap opera that took place, either.

Now it's 16 years later, and Sabres owner and megafan Terry Pegula has hired the legendary Pat LaFontaine to oversee hockey operations.  Number 16 needed an interim head coach to lead his team of kids, and he thought of Nolan instantly. 

I'm guessing that being asked to coach a young and fragile group by a Hall of Famer who played for you means that you're pretty good.

Even with the excitement Nolan has already brought to the locker room, Sabres fans likely need not fret about the 2014 draft.  Playing .500 the rest of the season would put Buffalo at 71 points, which has typically been a bad enough total for a top 3 pick.  And I don't care if it's Ron Rolston, Ted Nolan, or Scotty Bowman -- this team winning half its remaining games would be a miracle.

Nonetheless, it will be exciting to see what an older, wiser Nolan can do for this group in a league with a much lower tolerance for rough-and-tumble hockey than in '97.

He said that coaching the Latvian team has given him a better understanding and appreciation of European players, a trait the younger Nolan admittedly was lacking.  That's a good thing since Buffalo's impressionable teenagers are all from outside of North America.

Zemgus Girgensons could soon have his coming out party because of this move.  Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov may grow up that much faster.  Mikhail Grigorenko will either sink or swim.

I could not be any more shocked and thrilled about what happened Wednesday morning at First Niagara Center, and tonight against the Leafs can't get here soon enough.

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Filed in: | The Sabres Observer | Permalink
  Tags: "buffalo+sabres", "john+muckler", "pat+lafontaine", "ted+nolan", "terry+pegula"

Comments

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Not sure why it is invigorating, unless you enjoy watching a train wreck. Nolan may or may not win more games. But then he will pull some power move to pit his boss against the owner or organize a player sit in protest or some other strange action. Nolan is a cancer in the organization.

Posted by timbits on 11/15/13 at 10:58 AM ET

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Why are you so sure that Nolan is/was/will be a cancer in the locker room?  15 years ago he was a different person.  Are you saying that it is not possible for him to have changed?

You may end up being correct, but why not sit back & give Ted a chance before you declare him a mistake?  I could use some excitement.  Ted could be just what Buffalo needs.  smile

Posted by Nuthatch on 11/17/13 at 04:14 PM ET

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About The Sabres Observer

Dave Davis has covered the Buffalo Sabres for various NHL accredited websites and newspapers since 2003.  He was the senior writer and Sabres correspondent for The Fourth Period, covered hockey for Western New York Sports and Leisure Magazine, and has had articles featured on NHL.com, FOX Sports, Yahoo Sports and in New York Sportscene.  Sabres news and notes can be found on his Twitter page.

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Email: dd@kuklaskorner.com Twitter: [@DaveDavisHockey]