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Why firing your coach in a rebuild is nonsensical (Trending Topics)

Ryan Lambert
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The Buffalo Sabres fired both general manager and relatively new head coach in a sweeping attempt by a fanboy owner to get everyone to think about when the team was actually good. It's a cautionary tale in the NHL today that one can choose to follow, or not.

On the subject of the move itself, though, it's important to acknowledge that this kind of thing has long been a tactic in the NHL, as though leaning on nostalgia and nostalgia alone (rather than, say, merit) is the answer to all your problems. Out goes Darcy Regier, in comes Pat LaFontaine as team president to choose Regier's replacement — remember gang, he played 335 games here! Out goes new guy Ron Rolston, and in comes Ted Nolan — he won a Jack Adams! Forget about those guys fans grew to hate because they stood as a symbol of all that unfortunate losing the Sabres had been doing in the last few years, fire up NHL94!

What's a little bit mystifying, though, is how Nolan is any more qualified to watch more or less helplessly as this poorly-built embarrassment of a team shambles its way to a 20-win season than Rolston. There's a lot to dislike about the way in which the latter coached, obviously, given his penchant for team-mandated mayhem handed down to him from Regier, but he was: a) doing his job, and b) handed a heaping pile of chicken feces and asked to make chicken salad from it. His failure to do so says nothing about him as a coach, and everything about Regier as a team-builder.

So now the Sabres, rife with youngsters as they are, are on their third coach in 53 games. Doesn't that seem like a problem to anyone?

It's not to say Ted Nolan hasn't done good things in recent years with the Latvian national team, because by all accounts he has, but it's the Latvian national team we're talking about. The IIHF lists them as the 11th-best team in the world today, up from the ranking of 12th it held when Nolan took the job. It's all well and good to finally pull ahead of the Belarusian menace, but let's not act as though this is some Cinderella story he's been able to orchestrate.

Nolan has been out of the league for a long time now, having last coached in the NHL from 2006-08 when he finished fourth and fifth in the old Atlantic Division with the Islanders. During that time, he went 74-68-21, the equivalent of an 84-point season. Finishing with 84 points is, in most markets with aspirations toward success, a good way to get yourself fired.

Again, it's a pretty audacious and transparent maneuver on Pegula's part to nostalgia-grab some goodwill from fans who are fed up with years of mismanagement (as though Pegula himself isn't the reason for it; how are those Stanley Cup promises treating you?), but it's also misguided. One need look no further than Edmonton to see how routine coaching changes impact a team's ability to win.

Dallas Eakins seems for all the world like a truly good head coach, relatively quickly turning the Toronto Marlies from an AHL doormat into a force to be reckoned with, though he was no doubt buoyed by the some of the higher-quality prospects the Leafs have been able to draft and trade for since they started being awful. At the time of his hiring, it looked like a hell of a move from new Oilers GM Craig MacTavish to swoop in and grab a man who many considered to be the possible next great coach in the NHL. And yet here we are, a full 20 games into the season, and the Oilers have but four wins and 10 points to show for it.

This is an Edmonton team that many predicted could make the playoffs this year, following a third-place finish in the admittedly-bad Northwest Division, so what has Eakins done wrong?

The answer is “probably nothing.”

They say that it's difficult for young players to come into this league and learn to be effective and successful in all parts of the ice. Imagine how hard it is, then, when you have no continuity of leadership to help you understand what your assignments are and incorporate them into the instinct-based way in which you necessarily have to play your games.

The Oilers have often been seen making some truly dumb-assed mistakes in coverage this season, and are bleeding goals as a result. It might have something to do with the fact that Taylor Hall, for example, is on his third coach in four years. Sam Gagner, just 24 years old, has likewise played for five different coaches since coming into the league. It's weapons-grade insanity to expect a team to be able to catch on to what a coach is trying to espouse when you have a guy with new ideas and new systems packing up his desk and being run out of town every 18 months or so.

Consequently, their season is already over. They're stuck playing for the first overall pick.

Again.

This seems to be the cycle into which the Sabres have now chosen to throw themselves, and will probably find that it's as not-conducive to winning as keeping Rolston on-board would have been. This is especially true because Nolan comes in with the “interim” tag attached, portending that the Sabres might, sooner than later, be onto their fourth coach since Lindy Ruff got the axe in February.

When you know you're going to be bad, maybe — just maybe — a single voice telling young players how to play the game correctly over a period of a few years is the right way to go. The Sabres are obviously going to be bad for a while. Nolan has his own ideas about hockey, which are likely different from those of Ruff and Rolston. The number of players to whom the Sabres have given time to this season and who are still developing (that is, those under the age of 25) is 11. That's more than 40 percent of the 26 skaters they've used this year. That little attention is being paid to the kind of havoc this can wreak on their development is, one supposes, not surprising. But it's also not wise.

A better lesson exists in the league at this very moment, though it's too late to heed it now. The Colorado Avalanche have been excellent this season, and seem to be winning with little in the way of an end in sight. Underlying numbers suggest they might even be able to keep it up better than the last time they started the season hot, when they ultimately collapsed before the playoffs even began.

Patrick Roy is the revelatory new coach. He offers a splash of nostalgia, sure, but is also a guy with a long history of success riding the bus in the QMJHL before he returned to Denver like the prodigal son. He succeeds Joe Sacco who, despite being awful in everything except the opening 17 games in his first season, held the job for four full seasons. During that time he helped mold Ryan O'Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene and more into very credible and dangerous two-way NHL players.

Greg Sherman did a whole lot of things wrong, but one thing he got right was making sure his team's budding superstars — who, yes, likely would have been good no matter how badly he ran things — had a single voice to listen to in their formative years. Nostalgia and good feeling aside, Roy is reaping the rewards of seeds sown by his predecessors.

In Edmonton and, soon, Buffalo? Not so much.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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