After firing their general manager and head coach, the lowly Buffalo Sabres are ready to move forward with two familiar faces guiding the way.
With former star Pat LaFontaine now overseeing hockey operations, Ted Nolan steps behind the Sabres' bench for the first time in almost 17 years as interim coach Friday night against the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs.
Absent from the playoffs the past two seasons, Buffalo (4-15-1) has the fewest points in the NHL and its loss total is the most in franchise history through 20 games. The Sabres got their first win in 10 home games with a 3-2 shootout victory over Los Angeles on Tuesday, but that wasn't enough to keep owner Terry Pegula from firing longtime general manager Darcy Regier and coach Ron Rolston a day later.
"So why now? I just decided, and that's the only answer I can give you," Pegula said. "Sometimes you get to the point where a change is needed."
Regier, who traded away star winger Thomas Vanek last month, had been the GM since 1997. Rolston went 19-26-6 since replacing the fired Lindy Ruff in February.
LaFontaine, a Hall of Famer who starred for the Sabres from 1991-97, fills the newly created role of president of hockey operations and will look to fill the vacant GM position.
"Our job is top to bottom to bring a championship caliber team year to year," he said.
His first move was to bring back his former coach. The 55-year-old Nolan went 73-72-19 and won a Jack Adams Award while coaching in Buffalo from 1995-97, and his only other stint as an NHL coach was with the Islanders from 2006-08. More recently, he was coach of the Latvian men's national team, a role he'll keep for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Known as a motivator and developer of young talent, Nolan inherits a team that has four players under the age of 20 on the current roster and is scoring a league-worst 1.65 goals per game.
"You can have all the talent you want, if you don't compete, it doesn't make any difference," Nolan told the Sabres' official website. "That's what I (said) to the team. I said, 'We're not going to promise if we compete, we're going to start winning. That has nothing to do with that. But if we compete, it gives us a chance to win. Without that, it doesn't work.'"
With LaFontaine and Nolan on board, the Sabres look to win consecutive games for the first time this season after Ryan Miller made 43 saves and Cody Hodgson scored twice against the Kings.
Hodgson has been one of the few bright spots while leading Buffalo with seven goals and eight assists. The Toronto native had three assists during the Sabres' 5-4 home shootout victory over the Maple Leafs on March 21 in the teams' most recent meeting.
Toronto (11-6-1) has earned five points in the last three games against the Sabres and owns one of the Eastern Conference's best records, but expects a serious challenge from a team filled with some renewed purpose.
"Anytime (a coaching change) happens it usually sparks a team to give that much more in a game," Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf said. "We expect a tough game."
Toronto has recorded three regulation goals while going 1-2-1 following a three-game winning streak during which it scored four times in each contest.
Mason Raymond gave the Maple Leafs a 1-0 lead in the second period at Minnesota on Wednesday, but the Wild tied it late in the third and won 2-1 in a shootout.
"We've just got to move on," said Toronto's Jonathan Bernier, who made 33 saves.
The Maple Leafs will be without forward Nazem Kadri, who was suspended for three games without pay by the NHL on Thursday for a hit to Minnesota goalie Niklas Backstrom's head.
Kadri has five goals and nine assists in 18 games.