Whether Buffalo Sabres interim coach Ted Nolan has done enough to earn the job full-time remains to be seen. But what he's gotten out of the club through 27 games this season is, historically speaking, about what he will get out of any team.
Nolan is 9-12-6 since taking over the Sabres this season. That's not a bad turnaround for a club that'd gone 4-15-1 without him and is about on pace to score the fewest goals ever in an NHL season.
Nolan is known for getting the most out of average players and teams. Maybe that's why his stats are so average – that he's never been given the keys to a Cadillac – but Nolan only had a career record of 147-140-19-21 in four previous NHL coaching seasons.
Two of those seasons, of course, were with Buffalo. Everyone remembers the division title he got out of nowhere in 1996-97. He won the Jack Adams Award that season as the NHL's coach of the year, but his team only went 40-30-12 in a weak Northeast Division that season. And he had a Hart Trophy-winning goalie in Dominik Hasek, who helped up for that club's relative dearth of scoring (237 goals, which would still be about 100 more than this year's team is on pace to score).
But fewer people remember his first season with Buffalo, a 33-42-7 campaign in 1995-96 during which he missed the playoffs despite having his current boss, Pat LaFontaine, as his star center. And his two seasons leading the New York Islanders last decade resulted in one first-round playoff exit and little in terms of substantial success.
So, on the one hand, his career record does nothing to speak for Nolan getting the job full-time. But on the other hand, he took a team with Brian Holzinger and Jason Dawe as its leading scorers and somehow got a division championship. And, while he won't get anywhere near the playoffs no matter how he does through the rest of this season, he's made the team palatable to watch at times and has seemingly found the key to making Tyler Myers look like an NHL player again.
Nolan is beloved by many Buffalo hockey fans who remember what he did with that 1996-97 team. He's given a fair share of the credit for building the team that made two straight Eastern Conference finals appearances in the two seasons that followed. But those teams were led by Lindy Ruff, who went on to become Buffalo's all-time winningest coach. Whether they could have made that leap with Nolan is a point for debate (also up for debate is whether any fan in the stands could have coached a Hasek-led team to the finals).
Players in the locker room have praised Nolan and his system since he became their boss two months ago. More importantly, they've done so without being asked a question about him, which is a much better indicator of their true feelings than being posed a question and offering some PC response. That the players tie their progress to their coach unprovoked is an indicator that they truly value him.
Nolan is, by and large, a .500 coach. That would be a miracle to see for the Sabres as currently made up, so perhaps that's what they need – a tough-minded coach to whip them into shape. And then, if and when they're ready to routinely compete for bigger things, that's when you bring in a proven winner. Nolan hasn't proven he can be a top-tier coach, but he hasn't had a team yet that's been worthy of such a level.
Either way, Nolan has al least done enough for now to get the chance.
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