When Darcy Regier’s emotional press conference ended last night, one thing was abundantly clear: The Buffalo Sabres have realized that things need to be shaken up.
With the firing of head coach Lindy Ruff, the front office sent a message that the 6-10-1 start is not going to be ignored and no one is above reproach. Ruff was the team’s general for 16 years, and he wasn’t even given the opportunity to finish out the season. Sabres owner Terry Pegula and team president Ted Black have made a statement many in the hockey world felt was unlikely out of Buffalo.
But where does that leave the team now?
The roster is still essentially the same. Cody McCormick was waived yesterday and has a significant chance of being claimed and the Rochester Americans‘ captain and second-leading scorer Kevin Porter was recalled in his stead. Porter certainly will not produce at the level he has in the AHL – 42 points in 48 games – but he will be much more of an offensive threat on the third and fourth lines than McCormick.
What you can assume will change is Rolston’s handling of the team’s younger players, especially Mikhail Grigorenko.
What has gone under the radar since Ruff’s firing is his mismanagement of Grigorenko, including playing him on the fourth line at times. Grigorenko had been scratched three times by Ruff already this season and his treatment of him had been likened to Claude Julien’s treatment of Tyler Seguin in 2010-11. Seguin struggled mightily that year, scoring only 22 points in 74 games. He spent eight games in the pressbox watching, and the games he did play in had him positioned on the third and fourth lines.
While many have written about how this is a model of success seeing how well Seguin has played (despite a slow start this year), they seem to forget that Julien was a first-round-Game-7 loss away from losing his job, with his treatment of Seguin being a major factor in that. The Bruins won that game, and eventually the Stanley Cup, but Seguin still only played 13 of the 25 games for the Bruins in those playoffs, and Seguin’s success in the games he did play forced his hand the following year.
Rolston is from a different school of thought than Ruff and Julien though. Despite the fact that Rolston’s system will be similar to Ruff’s, albeit simpler, the vast majority of his experience in coaching is with younger players in the college ranks as an assistant, including stints at Harvard and Boston College. He also spent a year coaching the U.S. National Development Team’s Under-17 team that included many players that were on the United States’ gold medal winning team from the World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia this January, including team captain and Sabres prospect Jake McCabe.
Given that he has nothing to lose, Rolston will likely give his younger players a lot more responsibility. Grigorenko will see more time on the ice without Jochen Hecht who has been nothing short of terrible. Tyler Myers will get more of his top blue liner role back. It wouldn’t be a shock to see any of Jordan Leopold, Andrej Sekera or Alexander Sulzer moved to clear a full-time spot for TJ Brennan, who excelled in Rolston’s system in Rochester, and Brayden McNabb who has righted his ship with the Amerks as of late.
It goes without saying that Rolston is not necessarily expected to work miracles. Sure, the team needs to play better, and that much should be part of the deal, but to think they’ll start to play with a Chicago-level of dominance is naive.
Are the playoffs possible? Absolutely, but the pressure that was on Ruff just isn’t there for Rolston. Worst comes to worst, he’s back in Rochester next season and the Sabres emabrk on a search for their next full-time guy. That’s not to say he’s not going to try and do his best to win games, he’d love the NHL gig full-time, but it seems safe to assume that the Stanley Cup is not the expectation of Rolston.
And those lowered expectations seem to be in line with a potential razing of the current front office, including Regier, at the end of the season. Firing a general manager mid-season is an even bolder move than firing a coach of 16 years mid-season. The Columbus Blue Jackets did it this season, but only because their last two seasons have seen the team nowhere near the realm of contention. The Sabres still theoretically have a shot at the playoffs at least, so dumping Darcy right now would be foolish, but even if they do make the playoffs this season, his job may still be lost.
There are a lot of highly regarded GM candidates out there right now, including Brian Burke and Rick Dudley. The fact that the Sabres did not even speak to Patrick Roy, Jon Cooper or Dallas Eakins and slapped an interim tag on someone from within should speak volumes. That tells those that are listening that the Sabres brass do not want Regier making the call on the next coach just yet. Inferring a bit from that gets you to the bottom line: Regier may be on his way out sooner rather than later too.
But, that’s all three months or so ahead of us. Right now the Sabres are prepping for their matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight. How will they respond? Who knows, but what we can assume is that with a new coach behind the bench for the first time in 16 years, change may be a-brewing in Western New York.
Follow me on Twitter for NHL and Sabres news all season: @SwordPlay18.