Ron Rolston makes his NHL coaching debut Thursday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and he has a tough task ahead of him.
Not only is he charged with turning around the Buffalo Sabres, he has to get through to a team that is currently in a state of shock.
"My job is to jump-start this team and do it in any way we can," Rolston said after hitting the ice with the Sabres for the first time since being hired as their coach Wednesday.
Not only does Rolston have to deal with a team that's reeling emotionally, but he also sees a team that hasn't been willing to work as hard as it must in order to win games.
"From what I saw, it was more of a lot of shortcuts," Rolston said. "Lot of rest in shifts. The things you just have to eliminate if you're going to be a good hockey team. Most importantly, it's just getting back to that, it's getting back to work, getting back to eliminating shortcuts from your game because there's not a lot of time."
The Sabres are 3-7-0 in their past 10 games, which included a loss in their prior game at home to the Winnipeg Jets. Their poor play led to longtime coach Lindy Ruff being relieved of his duties Wednesday.
Ruff had been the NHL's longest-tenured coach, appointed to his job with the Sabres on July 21, 1997.
Rolston had been coaching the Rochester Americans, Buffalo's American Hockey League affiliate, before being promoted by Sabres general manager Darcy Regier shortly after Ruff was dismissed.
"It was surprising for me," Rolston said. "You work your whole career to get an opportunity like this. I wasn't sure when that opportunity was going to come. My job as a coach and my goal has always been to do the absolute best job you can, wherever you're at. That was my plan in Rochester and this opportunity came up."
There were plenty of long faces in the Sabres dressing room as players still seemed to be processing what had happened to Ruff. For some of them, he was the only coach they had ever had in the NHL.
Standing by his locker, forward Drew Stafford struggled to find the words to describe how he felt.
"I've had Lindy my whole career, hearing a new voice in this setting, at this level -- it's hard to describe," Stafford said. "Even being on the ice and not having Lindy out there, I never pictured that scenario in my head … as hard as it is. We have to put it behind us."
Captain Jason Pominville's voice quivered when he reflected on saying farewell to Ruff.
"It's tough, obviously he is a great person, a great guy," Pominville said. "He has done a lot of great things for the city, the organization. … It wasn't an easy day for anyone."
Rolston said he does not have any immediate plans to overhaul the systems that Ruff had implemented, and that getting the focus of his players may be his stiffest challenge.
"Our focus right now is start moving in the positive direction we want to," Rolston said. "The rest usually starts to take care of itself."
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