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Over the Boards: Sabres' Nolan keeps focus on today

by Dan Rosen

Ted Nolan has rekindled his love affair with hockey and coaching in places such as Moncton, New Brunswick and Latvia. Buffalo is where he wants to continue to ply his trade for years to come, but he has no idea if he'll be allowed to do that.

Nolan, though, insists his focus is so much on today and what is happening right now with the Buffalo Sabres that he can't and won't allow himself to think about tomorrow, his future or if he will have the interim tag removed from his title and receive a multi-year contract to coach the club going forward.


What team will benefit most from the Olympic break? -- @Northside_Joe

I'm looking right at the Dallas Stars, Carolina Hurricanes, Washington Capitals and Ottawa Senators. The Stars, Hurricanes and Capitals have three players going to Sochi; the Senators have two. They all entered play Tuesday on the outside looking in at the playoff race, but in particular the three Eastern Conference teams are close. To have most of their players getting rest during the break while other contenders or bubble teams such as the Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers have anywhere between seven and 10 players going to Sochi could be important. If I had to pick one I'd go with Ottawa. Bobby Ryan is motivated by not being a part of the U.S. team. Jason Spezza can use the break as a way to restart his currently disappointing season. The Senators play seven of their nine games before the break on the road. If they can stay close in the wild-card race I like their chances coming out of the break.

What is it going to take to help turn the Capitals around? Transactions? Management changes? -- @zchizar

Mike Green needs to rediscover who he is and be an offensive dynamo again. They have to figure out what to do with Martin Erat. If he's going to be a part of the club they need to get more out of him. If he's not they need to trade him soon. The Capitals need to make a commitment to being better 5-on-5 so they don't have to rely on their power play as much. They need to bolster their defensive depth because it's not good enough right now behind Green, John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Dmitry Orlov, who still has a lot to prove. Most importantly, it's time for Braden Holtby to step up and be the goalie he's capable of being. He may need to steal a few games to get the Capitals going in the right direction.

What's with the Blues having such a hard time with California teams? -- @Allen_Schneider

You mean other than the fact that the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks are very good teams? The Kings are stingy, the Ducks are balanced, and the Sharks are explosive. But to your question the Blues have a bit of all of those traits and yet they're still 1-7-0 against the California teams this season and 4-12-1 dating to last season. That's not including their six-game playoff series loss to the Kings last season.

Without deeply analyzing each game, the biggest problem the Blues seem to be having is on the back end. They've been one of the hardest teams to score against since Ken Hitchcock took over as coach, but the Sharks, Ducks and Kings are averaging a combined 3.65 goals per game against them in the regular season. Until the Blues solve that dilemma they're not going to beat any of these teams in a playoff series.

Should the Devils trade for Danny Briere? He'd help in the shootout and on offense, and also his family lives in New Jersey? -- @Brian_Bobal

I thought they should have signed him in the summer. The Devils need a player who can score a clutch goal and Briere can do that. As you said, they need someone who can give them a chance in the shootout and Briere can do that. They likely wouldn't have to give up too much and they may even get the Montreal Canadiens to eat a portion of his contract, which runs through next season with an average annual value of $4 million. I've always liked Briere and I think he'd be able to help the Devils.

Who is faster off the ice: Chris Kreider on roller blades or a cheetah? -- @bill_goldthorpe

Carl Hagelin on roller skates.

What do you think about Craig Berube's seemingly quiet success so far? -- @psychobillymac

Very impressive. I didn't think the Flyers would be a playoff team at the start of the season, so their start under former coach Peter Laviolette didn't necessarily surprise me. Now that Berube has the Flyers in contention I think it should put him in contention for the Jack Adams Award. If I had a vote I would give it to Jon Cooper of the Tampa Bay Lightning, but Berube has to be in the discussion.

Who do you think steps in if Steven Stamkos realizes/admits/shows he isn't ready for Sochi? Martin St. Louis? Claude Giroux? Other? -- @THEREALBIGLORDY

Martin St. Louis. I would think Stamkos is slotted as a right wing for Canada, so if he can't go it would make sense to bring someone who plays right wing. St. Louis is deserving of being on the team. I didn't hear a good reason why he didn't make it because I thought he was a lock. Stamkos also would push for St. Louis to be his replacement because of the close bond they have as teammates in Tampa Bay. I'm not sure how much the decision to leave St. Louis off the roster has affected Steve Yzerman's relationship with the Lightning captain because they're both professionals and always act in such a manner, but I'd have to imagine getting St. Louis to Sochi would ease a mental burden on Yzerman.

Do you think Rick Nash's recent surge in play is a result of the Olympic announcement or finally getting over the concussion? -- @mmaselNYR

Both. The Olympic announcement served to reassure Nash that he was a top player in the NHL and belonged on the biggest stage. That's the mental part. The physical part is how Nash is playing. He's getting inside, going to the net. He's decisive. This has everything to do with timing and getting a feel back for how he needs to play, which of course goes back to the concussion. Nash was out for six weeks and he's always been a streaky player, so it's no surprise it has taken him this long to get going again. I'll actually have more on this in an Olympic story that will run Thursday.

Do the Avalanche keep both Paul Stastny and Ryan O'Reilly after the NHL Trade Deadline? -- @IlyaKraminsky

I think Ryan O'Reilly stays. It should be his preference and the team's preference. As for Stastny, it's an interesting dilemma. His contract is up after the season and he's been making $6.6 million per season. O'Reilly and Semyon Varlamov need new contracts. The Avalanche have to beef up their defense. Nathan MacKinnon will have two seasons left on his entry-level contract, but the Avalanche have to take his likely raise starting in 2016-17 into account. Coach Patrick Roy would love to have center depth with Matt Duchene, MacKinnon and Stastny for the next several seasons, but it may be a luxury that costs too much. But the Avalanche also are a playoff team. What they have to do is determine realistically if they have a chance in the playoffs this season and if they can afford Stastny long term. If the answer is no, trade him now. He'd fetch a good return from a contending team (preferably from the Eastern Conference) that lacks center depth (hello, Toronto).

If you have a question you want answered in Over the Boards, send it in a tweet to @drosennhl. The Mailbag will be a weekly feature here.

"I'm more concerned in trying to prove that I'm the guy for this job to really turn it around and eventually try to win," Nolan, the Sabres interim coach since Nov. 13, told

Nolan doesn't think the proof he's trying to show his bosses will be influenced by the Sabres' win-loss record during the rest of this season. His task since taking over for Ron Rolston has been to change the culture and to jumpstart the development of some of the Sabres' young players. In that he's getting results, and the wins slowly have started to enter into the equation.

The Sabres entered Tuesday with a 9-12-6 record under Nolan after going 4-15-1 under Rolston. Their biggest improvements have come on defense.

Buffalo was outscored 27-3 in the first period under Rolston; 15-12 under Nolan. The Sabres allowed 3.15 goals per game under Rolston, but that number has dipped to 2.56 under Nolan. Half of their losses under Nolan are by one goal, including three in regulation and three in a shootout.

"Defense can be there for you if you want to work at it," Nolan said. "My first 3-4 weeks on the job we had a lot of defensive-zone work. That's one area that I felt needed the most work on so that's the area we concentrated on."

Nolan said rookie forward Zemgus Girgensons is beginning to play beyond his years (he's 20) and Mark Pysyk is developing into a bona fide top-four defensemen with the potential to wear a letter on his sweater one day. Defenseman Tyler Myers has played better under Nolan. Center Cody Hodgson has played well since returning from his injury.

"Changing the culture and the attitude and making steps toward [winning the Stanley Cup] are hopefully going to be my measuring stick this year and not so much on the wins and losses," Nolan said. "Right now it's where are you going, how are you going to get there and what do you have to in order to win?"

Nolan feels he has brought direction, care, respect and responsibility back to the Sabres. Next is dealing with the immediate future and the hits his roster may take with leaders Ryan Miller, Matt Moulson and Steve Ott potentially on the move prior to the NHL Trade Deadline on March 5.

They have expiring contracts and new general manager Tim Murray may decide he needs to get assets in draft picks and prospects in exchange for them.

"All three of those players are reasons why we're playing better now," Nolan said. "Miller is giving us stellar performances every game. Moulson is a quiet leader in his own way. And Steve Ott, if it wasn't for his leadership with this group of guys I don't know that we would have turned it around. All three guys are great to have on your team. Right now the only thing I know is they're with us and I'm enjoying all three of them."

At Murray's introductory press conference he mentioned he and team president of hockey operations Pat LaFontaine will revisit the interim tag on Nolan's title and may take it away. Nolan said he hasn't heard anything about it and he isn't paying too much attention anyway.

"I heard it briefly," he said. "I'm not too concerned with that."

His only concern is making the Sabres better today. If he continues on that path it might be enough to make him their coach for many tomorrows.

"If it works out and I'm here for the next 20 years, that's great," Nolan said. "Tomorrow is not going to happen unless I concentrate on today."

Bertuzzi finds protection in visor

Detroit Red Wings forward Todd Bertuzzi has tried to wear a visor before. He'd attempt it in warm-ups only to have Red Wings equipment manager Paul Boyer take it off before the game. He'd use it in the first period of a game but ask Boyer to take it off either on the bench or during the first intermission.

Bertuzzi went back to the visor again for the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on New Year's Day at Michigan Stadium to help his vision through the snow. He hasn't taken it off since.

"I took one almost in the face in the Winter Classic and I got high-sticked a couple of times close to the eye," Bertuzzi said. "It's just strapped on right now. I'll see how it goes.

"It was really never a topic of discussion, but you get a handful of close calls so you make the decision to go one way or the other."

The NHL and NHLPA agreed to make visors mandatory for all players entering the NHL beginning with this season and for those who had fewer than 26 games of NHL experience entering this season.

The rest of the players like Bertuzzi have the option to wear one.

Sobotka generates power from training technique

Vladimir Sobotka is 5-foot-10 and 197 pounds, but he's one of the most powerful players in the St. Louis Blues' lineup because he spends his summers in the Czech Republic practicing mixed martial arts, coach Ken Hitchcock said.

"He's really a powerful guy, way more powerful than people realize," Hitchcock said. "He trains with those MMA people and the training that that sport does is all about explosiveness and power, stuff like that. He's really a physical guy."

Sobotka entered the Blues' game Tuesday against the New Jersey Devils third on the team in hits this season with 78. He rarely gets knocked off the puck and is one of the team's strongest skaters.

Sobotka's power combined with his skill has elevated his position in the Blues' lineup. He had 25 points entering Tuesday, putting him on pace for a career-high 44 points this season.

Pouliot rediscovers that simple is in fact better

New York Rangers forward Benoit Pouliot went 18 straight games without a goal, including 14 in a row without a point before coach Alain Vigneault had enough and put him in the press box as a healthy scratch twice in a span of three games from Dec. 7-10.

"Wake-up call, but you've got to find your own way too," Pouliot said. "I needed a little knock on my head to wake up and figure out why I'm not producing."

The answer was simple: Just play simple.

Since getting the proverbial knock on his head Pouliot entered the Rangers' game Tuesday against the New York Islanders with five goals and seven assists in 19 games. Even when he hasn't scored he's been involved in the play and has helped make things happen with linemates Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello. That line has helped give the Rangers balance behind their top two lines (Derek Stepan between Chris Kreider and Rick Nash, and Brad Richards with Carl Hagelin and Ryan Callahan).

Pouliot is using his size (6-3, 197) and going to the net more. He's also using his size to hold on to the puck in the offensive zone to give Brassard and Zuccarello a chance to get open.

"I think in Ben's case, for the last while here he's definitely playing with more confidence, a lot more assertive on the ice in his 1-on-1 battles," Vigneault said. "He's one of our most physical forwards. He finishes checks. He's makes it hard on the [defense]. Because of that, when he has the puck he's able to have it that little extra second to make those skill plays with those two players to make that line effective for us."

Stint as checker at Worlds helping Bjugstad now

Florida Panthers center Nick Bjugstad was used in a checking role for the United States at the 2013 IIHF World Championship. Panthers general manager Dale Tallon thinks that 10-game stint has helped Bjugstad quickly become a better all-round NHL player.

"I see a different player because of it," Tallon said. "He's starting to realize that if he does what he's capable of doing and he trusts himself he can play at this level at a high level. It's a matter of trusting himself and believing in himself."

Bjugstad had 19 points in 43 games, including four points in his previous five games, entering the Panthers' game Tuesday against the Buffalo Sabres. He is averaging close to 16 minutes of ice time per game. Working on his faceoff techniques with assistant coaches John Madden and Brian Skrudland has enabled Bjugstad to bump his winning percentage up to 48.6 after a relatively slow start in the circle.

"He came to rookie camp and dominated and unfortunately got a concussion his last day of rookie camp," Tallon said. "He had a hat trick and got hurt the next day. Our goal was to get him healthy and get him down to San Antonio [of the American Hockey League] to get him some experience. But we played him a few games, about 10-12 minutes, and we didn't have a big-shot right centerman so we kept him and he got better with each game. Now he's starting to believe in himself.

"The guys are telling him to realize how good you are and how good you can be with that size. He's 6-foot-6 so when he gets stronger he is just going to be a dominant force."

On the other hand, a young Florida star is struggling

It's getting hard to ignore the sophomore slump that Panthers left wing Jonathan Huberdeau is going through this season.

Huberdeau had 31 points in 48 games last season to win the Calder Trophy. But entering Tuesday he had 20 points in 47 games this season. Huberdeau snapped a 16-game goal drought in a 5-1 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday, when he played 11:31.


Sabres coach Ted Nolan's philosophy on winning in the NHL and what defines a winner:

"How many people really, truly win in this League? There is only one winner every year. Only one. There are guys that play in this League for 15 to 20 years and don't win. Is winning making the playoffs? I'm not too sure about that. I think winning is winning the Stanley Cup and in order to do that you have to have a certain mindset and a certain culture within that organization. You look at all the winners lately like Boston, Chicago, L.A. You want to have a standard that high."

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock on the possible NHL comeback of former Detroit defenseman Brian Rafalski:

"I don't know what his fitness level is like. I don't know any of those things. I haven't talked to him about that. I saw him in Florida; we talked about kids soccer and kids hockey. We didn't talk about his comeback. I wish him well. Obviously he had some back problems, but if he's in good shape and his back is healthy, [Rafalski] is an elite thinker and an elite skater. He could sure help."

"He's just frustrated," Tallon said. "He's never had any issues, ever. He's always had success and he's always been the guy."

Tallon said Huberdeau's skating has been compromised because of the broken bone in his foot, an injury he sustained last month that forced him to miss two games.

"He broke a bone in his foot and hasn't quite recovered," Tallon said. "He hasn't skated like he did before. He's just getting back to being healthy. He'll work his way out of it. Guys are focusing on him a little more and he's got to work his way out of it, that's all. He will."

This and that

* Blues forward T.J. Oshie is 4-for-6 with two game-deciding goals in the shootout and also has converted his one penalty shot this season. It was the first penalty shot he's taken in his NHL career. He is 22-for-42 with 11 game-deciding goals in the shootout in his six NHL seasons.

Why the success?

"Patience with the puck and he doesn't panic in close by the goal," Hitchcock said. "He's able to wait until the last second to read where the goalie is exposing himself and then he takes advantage of it. He doesn't have a plan. He goes in, reads the goalie, holds onto it until the last possible second and finds a weakness from there."

The Blues are 4-2 in the shootout this season after going 5-1 last season.

* The Tampa Bay Lightning are 6-1-1 in the second half of back-to-backs this season. The Lightning have four more sets of back-to-backs.

* The Chicago Blackhawks' next victory will put coach Joel Quenneville into sole possession of third place on the NHL's all-time coaching wins list. Quenneville is tied with Dick Irvin with 692 wins. Scotty Bowman leads the list with 1,244 wins and Al Arbour is second with 782.

The Blackhawks play the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday at Joe Louis Arena (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2).

"If you ask his players it's that he maintains a level of calmness, a level of consistency," Dallas Stars coach Lindy Ruff said of Quenneville. "There's a level of trust there that has been able to allow him to be successful, have a great relationship and win the Cups he's won the last couple of years."


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