When Buffalo Sabres interim coach Ron Rolston meets his new players Thursday, he'll see a familiar face in forward Nathan Gerbe. And when he looks out at the ice from behind the bench at Air Canada Centre on Thursday night, he'll see another familiar face in Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel.
Those are just two of the numerous American players Rolston played a role in developing during his time as a coach with the United States National Team Development Program.
Rolston spent seven seasons as a coach with the USNTDP, alternating years with the program's under-17 and under-18 teams.
"Ron has had a tremendous influence on the continued rise of American players through seven successful years at the NTDP," Jim Johannson, assistant executive director of hockey operations at USA Hockey, said when Rolston left the program in July 2011 to coach the Sabres' American Hockey League team in Rochester. He led the Americans to the Calder Cup Playoffs last spring and has them in the top eight in the Western Conference this season.
General manager Darcy Regier introduced Rolston as an interim coach, but said he'll have a chance at the full-time job.
"I saw his team play in Hamilton the other afternoon," Regier said. "His teams play with structure, discipline. They have a work ethic. He has a good hockey club down there right now and he has them playing real good hockey so I think you’ll see some of those traits.
Rolston certainly has an impressive record at developing talent.
His first season with the USNTDP was 2004-05, and he capped it by guiding the U-18 team to a gold medal at the World Under-18 Championship. The three leading scorers on that team were Kessel, Gerbe and Florida Panthers forward Peter Mueller. In all six players from that U-18 team were picked in the first round of an NHL Draft -- forwards Kessel, Mueller and Jack Skille, and defensemen Jack Johnson, Erik Johnson and Mark Mitera.
The following season he inherited a new group of players, and after a season of grooming them with the U-17 team, he helped them emerge as a championship group at the U-18 level, taking home the gold medal at the 2009 World Under-18 Championship.