30 in 30: Sabres need Rolston to accelerate rebuild
/ Buffalo Sabres
It's a rebuilding year for the Buffalo Sabres now that the club has changed direction.
The gap between Buffalo and the competition, which widened in 2012-13, resulted in general manager Darcy Regier releasing two organizational pillars last season. Coach Lindy Ruff, who spent much of his 30-year career as a player and coach in Buffalo, was the first victim when he was fired Feb. 20 after a 6-10-1 start.
Captain Jason Pominville was next; the career Sabres forward was traded to the Minnesota Wild for prospects and draft picks at the NHL deadline. Defensemen Jordan Leopold (St. Louis Blues) and Robyn Regehr (Los Angeles Kings) also were traded for picks.
By April 4, Buffalo owned the youngest roster in the League and is only getting younger, with 20 players selected in the past two drafts. Who better to lead a young, inexperienced team than a young coach.
After dropping Ruff, the Sabres promoted Ron Rolston from the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League on an interim basis. In 31 games, his first in the NHL in any capacity, Rolston finished with a 15-11-5 record. The improvement in record and chemistry earned Rolston the permanent job May 7.
"When we first brought Ron in as the interim coach, that was the intention, to interview other candidates," Regier told reporters. "As it progressed, and seeing Ron's interaction with the team, both as a teacher and a motivator ... for me personally, it became more and more evident that he was a very good fit not only for the present but for the future."
In one of Rolston's first offseason moves, he added Joe Sacco as an assistant. Sacco brings a long NHL resume as a player and coach to the staff. Sacco coached the Colorado Avalanche from 2009 through last season.
"For me it's a great fit to have somebody with that experience, not only as a coach but playing in the League," Rolston said. "Being in the Western Conference, being a head coach and having the success he had, especially as a Coach of the Year candidate, him coming in was a major bonus for us moving forward in the future."
Rolston may be an NHL newcomer but his prospect-development chops extend over two decades at the NCAA, U.S. National Team Development Program and AHL levels. Rolston said he feels this experience will help him take a young team to the next level.
"I think the fact that we did make some changes, it works into some of my strengths, in working with younger players," Rolston said. "I think at the trade deadline there, we became one of the youngest, if not the youngest team in the League. It helps to have that kind of mindset, somebody in there that is kind of used to that more developmental situation."
With many of Buffalo's starters maturing, and a bevy of prospects beating down the door, Rolston will have his work cut out. The coach will use training camp as a competition, with players fighting for spots on a team that finished in the League basement in almost every major statistical category.
"Coming into camp is going to have some meaning to it in terms of jobs and positions for guys, especially with some of these younger players who have the potential to be in our lineup and are real hungry to come into camp and compete for those jobs," Rolston told NHL.com. "I think that'll be a real positive for our team overall, that that competition is going to be there from the start. It's just going to make us a better team when guys play for their positions on the team."
Though many of the prospects -- Zemgus Girgensons, Mark Pysyk, Brayden McNabb, Joel Armia, Matt Hackett -- may be relatively unknown, one most will know is Mikhail Grigorenko. The Russian played 25 games for Buffalo as an 18-year-old last season, scoring a goal and four assists skating mostly as a third- or fourth-line center.
"I think he certainly had some growing pains at this level and I think he's still learning a lot about being consistent every day, and even shift to shift, in this League and how hard that is even with his skill level," Rolston said. "We have a lot of faith in Mikhail in terms of what he can bring to this team offensively, but again, we're in a situation here where people are going to have to earn what they get."
For all the change wrought by the organization -- a new coaching staff, a pool of NHL-ready prospects, an injection of youth -- the team that will take the ice Oct. 2 against the Detroit Red Wings is not unrecognizable.
Goalie Ryan Miller and forward Thomas Vanek, for example, are two veteran stars who survived the purge, but the emergence of younger players is further proof no job is safe in Buffalo.
Miller struggled last season, posting the poorest stat line of his career and occasionally allowing his frustrations to spill over. Trade rumors swirled at the deadline and this summer, but it looks like Miller will be the starter opening night. Should his play continue to falter, backup Jhonas Enroth, who finished strong in 2012-13 then won gold with Sweden at the World Championship, would jump at the No. 1 job.
Vanek scored 20 goals in 2012-13, the eighth straight season the Austrian wing scored at least 20, but faded for stretches. As he enters the final year of his contract, Buffalo is hopeful forwards Drew Stafford and Ville Leino, who each struggled last season, along with wing prospects Armia and Johan Larsson, can develop into viable alternatives.
Rolston said Vanek's production -- he accounted for more than a sixth of the Sabres' 118 goals and nearly half of the power-play scores -- was aided by the continued emergence of center Cody Hodgson. At 23, Hodgson scored 15 goals in 2012-13 and had 19 assists skating on the top line with Vanek.
"He's got really good vision, moves the puck well, complements players; whoever he's playing with he makes them better players," Rolston said of Hodgson, who remains a restricted free agent. "As good a goal-scorer as Thomas is, I'm certain he benefited from that kind of center who could find him and make the plays. He's certainly someone who's going to be a big part of our future."
As the overhauled Sabres enter their first full season, that future remains uncertain, but the plan is fully in motion.