Eddie Olczyk will be behind the bench Thursday to guide the aptly-named Team Olczyk in the third annual CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game at First Niagara Center. But it’s his only stint as an NHL head coach that gives the popular NBC Sports Network analyst a unique perspective on the current state of the Buffalo Sabres.
Olczyk, who scored 794 career points in 1031 games during six NHL stops, spent parts of two seasons coaching the Pittsburgh Penguins from 2003-2005, posting a 31-64-18 record in 113 games. That was the tail end of a three-year run that saw Pittsburgh plummet from 69 points in 2001-02 (23-47-12), to last place in the NHL in 2003-04 with 59 points. Pittsburgh never scored more than 200 goals in any of those three seasons, on their way to three straight trips to the Atlantic Division basement.
There are no quick fixes in this league. It’s proven. You’ve got to build through the draft. - Ed Olczyk
Despite the presence of a highly-touted rookie named Sidney Crosby, Olczyk was fired on December 15, 2005 after the Pens got off to an 8-17-6 start.
“We were in a very similar situation (in Pittsburgh) where we pretty much hit rock bottom," explained Olczyk following Thursday’s morning skate in Buffalo. "We told our fanbase ‘we have a plan, we need your trust, we need your patience. This is what we’re trying to do and we’re in a five-year plan.' Unfortunately for me I wasn’t part of the five-year plan, but that’s the reality of it.
"There are no quick fixes in this league. It’s proven. You’ve got to build through the draft, and you’ve got to have the trust factor of people that are making the decisions, from managers to most importantly, talent evaluators.” LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW
After sputtering their way to 56 points in 2005-06, the Penguins would go on to consecutive 100-point seasons in 2006-08, followed by a Stanley Cup in 2009. Of course, that championship team was led by a trio of number one picks named Marc-Andre Fleury (2003), Evgeni Malkin (2004) and Crosby (2005).
Building a team through the draft takes time, but Olczyk, who was drafted third overall by Chicago in 1984, believes it’s a necessary evil in rebuilding a franchise.
“I know the Sabres have stockpiled draft picks, including three in the first round (in 2015). You have to do it. When you go that way, the next step to me most importantly is bringing in the right leadership. You can have leadership; you can develop it here at the time.
"But for me it has to be the right kind of leadership, it can’t be the self-serving, agenda-type of leadership when you have such a young team. You’re going to go through times, and it’s not easy. But it’s a way of preparing and understanding. ‘Look, it’s going to be tough, but we’re going to be a competitive team and we’re going to work.’
"I know the kind of coach Ted (Nolan) is. It’s not going to be easy, but the plan is not necessarily tomorrow or five months from now. It’s about what happens in a couple of years.”
Growing a program is something Olczyk is also familiar with at the college level, as his son Tommy is entering his senior season as Penn State’s team captain. The Nittany Lions are preparing to start their third year at the D-I level thanks to a $102-million commitment from Sabres owner Terry Pegula that also resulted in the construction of a state-of-the-art, on-campus arena.
“I know Mr. Pegula fairly well. Being a part of that program and seeing what he’s done there, obviously the impact he’s had in the game of hockey at the collegiate level. He wants to win, and he’s going to do whatever it is. When you have ownership that cares about the people that are representing him, the city and the organization, that sends messages throughout the league.”
Olczyk says it’s more than just wins and losses that reverberate throughout the league. The NHL fraternity is tight, and comments made within it can go a long way to accelerating a rebuild.
“People sometimes lose sight of this or don’t talk about it enough, but what you are doing is not just being observed by your fans or people within your community. There are other people that are watching to see how it goes. Players talk, coaches talk and trainers talk. They know what’s going on here, and people want to be part of a first-class organization that’s trying to do it right.
“Yeah, it’s tough right now; it’s been tough for the last couple of years. But that’s an important part of selling, and I lived it in Pittsburgh in a similar situation. You do need that stud or two to come down the pipe – Fleury, Malkin, Crosby. We had to hit rock bottom in order to get those guys.
"It’s been pretty successful and I don’t think it’s going to be any different here. But you’ve got to have patience though, and it’s hard sometimes as a fanbase to hear that. I think they’re certainly on the right path and understand what they’re trying to do.”