The first practice Ted Nolan ran with the Buffalo Sabres was up-tempo and designed to set the tone for how he wants the team to start playing.
The new interim head coach jumped right in and opened practice with battle drills in all four corners of the ice. Nolan opted to let the assistant coaches run practice on Wednesday and he took time in his first day on the job to talk to the players and learn more about them as people. During practice on Thursday, he took charge and directed all of the drills.
“Today was the first day that I really took over practice and that’s the message we want to get to the team: We gotta up our compete level a little bit and it started here today in practice,” Nolan said after practice at First Niagara Center.
Rookie Zemgus Girgensons said that the on-ice workout may have been the team’s best of the season.
“You can look at all the faces in practice, I think this was the best practice we’ve had, probably the most goals we’ve scored in practice,” he said. “I think it was a great effort by all of the guys. It’s just something new. Everyone has new excitement. Everyone has to prove themselves again from the start, every player. I think it’s just a brand new start for us.”
That idea of a fresh start was echoed by Nolan. He thought the first practice “went OK” and that there is still a lot of work to do moving forward.
“What happened yesterday is done. It’s over with. What happened in their first 20 games of the season is done. It’s over with. We’re turning a new page. We’re starting a new chapter,” Nolan said. “I talked to some of the players. Every stat they have is out the door. Forget about it. Tomorrow night against the Leafs, we start anew and we’re going to compete. ”
Girgensons played for Nolan on Team Latvia during the 2013 IIHF World Championships in May. For about two weeks, he learned about Nolan’s style and what he expects from his players first-hand. A similar message has been conveyed in Nolan’s two days with the Sabres.
“He wants simple hockey but you have to play hard. He wants all the guys going 100 percent,” Girgensons said. “If you’re not going to do that, most likely you’re not even going to be out there. He wants the guys to compete and I think that’s what we need in this team right now.”
Girgensons practiced at center for the first time this season. He started playing the wing last year with the Rochester Americans of the American Hockey League after playing in the middle for much of his career. He skated on a line with Steve Ott and Tyler Ennis on Thursday.
Nolan told the media after practice that Girgensons will play center on Friday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Girgensons understands that he is being offered a great opportunity.
“I just need to seize the moment. I can’t let it slip,” he said.
Nolan talked about how when he was coaching junior hockey, it was difficult to have 17 year olds to go up against more mature 19-year-old players. With a team featuring seven rookies – four of them teenagers – decisions will have to be made as to whether it’s best for some of these young players on the Sabres to continue developing in the NHL or down a level in either juniors or the American Hockey League.
He said he will be careful when it comes to the types of situations he puts the younger players like Girgensons in.
“We don’t want to put a kid in a position of failure. You want to make sure he’s in a position that he’s going to feel good about himself,” Nolan said. “You can’t put him on against big-time guys too soon because if you get burnt, it hurts your confidence a little bit. We’re going to work with these guys on a daily basis and put them in where we feel that they’ll have some success.”
Nolan hasn’t coached in the NHL since 2008 and was asked if the attitudes of the players are any different now, especially compared to when he was last behind the Sabres bench back in 1997.
“When we were growing up too, we would always say we didn’t have it as hard as our parents and they probable said we changed,” he said. “And rock-and-roll music came and that was different, so now they have this hip-hop stuff going on and you’ve got the internet going on and all that stuff. So everything does change, but I think the core beliefs in what you want to do as a family man, as an organization, that has not changed.
“Successful companies are successful because they do certain things that others don’t want to do and the same thing with hockey teams. They do things that the other teams don’t want to do. But the big line is finding the right people that want to do it.”
A large media contingent swarmed around Sabres forward John Scott after practice. Nolan said on Wednesday that Scott would be in the lineup Friday night against the Maple Leafs.
It’s the first game between the two clubs since a line brawl broke out in their preseason matchup on Sept. 22. Scott and Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel were in the middle of it.
“I think it’s being blown out of proportion, this game. Something happened in the preseason and I don’t think much is going to happen from it,” Scott said. “…[Nolan] said he wants me to play my game, go out there and hit, actually not be too concerned with the fighting and all that stuff. He wants me to be a hockey player and be responsible and physical and go from there.”
Mike Weber remains on injured reserve with a thumb injury he sustained on Oct. 25 in Florida. He’s been anxious to get back and has been practicing with the team all week, but has yet to be medically cleared for game action.
He said that if he is not cleared to play this weekend, he thinks he’ll certainly be ready to go by Tuesday when the Sabres host St. Louis.
“I’ve been ready to come back, so right now just waiting on a doctor,” he said. “It feels great so I understand I have some hardware in there that has to settle some more into the bone, but I feel great, it feels good. I’m ready to rejoin the boys here. Especially right now, it’s an exciting time.”
26 Matt Moulson – 19 Cody Hodgson – 21 Drew Stafford / 22 Johan Larsson
9 Steve Ott – 28 Zemgus Girgensons – 63 Tyler Ennis / 25 Mikhail Grigorenko
23 Ville Leino – 82 Marcus Foligno – 65 Brian Flynn
32 John Scott – 8 Cody McCormick – 78 Corey Tropp
10 Christian Ehrhoff – 3 Mark Pysyk
20 Henrik Tallinder – 57 Tyler Myers
6 Mike Weber – 55 Rasmus Ristolainen
61 Nikita Zadorov – 4 Jamie McBain
30 Ryan Miller
1 Jhonas Enroth