Sabres buying in to Nolan's system
Accountability, communication key components in coach's second stint in Buffalo
His first thought was that he misunderstood his mom. Brandon Nolan was driving home from Niagara Falls with his wife in November when he got a phone call with news he didn't see coming.
The Buffalo Sabres had cleaned house. Longtime GM Darcy Regier was gone, coach Ron Rolston was out and former Sabre Pat LaFontaine was now in charge. And the news that surprised Brandon most was about his father: Ted Nolan was now the interim coach of the Sabres.
Sandra Nolan, Ted's wife, broke the news to Brandon.
"I thought she said he was going to Buffalo to be an assistant coach," Brandon Nolan said. "It was like two or three seconds later, and I said, 'Whoa. What did you say?'"
That was pretty much the reaction around hockey.
"I was just floored, I couldn't believe it. It came right out of the blue," Brandon said. "It was awesome."
A contract extension between the Sabres and Nolan was announced last week -- three more years behind the bench -- and the reaction was exactly the opposite. It was hardly noticed, because it was the expected next step.
It's a complete testament to the job he's done in Buffalo that a hire so stunning just a few months ago feels completely natural now, a no-brainer as GM Tim Murray called it. Even if, following LaFontaine's resignation, the man who brought Nolan back to Buffalo is no longer around.
To understand why it's a no-brainer you must first ignore Buffalo's league-worst 21-49-9 record. Right now, it's completely irrelevant.
"Don't look at the record. You look at individuals," said former Sabre Rob Ray, who is around the team all the time now as a broadcaster. "You look at [Tyler] Ennis, [Drew] Stafford, [Tyler] Myers, all these guys who have improved tenfold since [Nolan] got here. Guys that are going to be cornerstones to our organization, how they've improved. He has a way of just making them relaxed, feel comfortable."
It's about an hour before the puck is to be dropped for a game last week in Detroit and Nolan has every excuse not to be relaxed or comfortable. The previous day in St. Louis, the Sabres were awakened by a 5:30 a.m. tornado warning that required the team to head to the basement of their hotel and take shelter. Following the game, the team's flight was delayed, which meant an arrival well into the early morning in Detroit.
A nearly 24-hour span without any good sleep. In the middle of it all, there was Nolan. Calm, excited for another game. Definitely not complaining about any inconveniences that might accompany leading an NHL team, an attitude that comes with years of perspective.
"Yeah, sitting on a first-class plane on a runway is not that tough," he told ESPN The Magazine. "It's not so hard."
The overall job he's embarking on is difficult. But what made the travel misery bearable is that between the alarms and weather delays his team turned in a performance that indicated to him it is truly understanding the culture he's trying to build in Buffalo.
It was a 2-1 loss to a Blues team fighting for the league's best record. In that game, Nolan saw young players taking leadership roles. He saw a compete level from some of his cornerstone players that he hadn't seen yet. At one point before the third period, center Cody Hodgson turned to him and said, "I'm going to score tonight."
Hodgson did. It wasn't enough, and it might not be for a while as Murray slowly adds young talent to what Nolan is creating. But the realization that young players are getting it was a breakthrough.
"Those young guys are really starting to catch on. That's how you change," Nolan said. "Those are going to be the leaders of this team. You see change in how they're competing, how they're communicating with one another in the locker room."
When Nolan arrived, he eased up on the video. He wasn't focused on the X's and O's. He told the players to just go out and play. When turmoil hit the front office with LaFontaine's resignation, Nolan reminded them not to pay any attention to it. He was the team's calming presence as players came and went, as the management situation settled.
Then he slowly started laying the foundation of the system he wants to see, the culture he wants to build.
"He's trying to establish accountability, hard work and really as a group work for each other," said forward John Scott. "We don't have a superstar team. We don't have a star goalie, star forwards. We have to bear down and everyone has to pull their own."
In scouting the Sabres the previous two games before facing his Red Wings, Detroit coach Mike Babcock saw signs of what Nolan is trying to instill.
"They were organized. I thought they competed hard. I thought they got good goaltending," Babcock said. "I thought all their players tried. The other thing [Nolan] does during games, if you're not playing good, the lines change during the game because guys aren't playing as good as he wants. To me, that's just accountability."
Right now, the record doesn't matter, although it won't always be that way in Buffalo. Nolan has spent this season cultivating a trust with his players. He's a coach who subscribes to the theory that players don't care how much you know; they care how much you care. If he doesn't now, he'll soon know the names of players' wives, girlfriends, kids, hometowns -- not as a way of manipulating the guys, but because he genuinely cares about them.
That goes a long way toward convincing them to put in the extra effort he's about to ask of them this offseason, expecting the Sabres to return next year as one of the league's best-conditioned teams. He's always been that way. Where his communication has improved from his last stint in the NHL (he previously coached the Sabres from 1995-97 and the Islanders from 2006-08) is in articulating his exact expectations.
That comes from coaching in Europe, where Nolan led Latvia's men's national team. With Latvia, he would use a word like "compete," and players wouldn't know what he meant. He would use a word like "hustle," and they wouldn't know what he meant. Rather than rely on coaching buzzwords, he was forced to explain what it looks like on the ice to truly compete.
In the process, he also learned how to better coach European players, an invaluable skill this time around in the NHL.
"I've never had trouble communicating with people, but it's really brought it to the next level," Nolan said. "We have different cultures; you don't treat everybody the same. Life teaches you a lot."
The end result in Buffalo remains to be seen, but with Latvia it meant Nolan's team almost pulled off one of the biggest upsets in hockey history during the Sochi Olympics.
As he instilled in his Latvian players the culture he wanted to establish, he also filled them with confidence. His message was constant.
"Just play with your heart," Latvian goalie Kristers Gudlevskis told ESPN The Magazine. "[As] hard [as] you can. He wanted [us] to believe [in] ourselves. We can do miracles."
On the day Latvia faced Canada, Nolan continued to fill his young goalie with the confidence and expectation that he had what it took to beat Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Carey Price on the other end.
"He was calm and confident. He would just say, 'We don't [need] to figure out nothing new,'" Gudlevskis said. "He told me, 'We are the same people. This is a great opportunity for us to make a miracle. They're probably the strongest team in the world right now. You can play every day against the best team in the world.'"
Gudlevskis and Latvia believed it and nearly pulled off the upset, losing 2-1 to the eventual gold-medal winners.
If Buffalo's rebuild goes according to plan, Nolan eventually won't be entering games the huge underdog anymore. That's when we'll know.
When those stockpiled first-round picks become actual players Nolan can mold, that's when we find out just how effective he is as an NHL coach this time around.