BUFFALO, N.Y. — A month into the NHL lockout in early October, Rochester coach Ron Rolston was preparing to open the American Hockey League season, eagerly anticipating the opportunity to incorporate several Buffalo Sabres players into his lineup.
Some five months later, Rolston has inherited the entire Sabres team.
Rolston will make his NHL debut as the Sabres’ interim head coach Thursday. That’s when Buffalo plays at Toronto, a day after coach Lindy Ruff was fired amid growing criticism for the Sabres’ (6-10-1) sputtering start.
It was an abrupt move for a franchise that hadn’t changed coaches since Ruff was hired in the summer of 1997. And the decision to fire the franchise’s winningest coach (571-432-162) came after Buffalo’s high-priced lineup blundered through a 2-1 home loss to Winnipeg on Tuesday, drawing boos for its lethargic play.
“I think the last game was quite honestly a tipping point. And it was evident to me that we were searching for answers to too many questions,” general manger Darcy Regier said. “I think we were making some strides, but in the end, for every two steps forward, it was one step back, and sometimes not that.”
The loss was Buffalo’s 10th in 15 games (4-10-1), and it occurred days after Ruff defiantly addressed his critics by saying he wasn’t done trying to “clean up this mess.”
Now, that cleanup job falls to Rolston, the younger brother of former NHL star Brian Rolston.
He’ll have the interim title for the remainder of the season, during which he’ll be judged as a candidate to take over the job full time.
Rolston, who was in his second season coaching Rochester, was scheduled to join Regier on Wednesday in traveling to Toronto for his first meeting with Sabres players.
Some of them he’s already familiar with.
Center Cody Hodgson, forward Marcus Foligno and defenseman T.J. Brennan played for Rochester during the lockout. On Wednesday, the Sabres also called up center Kevin Porter, who was leading the Americans with 44 points (15 goals, 29 assists).
Rolston went 36-26-10-4 last season in leading Rochester to the playoffs. This season, the Americans (27-18-2-1) are second in the North Division and sixth in the Western Conference.
Before Rochester, Rolston spent seven seasons as coach of USA Hockey’s National Team development program. During that time, he became the first coach to lead the U.S. Under-18 team to win three gold medals (2005, 2009, 2011).
“His teams play with structure, discipline. They have a work ethic,” Regier said, of Rolston’s Americans.
Those were traits lacking in the Sabres for much of the past two seasons under Ruff.
Last season, despite owner Terry Pegula committing more than $140 million in salary to add and re-sign players, Buffalo was one of the NHL’s biggest busts in missing the playoffs for the third time in five years. Not much appeared to have changed a month into this season.
The Sabres were sloppy and lacked cohesion. Their power play was anemic, having converted just 8 of 62 opportunities to rank 29th in the NHL. And they were 26th in the league in allowing an average 3.29 goals.
“I think there are a lot of unknowns with our team right now,” Regier said. “We believe in the players, that they can achieve certainly more than where we currently are. Hopefully, it’s a lot more, but time will tell.”
Under Ruff, the Sabres made the playoffs in each of his first four seasons and eight times overall. That included a surprising run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1999, when Buffalo lost to Dallas in six games.
Ruff was the NHL’s longest active-serving coach with one team. Among North America’s four major pro sports, Ruff’s tenure with Buffalo was second only behind Gregg Popovich, who’s been coach of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs since 1996.
In the NHL alone, there had been 170 coaching changes since Ruff was hired on July 21, 1997.
Ruff’s 571 wins rank second in the NHL with one team, trailing only Al Arbour, who had 740 wins with the New York Islanders.
Ruff’s ties to Buffalo go back to his days as a player. Selected in the second round of the 1979 draft by the Sabres, Ruff made the team later that year. In November 1986, he replaced star Gilbert Perreault as the Sabres’ captain.
The decision to fire Ruff came shortly after he oversaw a 90-minute practice. Regier went to Ruff’s home to inform the coach of the decision. He then allowed Ruff to visit with players as they boarded a bus to travel to Toronto.
“I’m disappointed for myself. I’m disappointed for Lindy. And when I see the players, I’m disappointed for them, too.” Regier said. “We should all be disappointed.”