February 20 brought a swift end to an era that lasted the better part of two decades in the Buffalo hockey community. The Buffalo Sabres relieved Lindy Ruff of his duties as head coach and named Ron Rolston as his successor.
A great many Sabres fans were up in arms after the Sabres put forth two listless efforts in the immediate aftermath of Ruff’s firing. In fact many were quick to point out that Ruff obviously wasn’t the problem as the same ugly issues – power play, pentalty kill, defensive zone coverage etc. – continued in the first two games of Rolston’s tenure behind the bench.
However, Rolston has managed to start making some noticeable changes with the roster and on-ice results from a team that had sunk to the bottom of the NHL’s Eastern Conference. It was my belief that Rolston would need a short acclimation period to install some of the systems he hoped to run with the team and having two morning skates and one practice day between the eventual losses to Toronto and the Islanders simply wasn’t enough.
The Florida road trip was the set of games that I felt would be the first to reflect Rolston’s impact and the two victories did just that.
While many defensive zone woes persisted, Buffalo’s special teams (really just the penalty kill) were improved and the team did something totally shocking, they won both games.
On the strength of two impressive outings from Ryan Miller, the Sabres pieced together a pair of wins in the Sunshine State. For me, the most noticeable change came on the penalty kill. After a number of games in which Buffalo’s penalty kill unit was particularly ineffective, Rolston’s changes appeared to simplify a number of things within the system.
Under Ruff, the Sabres ran a rotation that looked more like a triangle-plus-one as opposed to a traditional box. The system saw the puck-side forward continue to pressure the puck as it was moved across the zone (think of it as passing across an umbrella power play) rather than passing off the pressure to the other forward.
Meanwhile, the other forward would sink into the alternate passing lane to prevent a cross-zone return pass for a one-timer. However, this rotation wasn’t just faulty, it was downright us
eless at times. Perhaps the best example came against Toronto on February 21 when Dion Phaneuf was given a wide-open look on a one-timer goal on a Leafs power play.
Rolston appears to have the team running a more traditional box set up that keeps the puck-side pressure to whichever forward is on that side of the ice. It is causing far less chasing a preventing many chances.
It also appears that Rolston’s line shuffling has managed to keep the ever potent Hodgson/Vanek/Pominville trio together while also finding some magic with Ennis/Gerbe/Ott as a “second line”.
Rolston’s bread and butter has been player development. The reason he was so successful with the USNTDP was because of his ability to connect wit
h young players. This is also what made him such an attractive option to coach in Rochester last season. What I’m hopeful for is that skillset to translate with players like Tyler Myers, Marcus Foligno, Tyler Ennis and Mikhail Grigorenko. If Rolston is able to speed Grigorenko’s development and aid in Myers finding confidence (which appears to be slowly returning); he may have a marked impact on the team as the interim bench boss.
Buffalo’s shootout loss to the Rangers on Sunday marked the fourth-straight game in which they registered a point. The seven out of eight stretch has helped the team remaining within a sniff of the playoffs. That may discourage those fans hoping to see ownership clean house and strip the roster. But perhaps Rolston’s arrival will prove to show the Sabres are a little closer to average than the basement after all.
Now the organization just needs to make the necessary moves to bring the team to the elite level Terry Pegula has hoped to see them at all along.