By Kevin Oklobzija Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
For Ron Rolston, there was no doubt that this day would come.
There was no way a guy with no NHL coaching experience was going to survive as head coach of the Buffalo Sabres when he didn't even have a bona fide NHL roster to work with.
The team looked the same night after night:
1) Take-or-leave-it play;
2) modest-at-best effort;
3) endless replays of the same mistakes by the same players;
4) an inability to escape from their own zone;
5) and an All-Star goalie who was facing more shots than a duck on the state-fair midway.
Was it all Rolston's fault? Hardly. There isn't enough talent to win on a consistent basis even if Scotty Bowman was coaching.
Even so, owner Terry Pegula couldn't possibly allow the malaise to continue. And he didn't, firing Rolston on Tuesday night following a stars-in-perfect-alignment 3-2 shootout victory over the Los Angeles Kings.
Pegula also said goodbye to general manager Darcy Regier on Tuesday night -- after nearly three years of defending his every move.
Believe it or not, there was also no doubt this day would come for Regier, 16 1/2 years of history aside.
The "Fire Darcy" chants were overbearing at the First Niagara Center. And while the organization is admittedly in full-scale rebuilding, there was a rancid stagnancy to the culture.
Status quo was the mantra, and the image of Sabres from outsiders was that it's a place you don't want to play, regardless of how nice the dressing room looks and how well you're treated by the Pegula family.
Regier did a whole lot of good things as GM. He rarely "lost" a trade and he somehow kept the hockey department afloat through a bankruptcy and a criminal indictment of an owner.
But in recent years, even with permission to spend freely with Pegula's millions, he wasn't landing big-name free agents. Ville Leino was the prized signing. That says it all.
His hiring of Rolston as the interim coach on Feb. 20 after Lindy Ruff was fired wasn't a mistake. Rolston had been with the Amerks, he knew the organization and all the players, and there would be an easy transition.
Making the playoffs were a monumental long shot, so why not see if it could work. The team went 15-11-5 under Rolston. Not bad, but not good, especially considering the number of no-show efforts.
So when Regier didn't bother to do a long-term, league-wide search in the spring and early summer for the permanent coach, the wrong message was sent. Veteran players were told it was OK to be not OK. It was fine to underachieve; fine to settle for more of the same.
So they did. Which is one of the many reasons the Sabres have a 4-15-1 record today.
(An aside: many experts said the Sabres should have pried Dallas Eakins away from the Toronto Maple Leafs; he had demonstrated great coaching ability with the Marlies in the AHL. Eakins instead was hired by the Edmonton Oilers, who have oodles of slick offensive talent yet are just 4-13-2. End that aside.)
That's why change was needed. The rest of the NHL needs to see that there's a new culture, a new driving force, that "status quo" translated doesn't mean Buffalo Sabres.
Pat LaFontaine played for the Sabres and is still very much in tune and in touch with today's players. As president of hockey operations, he will forge a new direction. He'll bring a different vibe and a new energy.
Ted Nolan, the interim coach, is here to change the culture in the dressing room. He demands just one thing: work hard.
Work hard for yourself. For teammates. For the crest on the sweater. For your city. All else will fall into place.
He hasn't coached in the NHL since 2007-08, the second of his two years with the New York Islanders. There was also a 10-year gap between his stint with the Sabres and his stop on Long Island.
Whether Nolan is the long-term solution, I'm not sure. Nor does it matter today. Long-term isn't the concern. It's the short-term rebuild of the image and reputation that is first and foremost today. All else will fall into place.
This much is clear: the Sabres will be a whole lot more entertaining. Nolan said promised that, and he's never been one to go back on his word.
When he served as vice president of hockey operations for the Curt Styres-owned Amerks in 2009-10 and '10-11, there was never a doubt he wanted to coach in the NHL again. Especially in Buffalo. We talked about it more than once, and more than once after Styres sold the Amerks to Pegula and Nolan was once again a free agent.
Make no mistake, the reconstruction project continues. The team is young, and will get younger. The future core and stars have been drafted the past three summers and/or will be drafted in the next two years. But rather than waiting, three or four years for tangible results, the team may actually outpoint a few teams in the standings.
So, yes, this is a big day for Sabres fans. The Twitter hashtag #suffering has been retired.