Diversity within the National Hockey League’s head coaching ranks dwindled Sunday evening when the Buffalo Sabres fired bench boss Ted Nolan.
Nolan, who was in his second stint with the Sabres, piloted to team to a dismal 23-51-8 record, the worst record in the league. But many Sabres fans embraced the team’s race to the bottom for a chance at drafting Erie Otters forward Connor McDavid, who’s ranked as hockey’s top prospect by the NHL’s Central Scouting bureau.
The league will hold a ping-pong ball lottery Saturday to determine which of the 14 NHL teams that failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs gets the first pick. The Sabres have a 20 percent of winning it.
Sabres General Manager Tim Murray told reporters Sunday that he felt the team had a better roster than its record indicated.
“I didn’t foresee us being a 30th-place team,” Murray said at a news conference. “Certainly after the trade deadline, trading out guys I had a big part in that, there’s no question and I own that. But up to the trade deadline I was open to keeping guys, I was open to maybe discussing with guys that were coming due, but the place we were in was the place we were in.”
Murray added: “I don’t know if I was disappointed (in Nolan). We decided to go with young guys in a rebuild and surround them with some high-character veterans and we’ve done that. We still finished in 30th-place. There’s been a lot of changes here and that’s on me. I’m not going to question his coaching decisions here in front of you guys. It’s a decision that was made and there’s a big picture to it.”
Nolan, who’s Ojibwe, had a 40-87-17 record with the Sabres since he took over Buffalo’s coaching duties in November 2013. The team’s poor showing over the last few seasons prompted it to trade stars like goaltender Ryan Miller, high-scoring forward Thomas Vanek, and unload bad free agent contracts like forward Ville Leino‘s.
Asked by the Associated Press about his dismissal, Nolan said “I’m just going to reflect on it and come out with a statement in the next couple of days.”
Buffalo is looking to use the 2015 draft to reload – both on-ice and behind the bench. The drive for 2015-16 began in February when the Sabres acquired forward Evander Kane from the Winnipeg Jets in a seven-player trade.
Kane suffered a shoulder injury before the trade and didn’t play a single game for the Sabres. He knows he was brought in to add firepower to a team on the cusp of getting McDavid or Boston University forward Jack Eichel.
“There’s a lot of excitement for the future in Buffalo,” Kane told NHL.com in February. “Just looking at next year, they’re going to get a top pick and that’s exciting. Just to have one of those guys maybe to play with next year, plus the other young players on that team.”
There’s speculation that if the Sabres do land McDavid they’ll take a serious, and expensive, run at Detroit Red Wings Head Coach Mike Babcock, who’s in the final year of his contract in the Motor City.
Babcock, who guided Detroit to the Stanley Cup in 2008, could command several million dollars per season as teams like the deep-pocketed Toronto Maple Leafs, which fired Coach Peter Horachek and General Manager Dave Nonis Sunday, aggressively vie for his services.
Nolan’s firing leaves only one minority head coach in the NHL – Philadelphia Flyers’ Craig Berube, who’s part Cree. But Berube might also be on his way out the door soon because the team – 33-31-18 – failed to make the playoffs. The Flyers only have a 6.5 percent chance of winning the McDavid/Eichel lottery Saturday.