BUFFALO, N.Y. – Ron Rolston has little time to worry that his job title with the Buffalo Sabres is no different than his current place of residence: They’re both temporary.
Having left his wife and two kids behind at home in Rochester, N.Y., the Sabres interim coach has spent the past month living out of a Buffalo hotel room. And the only way Rolston knows how to bring his life stability is by continuing to address the challenge of turning around a high-priced, underachieving team.
“That’s something I can’t control what’s going to happen, whether I’m here or not at the end of the day,” Rolston said Wednesday. “Every job I’ve been at, my sole goal in each of those is make it better than it was before I got there. And that’s all I can do right now.”
So far, so-so.
One full month since Rolston took over after Lindy Ruff was fired Feb. 20, the Sabres are showing inconsistent signs of shedding their inconsistent reputation. In preparing to host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday, the Sabres (11-15-4) are 7-5-3 under Rolston, which is an improvement from Buffalo’s 4-10-1 start under Ruff.
And yet, Rolston will acknowledge, there is still much more room for improvement for a team that continues to have difficulty holding third-period leads; ranks 13th in the Eastern Conference standings; and with 18 games left, is in jeopardy of missing the playoffs for a second straight year.
“It’s getting there in how we play. We’re getting closer,” Rolston said. “But it’s still the consistency of things.”
That was no more evident than at Montreal on Tuesday, when the Sabres squandered a 2-0, third-period lead before pulling out a 3-2 win in overtime.
At least, Rolston noted, the Sabres won.
“The process of changing the habits and the details is going to take time, and right now in those situations, we tend to resort back to what we’re used to,” Rolston explained. “What I do like is that we’re much more resilient as a team. I mean, early, when I first got here, that would’ve crushed us at that point in terms of team psyche.”
The Sabres’ troubles have been numerous.
Their power play is anemic, having converted just 13 of 108 opportunities to rank last in the NHL, while allowing a league-worst five short-handed goals. Buffalo’s allowed a league-worst 40 goals in the second period, and ranks 28th in the NHL in having allowed 95 overall.
The Sabres have squandered two-goal leads five times this season—that’s tied for the second-most behind Montreal, which has done that six times, according to STATS LLC. And they’ve squandered third-period leads seven times this season, losing five of those games, including two in regulation, according to STATS.
“I think confidence might be an issue,” captain Jason Pominville said. “Losing is going to affect your confidence. I think just winning will get it back. Playing better will get it back. And that’s what we’re slowly starting to head toward.”
Rolston had spent the past two seasons coaching the Sabres’ AHL affiliate in Rochester. He previously spent seven seasons coaching USA Hockey’s National Team development program, where he became the first coach to lead the U.S. Under-18 team to win three gold medals.
Though this is Rolston’s first job at the NHL level, he’s credited by the Sabres for his attention to detail and teaching methods.
The challenge for Rolston has been getting his message across during a condensed 48-game season, in which there is little room for extended practices. And the timing of his hiring didn’t help, with Rolston’s first players meeting occurring in a hotel in Toronto, a day before a game against the Maple Leafs.
“Obviously, he wasn’t put in an easy situation coming in,” Pominville said. “It would be interesting to see what he can do throughout a training camp, where he can have three weeks to get us ready.”
Rolston will finish the season in Buffalo, and is a candidate to take over the coaching job on a full-time basis.
General manager Darcy Regier likes what Rolston has done so far.
“He’s a teacher, and the team is making some progress,” Regier said last week. “I like what we’ve seen so far.”
Rolston, who can always return to his former job in Rochester, is taking a one-day-at-a-time approach.
“If you look at the grand picture, you can just get overwhelmed by it,” Rolston said. “I just try to live in the moment, enjoy where I’m at, enjoy the challenge, and just try to make it better.”
So far, so-so.