Thursday, February 21, 2013

"The First Professor" hits the real world

Sabres GM Darcy Regier hired Ron Rolston as head coach of the Rochester Americans in the 2011 off-season. He was immediately dubbed "the first professor at the University of Sabres."

That moniker was pinned on him as the team, under new owner Terry Pegula, began to lay a foundation for the future. Pegula is noted for his open wallet approach to free agency, but he also has put a premium on scouting and player development.

As the "first professor," Rolston was in charge with teaching the fundamentals to the youngsters coming up through the organization. That's what he was noted for as head coach for a very successful US Hockey National Team Development Program.

As the new, albeit interim, head coach he'll be in charge of a Buffalo Sabres Team Development Program. The team is in a mess right now and is in need of structure, especially on the back end.

According to Regier, Rolston's teams "play with structure, discipline, they have a work ethic." And no where will the structure and discipline be more welcome than on defense. delves into Rolston via an interview with Ron's younger brother Brian, a recently retired veteran of over 1200 NHL games.

Here's what Brian had to say:
"[Ron] demands that everybody is prepared; and he wants a north-south game. His attention to detail starts with having to take care of the defensive end first," Brian said. "I was lucky to play nine seasons for a great coach in Jacques Lemaire, and Ron would ask me, 'What does Jacques do here? What does he think about this?'
In Boston, we had a rule: the forwards back-checked the puck and the defence took the middle of the ice away. The goalies knew the shot was coming from the outside. Ron will be like that. He'll set up a defensive system and expect the players to stick with it."
There have been fans bemoaning Lindy Ruff's defensive "system" over the past four or five seasons preferring "the Ferrari" of 2006/07. But, you can't do a damn thing if you don't have the puck, or turn the puck over when you have it. Or have the puck end up in the back of your net because you're constantly out of position or losing your man.

Another area for Rolson to address is the lack of secondary scoring through the underperformance of some players, most notably Drew Stafford and, to an extent, Marcus Foligno. Both made up two-thirds of a potent line, with Tyler Ennis in the middle, that almost jettisoned the Sabres into the playoffs in the 2011/12 season.

Stafford has been downright abysmal, which is a huge step back from being inconsistent for the length of his career in Buffalo. He has the size and skill to be a consistent 20-25 goal scorer, but for some reason his head seems to be somewhere else way too often.

Foligno was developed under Rolston in Rochester for much of the 2011/12 season before being called up.

The big power forward took it to the next level with a vengeance scoring 13 points in 14 games. Foligno was the epitome of north/south--strong to the net, strong in the corners of the offensive zone, strong on the back-check.

Like the team as a whole, Foligno is off to a rather slow start with only one goal thus far. He also seems to have lost those attributes which lead to success in his first pro campaign a year and a half ago.

Other youngsters up-front who will need more attention are Cody Hodgson, Ennis and, maybe most importantly, rookie Mikhail Grigorenko, all of whom are young centers on this team.

Hodgson spent the entire lockout with Rolston over in Rochester. He was a point per game player during that time. He'll probably never be known as a two-way center, but if he continues to score and be the glue that keeps the top line together, then nearly all will be forgiven.

Tyler Ennis was finally moved to the middle by Ruff last year and he responded with a fantastic run. This season he's provided the only consistent secondary scoring on the team with 5 goals and 8 assists through 17 games.

As for Grigorenko, he's just getting his feet wet and is looked upon as a future top-six/top-line center. He has been relegated to the bench for much of the young season in favor of veteran Jochen Hecht on the third line. The mantra from the organization was that he would be developed slowly--playing some, sitting some--much like the Boston Bruins did with Tyler Seguin.

Grigorenko has not been lighting it up, nor has he been a total disaster. Rolston's structure and attention to detail should help the 18 yr. old develop a sound NHL foundation with which to build upon.

It all starts tonight in Toronto against Maple Leaves team that's found new life under new head coach Randy Carlyle. They are presently third in the Northeast Division, sixth in the Eastern conference, have a 10-7-0 record including 4-2-0 vs. the Northeast. Buffalo beat the Leaves in their second game of the season--a game Ryan Miller stole--and gained a point in an OTL eight days later.

Rolston is being thrown into the fire with a mish-mash of styles and skill-levels to work with. And more importantly he'll be guiding a team that lacks a true identity. What he'll be relying upon moving forward is the innate professionalism within each player as he tries to move this underachieving group forward.

Right now there are only two players on this roster who have played up to their level thus far--Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller.

Vanek found new life to his game during the lockout while playing in Austria, his homeland. He leads the league in points (25) and goals (12.)

Miller has been under duress all season, maybe even his entire career in Buffalo, and has acquitted himself well lately. During the past six games he's given up more than two goals once (4, Pittsburgh,) stole a game on Long Island to help end a poor run by the team, and was named 2nd star in a loss to Boston.

The rest will need to fall into place, the defense in front of Miller and the offense behind Vanek.

And it will be up to the "first professor" to bring it all together as he moves from the "university" into the real world of the NHL.

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