Top Coaching Candidates for the Sabres (And Others)

Ron Rolston was tagged as the interim coach in Buffalo shortly after the firing of Lindy Ruff, however he hasn’t produced much in the way of results just yet, nor does it look like he’s really doing anything to change the team’s culture. He’s just too damn similar to Ruff to be a true long-term solution for the Sabres.

It’s also looking quite possible that Darcy Regier could lose his job as GM if the Sabres don’t turn things around (spoiler: they won’t). Assuming he is fired at the end of the season, a new coach would then be almost a certainty. I’m probably doing this out of order, as I’ll look at GM candidates next week and it’s easier to determine coaching candidates knowing the GM in charge, but whatever, let’s first take a look at the coaches available that could bring real change to Buffalo. All of these guys will probably get long looks from other teams as well once the ax starts falling elsewhere.

Jon Cooper


Cooper doesn’t have any NHL experience, but he’s been quickly working his way up the ladder by turning every team he’s coached into a champion. He started in the NAHL as coach and general manager of the St. Louis Bandits, guiding them to back-to-back championships and a 223-93-17 record over five seasons. From there he went on to join the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers, once again as coach and general manager. He turned a last place team into a first place team in just one season and then followed that up with the league championship the next season.

Leaving the amateur circuit, Cooper took over as coach of the Norfolk Admirals for the 10/11 season. Norfolk had missed the playoffs in three straight seasons, but under Cooper they made the playoffs in his first season in charge. Then, during the 11/12 season, Norfolk put together that impressive 28 game winning streak to finish the season, which I’m sure you’ve all heard about. They finished in first place with a staggering ten wins more than the second place team. The playoffs saw their domination continue as they lost only three games en-route to the league championship. Cooper now coaches the Syracuse Crunch, essentially the same Norfolk team due to an affiliation change for Tampa Bay, who once again currently sit in first place of the AHL.

Cooper is highly intelligent (he was a criminal defense lawyer prior to taking up coaching) and charismatic  having the keen ability to rally the troops, hold their attention, and make them act successfully upon his clear, concise guidelines. He’s also known as a coach who loves a hard-nosed, gritty style of play, which plays in perfectly for what the Sabres have been trying to do of late and failed under Ruff. He’ll be coaching in the NHL very soon, whether with the Sabres or not, but they’d be smart to snatch him up before someone else can.

Lane Lambert


Lambert had a brief NHL career during the 80’s and spent some time in the IHL later in his career before finally taking up coaching in 2002 as an assistant with the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL. He soon became a head coach in the same league, moving to the Prince George Cougars, but he never had much success really at the junior level.

Making the jump to the professional circuit, he started out again as an assistant, first with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and then with the Milwaukee Admirals, eventually taking over as the Admirals head coach when Claude Noel moved up to the NHL. At this point he started to have moderate success, leading Milwaukee to two division titles, but alternating that with two fourth place finishes as well. The team did make the playoffs each season though, but again it was mostly moderate success, advancing now further than the second round in any season.

The 11/12 season saw Lambert make the leap to the NHL as he became assistant coach of the Nashville Predators. He helped coach the Predators to their best season in five years and a convincing first round victory over the Detroit Red Wings in five games. His most noticeable contribution to the team was improving their power play, which became the league’s best PP unit after finishing in the bottom third the previous four seasons.

However, the biggest advantage Lambert has gained since joining the NHL is that he’s been given the opportunity to work with Barry Trotz, arguably the best coach in the NHL at getting the most out of nothing. Trotz’s teams have never been filled with stars, but he’s always managed to get a solid effort out of his personnel and has only missed the playoffs once in the past eight seasons. If Lambert has learned anything during his time in Nashville it’s probably going to help him as an NHL coach someday.

Is that someday now? Maybe. While he doesn’t have championships on his resume like a lot of the other candidates, he does have a decent amount of experience and has already proven to be excellent at organizing a power play in the NHL, something that Buffalo could use a lot of help with as they currently have the league’s worst PP unit. Like Trotz, he’s a tough, passionate, honest player’s coach that doesn’t micromanage, instead relying on thorough communication, broader tactics, and instilling a winning attitude. Ruff clearly lost the room in Buffalo and needlessly micromanaged at times, especially his lines, but at the same time he was very passionate and somewhat of a player’s coach (to specific players at least), so maybe a new approach with a touch of the familiar could work well. If that’s the case, Lambert’s your guy.

Bob Boughner


Since retiring from professional hockey, Boughner has primarily coached the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL. He helped a new ownership team take over the franchise in 2006 and since then has helped the once struggling franchise become a perennial powerhouse in not just the OHL, but the entire CHL. During the 08/09 and 09/10 seasons he guided the team to back-to-back OHL championships and Memorial Cup championships, making them the only OHL team in history to accomplish this feat.

In addition to his OHL coaching experience, Boughner coached the Canadian National Under-18 team at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament in 2009. Team Canada is regularly dominant in this tournament and this was the case once again as the team went undefeated and brought home the gold medal once again. However, not only did they win gold, they embarrassed Russia in the final, clobbering them 9-2.

Boughner also has some NHL coaching experience, having served as assistant coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets during the 10/11 season. Columbus wasn’t particularly good that season, finishing 13th in the Western Conference, but you can’t put much blame on Boughner for that.

Boughner tends to coach an attacking, up-tempo style of hockey that would likely be welcomed by many of Buffalo’s forwards as it’s similar to what Ruff utilized successfully during the 05/06 and 06/07 seasons. More importantly however, “The Boogieman” was known for his fearless style of play while in the NHL, despite his small stature by enforcer standards. He should be able to motivate the numerous small, undersized players the Sabres employ to play beyond their size limitations. Finally, he has a connection to the Sabres, as they were the first team to give him an opportunity in the NHL. It may be tough to get him to leave his cushy gig in the OHL again, but if anyone can do it it’s probably the Sabres.

Dallas Eakins


Eakins had a very long playing career as a gritty, hard-nosed defenseman, spending most of his time in the AHL and IHL, but he did manage to play in the NHL from time to time. He was also well known as being an excellent mentor, especially late in his career with the Chicago Wolves. This is what likely sent him down the path of being a coach and he got his start with the Toronto Marlies as an assistant in 2005.

After one year with the Marlies, he moved up to being the assistant with the Maple Leafs. Then, after two years in the NHL, he returned to the AHL, but this time as the head coach of the Marlies. His first two seasons with the Marlies were average at best, as they missed the playoffs each time, though it’s easy to see why when one looks at the roster. However, his third season proved to be quite successful. Despite the team once again being relatively weak, Eakins lead them to a North Division title and in the playoffs he guided them all the way to the finals, before finally succumbing to the juggernaut Norfolk Admirals. This season the Marlies are once again in first place in the North and looking poised to repeat as division champions.

Eakins doesn’t have as much head coaching experience as many of the other candidates, but is widely believed to be on the cusp of landing an NHL job and was rumored to be the leading candidate for the Maple Leafs until Brian Burke got his way and put Randy Carlyle in charge. Eakins is known as a progressive, tough coach with strong player communication skills. He works very well with young players and gets a lot of credit for the success this year of guys like Nazem Kadri, Matt Frattin, and Ben Scrivens. Buffalo has a ton of young players on the cusp of greatness and maybe Eakins is the guy to get them there.

Patrick Roy


Everyone knows Patrick Roy the player, so I won’t waste any time going over his many accomplishments as a legendary NHL goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens and Colorado Avalanche. Upon retiring from the game, Roy become part-owner, vice president, and GM of the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL. Just five games into the 05/06 season he replaced Eric Lavigne as head coach and brought the team immediate success. During that first season he guided the Remparts all the way to the QMJHL Finals. Despite losing to the Moncton Wildcats in six games, they earned a trip to the Memorial Cup that year due to being the host and surprised everyone by taking home the championship.

Since that time Roy has continually maintained the Remparts as one of the better teams in the QMJHL, having never recorded a losing season during his tenure. However, he has yet to earn the team a league championship, nor another trip to the Memorial Cup. He’s also had to deal with a lot of controversy surrounding his own off-ice antics, such as punching the co-owner of the Chicoutimi Saguenéens, and the on-ice antics of his sons, both of whom played for the Remparts. In 2008, Jonathan Roy was charged with assault after attacking another player during a brawl, an attack that Patrick is rumored to have endorsed, while that same year Frederick Roy received a 15 game suspension for cross-checking an opponent in the head after the whistle.

Obviously Roy has a fiery temper and was a fierce competitor during his playing days, so he’s brought those same attitudes into his coaching style, but would they translate well into the NHL? It’s tough to say. It would have been an easier sell in the days before the high-priced athletes of the current NHL, but now it’s much tougher to get a room of rich guys to listen to your temper tantrums than it is a room of teenagers. Still, Roy has the respect factor due to his illustrious NHL career, so maybe it wouldn’t be too far of a stretch for him to gain the respect of an NHL team.

Finally, strangely enough Roy does have a small connection to the Sabres as they currently have his son Frederick playing in the AHL with the Rochester Americans. The Sabres also employ highly touted prospect Mikhail Grigorenko, whom Roy is a huge fan of and helped groom with the Remparts. Roy have proven his ability to get the most out of young players and may be able to continue his molding of Grigorenko into a star. He’s had NHL coaching opportunities in the past, reportedly turning down a job with Colorado a few years back and being in talks with Montreal recently before they went with take two of Michel Therrien, so it’s only a matter of time before he joins the ranks. If he’s looking for experience outside his comfort zone prior to a position with one of his two playing teams, maybe Buffalo can give him that opportunity.


Honorable Mentions


Newell Brown

Currently the assistant coach in Vancouver, Brown has been coaching since the 80’s, starting with Michigan State as an assistant before joining Michigan Tech as head coach in 1990. Two years later he took over as head coach of the Adirondack Red Wings, Detroit’s farm club at the time, and coached them for four seasons before finally reaching the NHL as an assistant with the Chicago Blackhawks. He’s now spent 16 seasons as an assistant or associate coach with a variety of teams in the NHL and it’s as good a time as any to finally give the guy a real shot.

Mike Haviland

Haviland began his coaching career as an assistant in the ECHL and then a head coach in the same league, guiding his teams to two championships. From there he stepped up to the AHL, where he was head coach of the Norfolk Admirals for two seasons and the Rockford IceHogs for one before joining the Blackhawks as an assistant under Joel Quenneville. He spent four seasons with Chicago, but eventually had a falling out with Quenneville as the two clashed over the direction of the team during the 2012 playoffs. He’s now once again with Norfolk as an associate, but he’s been close to getting an NHL job in the past, such as very recently being the runner-up in Washington’s search that tabbed Adam Oates.

Ted Nolan

Yes, that Ted Nolan. He had a bad falling out with Buffalo back in 1997 after winning coach of the year for helping a terrible Sabres team win their first division title in over 15 years. He doesn’t get along well with others it seems, most noticeably Dominik Hasek and Darcy Regier, but more importantly is the fact that he’s a winner, plain and simple. He’s guided teams to championships in both the OHL and QMJHL, always proving to be more than capable of getting the best out of the worst. When he finally returned to the NHL for the 06/07 season with the New York Islanders, he once again got a terrible team into the playoffs. Nonetheless he was once again soon out of a job as his vision of winning at all costs didn’t gel with the rebuild the Islanders were planning.

Since being fired by the Islanders he’s worked as Vice President of the Rochester Americans and most recently as head coach of the Latvia men’s national team. Due to his intense desire to win and run a team as he sees fit, he may work better in a dual role of coach and GM, a common site during the 90’s but much rarer in today’s NHL. We’ve also seen evidence recently of teams going back to the well and it proving to be successful, such as with the Canadiens and Therrien this season. If the Sabres really want to win now, maybe they should consider putting all the bad blood behind them and give Nolan a shot at finishing what he started many years ago.