Along with the improvement in record and overall play has come a flood of questions to players about why things are different/better.
But are Nolan's motivational tactics really the difference? On the surface, that seems pretty dubious. After all, shouldn't NHL players be able to motivate themselves? When the players say that Nolan has them more jazzed up to play, aren't they suggesting they weren't giving it their all before?
We'll never know how much Nolan's hardest-working-team message has impacted the Sabres' play, but there are things that the statistics suggest about why the team has played better. It shouldn't be a surprise that the stats say circumstance and luck have played just has much of a role as Nolan's tweaks.
Rolston couldn't have landed a tougher schedule if he'd tried. Call it an excuse if you want, but quality of competition plays a huge role in the ups and downs of any team's results.
To grade the opponents' strength, you could use their records, but sometimes records can be deceiving this early in the season. For example, the Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils have had an inordinate amount of shootout losses. Are they not playing well simply because they're losing in the breakaway contest? If they're controlling play more often than not, there's a good chance they'll be good in the long run.
A better measure of how a team has played is their puck possession statistics. The stat of choice is called Corsi Percentage, which measures a team's shot attempts against the opposition's shots. The best teams in the league are Chicago, LA, San Jose, St. Louis and Boston. So, you get the idea. Good teams control play.
Under Rolston, the Sabres only played three of 20 opponents who had a sub-50% Corsi%, which is average. With Nolan as coach, nine of the 19 games have been played against teams with under 50% Corsi% including four games against the league's second worst possession team Toronto.
Rolston quality of opponents: 52.0% Corsi%
Nolan quality of opponents: 46.8%
To understand the context of those numbers, the average opponent for Rolston would have ranked 7th in the NHL in Corsi%. The average team Nolan faced would rank 27th.
The final five teams that Rolston played before he was fired were the Ducks, Sharks, Kings, Ducks, Kings. The Sabres aren't the only teams that got blasted by the top Western Conference teams. Those three clubs are 34-10-7 against the East this year.
Rolston is blue, Nolan is red
Bye-bye young guys
One of the first moves Pat LaFontaine made when he took over has head of hockey operations was to send several of the Sabres' young players out and bring up more experienced players – some NHL vets, some with more minor league experience.
Rookie Rasmus Ristolainen was sent to the AHL, 2013 draft pick Nikita Zadorov was sent back to juniors and 19-year-old Mikhail Grigorenko was allowed to go play in the World Junior Championship.
In their place, we've seen the season debuts of Luke Adam, Brayden McNabb, Matt Ellis, Matt D'Agostini, Linus Omark and Alex Sulzer.
Here's how the young guys vs. the old guys compare in puck possession:
|Player||Corsi For||Corsi Against||Corsi %|
It proved true what LaFontaine and Nolan preached from the beginning: That it was unfair to the prospects to have to face NHL competition so soon. While Ristolainen, Zadorov and Grigorenko have plenty of upside, they weren't ready to face the L.A. Kings. They were getting pummeled night after night.
Thus far, Nolan has received an unsustainable, amazing performance out of his star goalie. During his time with Rolston, Ryan Miller posted a .910 save percentage. With Nolan it's been .943. Seeing as Miller's highest career figure is .929, it's hard to believe Miller will keep up his incredible roll. It's possible that some percentage of the netminder's success has been because of an improved performance out of the team's defense. But Miller has had better defenses in the past and never managed .943 – which would be the highest single season mark ever if it was kept up for the full year.
Miller's incredible play has covered up for an offense that hasn't really improved. In fact, in non-shootout goals, under Rolston the Sabres scored 33 in 20 games. Under Nolan they've scored 31 in 19 games.
Opponents and having more NHL ready players were two things that couldn't be credited to Nolan's coaching savvy. The top line of Matt Moulson, Tyler Ennis and Zemgus Girgensons has turned out to be a genius move by the new coach.
In the last 11 games, Girgensons' possession statistics are superb. He has eight points and a Corsi% of 51.3%. When he's been on the same line as Moulson, he's had a 52.5% Corsi%, which puts their combo amongst the better ones in the league (if it continues, of course). Ennis and Moulson each have six points in the last 10 games. It's been the most successful line of the season.
Ennis at the center position has always made more sense than at the wing. Was it a Rolston decision or a Regier decision to have him at wing? It's hard to say, but it's clearly been part of Ennis' success and the coach deserves credit for that.
Before we pat Nolan on the back for the improved play of Tyler Myers, here's a quick reminder that he was better right off the bat under Rolston.
That said, Myers has been more aggressive and has had a positive effect on the team of late. The 6-foot-8 defenseman has been stepping up in the play, driving toward the net and even working offensively behind the net. The results have shown up in his shots on goal statistic.
In 19 games under Nolan, Myers has 38 shots on goal. During Rolston's time, he only had 24 in 20 games. It's possible that Myers will always just be who he's going to be, which is a defensively inconsistent, offensively freakish, semi-head case defenseman who drives fans nuts at times but is at his best when he's jumping up into the play and creating offense.
The original point about opposition may play a huge role in why Myers' numbers are better, but the bottom line is they are better. In 13 of Rolston's 20 games, Myers posted a negative Relative Corsi – which basically says he was one of their worst possession players - in 13 of 20 games. Under Nolan, he's had a positive Relative Corsi in 13 of 19 games.
How big of an improvement is it? Hard to say in such a small sample, but it's an improvement.
-A favorable schedule has clearly played heavily in Nolan's favor
-The team's offense has not improved at all (33-31 in goals for Rolston, 6-6 in PP goals)
-The team's defense is better in large part because of the demotion of rookies and Ryan Freaking Miller
-The emergence of Zemgus Girgensons and improvement of Tyler Myers have not only made the team more effective, but provided some excitement and optimism for fans
None of this is to say Sabres fans shouldn’t be happy with the direction or the job Nolan has done, simply that sometimes circumstances are just as or more responsible for winning or losing as line combinations and motivational speeches.