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Can Ted Nolan get the most out of Sabres' future skill players?

Reputation is a darn powerful thing. In hockey, you don't have to look far to find evidence. The Devils continued to play Martin Brodeur last season despite him being one of the worst statistical goalies. Commentators said Marian Gaborik didn't care about winning – until he did.
Ted Nolan has a reputation for favoring grinders. It came from his first stint with the Sabres, a team that was dubbed the “hardest working team in hockey.” They were a ragtag group that scrapped and battled their way to being a mediocre team in Nolan's first season, then to a playoff win in Year 2. Of course, most reputations have some truth and plenty of fallacy.

Nolan's clubs has the best goalie in the history of the NHL. That helps when it comes to overachieving. But that's not really the crux of the point. The implied part of Nolan being known for coaching a group of grinders is that he favors grinders. That he would rather play a hard-nosed, no-skill, clubs-for-hands fighter than a highly skilled scorer.

With the rebuild in full swing and the draft upon us, it makes you wonder: Will he be able to get the most out of Sam Reinhart/Sam Bennett/Leon Draisaitl/Connor McDavid/Jack Eichel/Mikhail Grigorenko/Joel Armia/whoever the heck else could come along that has a pair of hands.

Here's the “some truth” part: Nolan does like hard working players – and it's pretty clear he will bench a skill player for a hard worker to send a message. But the fallacy is that he will not be able to get the most out of said skill guys.

During his first season as coach of the Sabres in 1995-96, a former No. 3 overall pick Pat LaFontaine scored 91 points in 76 games. He did so playing with a garbage pal and pylon on the wings.

Sure, LaFontaine was a veteran, but that club also had productive young'ins. Michael Peca, at age 21, scored 31 points. Jason Dawe, 22, had 25 goals and 25 assists. Brad May, 23, had 44 points. Derek Plante, 24, posted 56 points.

The next season, Nolan made the playoffs with 23-year-old Brian Holzinger scoring 51 points and Peca and Dawe playing major roles.
Of course, that was the mid-90s. He has changed a thing or two about his style, even saying recently that he wouldn't mind seeing fighting out of the NHL. That's a far cry from his drop-the-mits teams.  He has probably learned a thing or two since then.

So what can we draw from to figure out whether Nolan will be able to get the most out of the next wave of skill players?

Well, we have a chart. and Hockey Prospectus writer Rob Vollman invented the "Player Usage Chart."

Here is how the Sabres used their players last season. About one-fourth of the season was under Ron Rolston, but the numbers are mostly influenced by Nolan.

Focus on the young players – say, the under 24’s.

- The Sabres’ head coach used Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno against the toughest competition. Ennis was trusted by his coach played well. The blue bubble represents a positive puck possession player.

- Zemgus Girgensons, a rookie, was used against average competition and largely in a two-way role. Nolan did not protect his young center and, like Ennis, he came out as one of the Sabres’ positive possession forwards. Girgensons also showed a great deal of growth during the year.

- Cody Hodgson’s role is questionable. He should have been utilized in the offensive zone and against weaker competition considering his defensive struggles. However, it says that Nolan gave him a chance to play the tough minutes. Hodgson was not treated with kid gloves.

- Tyler Myers faced fairly tough competition and was used in more defensive zone starts, showing he was trusted by Nolan to play big minutes. Could it have been a case of not having anyone else? Maybe. But could have put someone like Mike Weber or Henrik Tallinder on the ice for those difficult minutes. Instead he went with his young player. Will he do that when the team really has a chance to win? That is hard to know. 

Now, take a look at the “grinders.” 

- John Scott was kept away from tough competition…big time

- Matt Ellis was used in a defensive role, as he should be. He was not taking offensive minutes away from younger, more talented players.

- Veterans Mike Weber and Jamie McBain were used in similar roles to Mark Pysyk. You could nitpick at that because of the poor performances of the two vets, but the point is that he did not shy away from putting Pysyk in a spot he also used experienced players in.

How about Time on Ice? Did Nolan play the vets more?

By Even Strength Ice time per 60 minutes:

Christian Ehrhoff  - 23.6
Tyler Myers – 21.6
Jamie McBain – 19.9
Mark Pysyk – 19.1
Rasmus Ristolainen – 18.9
Henrik Tallinder – 18.7
Chad Ruhwedel – 17.8
Mike Weber – 17.6

Outside of Ehrhoff, the young players received pretty much the same opportunities as everyone else.

Steve Ott – 19.4
Tyler Ennis – 18.6
Drew Stafford – 18.4
Cody Hodgson – 17.9
Matt D’Agostini – 15.2
Zemgus Girgensons – 15.0
Marcus Foligno – 14.8
Brian Flynn – 14.2
Matt Ellis – 9.2
Zenon Kenopka – 8.7
Cody McCormick – 8.4

Ott is a fairly skilled player and a grinder, but Ennis, Stafford, Hodgson, D’Agostini (sort of), Girgensons are all more skilled than fourth-liners and they received the most ice time.

The Sabres may not choose to have certain young players in Buffalo. They might send draft picks back to juniors or prospects to the Rochester Americans. But it is quite clear that if Nolan is given young players, he will not hold them back. He may be tough on them, but he will get them in the game.