The differences couldn’t be more stark. New Buffalo Sabres coach Dan Bylsma has a very different method than what the players and fans have been used to seeing for the last couple of seasons. Previous coach Ted Nolan was oft-criticized for his draconian and outdated approach to the game. Of course, the talent level on the ice has improved vastly, but even among the players who have been here a couple of seasons, the changes are quite visible.
Nolan was renowned for his process relying on players working hard on the ice. He was all about the effort on the ice, and very little about the actual X’s and O’s. As important as a good work ethic is in the professional game, that antiquated mechanism will only go so far in the modern game, and Nolan got found out. ‘Analytics’ was almost a taboo word for the disciplinarian as he sought to use his famed ‘eye-test’ when judging how well a player was playing.
It was not so long ago that +/- was the governing statistic, and Corsi number was considered way out there. Nowadays, the acronyms are a Scrabble minefield with terms like TMFF20 and DZFO% being bandied about widely. In this world, coaches like Nolan cannot exist at the senior level anymore.
Bylsma on the other hand, is always teaching. Any time he is on the ice, he can be seen talking to the players. A mostly mild-mannered man, he is not known to gesticulate wildly but does get his point across nevertheless.
It's a classic difference between Nolan teaching players to work hard, and Bylsma teaching players to work smart.
Take the example of fan favorite Zemgus Girgensons. Under Nolan, we were made to believe that the Latvian wouldn’t be more than a third line center, full of grit and verve but little else on the skill front. But watching the player now as he absorbs from Bylsma, it is clear to see that the player might well break into the top six forwards one way or the other.
In an interview with Paul Hamilton of WGR 550, this is what Girgensons had to say –
"Yes definitely, I think as a team and individually I think everyone’s improving. Talking about myself I think the last four games were the best ones I’ve had."
Bylsma himself has commented in the same interview that it was quite visible that it was the first time some of the younger players were hearing what he has been teaching.
"I think in some instances maybe it’s the first time a players been given a lot of information, I am mindful of that.
"It’s evident, I can see it, I can see it from September 18 through the first three weeks of training camp, I can see it in some player’s eyes they’re like, ‘I didn’t know’, they weren’t aware of it, so I know that."
Both player and coach also commented that the information overload was getting to his players originally, but now as they are growing into the system it’s becoming second nature.
Girgensons is constantly getting coached by Bylsma during practices -
"Yes definitely, there was a lot of new things for the mind to catch and I think guys starting thinking too much about all the systems and everything and now it’s all way down in the mind and it just happens on a regular basis, you don’t really think, you play."
Bylsma was not surprised -
"I could maybe pick up on five or six examples where we saw that happening in players early on, but I always say, ‘you were thinking before, now you’re just aware of it’.
"I think they’re more than capable and they’re showing it. They’re more than capable of digesting it and doing it and bringing it to their game."
Buffalo have won three out of their last four, but they haven’t looked out of place in most of the other games either. There will still be games where this young team gets blown off the ice, but with a young core getting taught the game the right way by Bylsma, the outlook is indeed very positive.