BUFFALO, N.Y. — The “Fire Darcy!” chants in Buffalo finally resonated with Sabres owner Terry Pegula.
Acknowledging fans’ discontent directed at the architect of the Sabres’ slow-moving rebuilding plans, Pegula fired general manager Darcy Regier and rookie coach Ron Rolston on Wednesday.
Pegula then leaned on two familiar faces of the Sabres’ past to begin turning around a team that’s off to its worst start in franchise history.
Former captain Pat LaFontaine takes over in the newly created role of president of hockey operations. It’s a job in which he’ll be responsible for hiring Regier’s successor.
And LaFontaine’s first move was hiring Ted Nolan to take over as coach for the rest of the season. Nolan returns to Buffalo, where he began his NHL coaching career in 1995. He spent two seasons in Buffalo before leaving the team in a contract squabble after being named the league’s coach of the year.
“So why now? I just decided, and that’s the only answer I can give you,” Pegula said. “Sometimes you get to the point where a change is needed.”
The shake-up comes with Buffalo (4-15-1) stuck at the bottom of the NHL standings. The 15 losses are the most by the team through 20 games of the season. And it came a day after Buffalo won its first home game — improving to 1-8-1 — with a 3-2 shootout victory over the Los Angeles Kings.
The victory wasn’t enough to save Regier and Rolston, who were informed they were out by Pegula after the game.
Nolan will formally start his second era on Buffalo on Friday, when the Sabres host Toronto.
“I don’t know where to begin. I guess there’s not enough words inside me to express how excited I really am,” said Nolan, who went 73-72-19 with the Sabres. “I may have left physically, but emotionally and spiritually, I never really left. It’s a big part of my life.”
Nolan also coached the New York Islanders from 2006-08. His current job is coach of the Latvian men’s national team, a role he’ll continue into the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
LaFontaine said Nolan was his first choice as coach in a move that reunited the two for a third time.
Nolan coached LaFontaine in Buffalo in 1995-96. And the two worked briefly together on Long Island in 2006, when LaFontaine spent six weeks as a senior adviser to Islanders owner Charles Wang.
Nolan has a reputation for being a motivator and has experience developing young players after coaching junior teams in Canada.
“I’d like to say there’s nobody I know better who can work in a locker-room and bring a group of players together,” LaFontaine said.
LaFontaine said Nolan takes over on an interim basis, and that it will be up to the new general manager to determine whether to retain him.
The GM’s job was initially offered to LaFontaine, who turned it down because he lacked experience.
Since retiring in 1998, LaFontaine has spent time coaching youth hockey and, most recently, served as an adviser to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
LaFontaine said he’ll work with Sabres assistant general manager Kevin Devine in making roster decisions.
The biggest question mark revolves around the status of veteran goalie Ryan Miller, who is in the final year of his contract. The Sabres, under Regier, had not ruled out trading Miller rather than risk losing him to free agency.
LaFontaine said it’s too early to determine what approach the Sabres might take with Miller.
“We’ll exercise patience and do the right thing by the organization and by the player that fits into what we want to achieve,” LaFontaine said.
The Sabres are in the midst of a major overhaul that began last season.
Ruff was fired in February in a moved the prompted Regier to begin dismantling an aging and overpriced roster. Over the course of two weeks, the Sabres traded three veteran players — including captain Jason Pominville — in exchange for draft picks and prospects.
The purge continued two weeks ago, when the Sabres traded leading scorer and co-captain Thomas Vanek to the New York Islanders in exchange for forward Matt Moulson and a first- and second-round draft pick.
Regier had become the focus of criticism in Buffalo for overseeing a team that has made the playoffs only twice in the past six seasons, and hasn’t won a playoff round since 2007. The discontent grew last spring, when Regier braced fans to be in store for more “suffering” during the rebuilding process.
LaFontaine avoided using the word suffering when it was raised in a question.
“I wouldn’t use that word. I would use patience,” LaFontaine said. “I can’t tell you right now that we’ve got a lot of work in front of us. We have to be patient. … Our vision and our dream is to get the team to be a championship-calibre team year after year after year. And we’ll get there.”