Hiring Arturs Irbe might be a good start for Sabres coach Ted Nolan
Back in April while Sabres head coach Ted Nolan was set to relieve his entire coaching staff of their duties, WGR's Paul Hamilton mentioned that long-time goalie coach Jim Corsi could possibly be replaced by former NHL goalie Arturs Irbe. Irbe was one of Nolan's assistants at the Olympics this year.
At the NHL draft two months later, The Buffalo News' Tim Vogl reported that Irbe is still the front-runner. "It's being assumed in hockey circles that Irbe is a given for the job," wrote Vogl.
Yet, as of late July, Nolan still has no assistants, but Irbe's name has popped up once again.
Nolan and Irbe have a history and it would be somewhat fitting he was Nolan's first hire.
The connection between the two started the year before the Olympics. Irbe was an assistant coach with Nolan for the Latvian team at the World Ice Hockey Championships in 2013, a tournament that helped get them an Olympic invite.
Although Irbe and the Latvian Ice Federation parted ways in 2013, Nolan did enlist his services as an assistant for the 2014 Olympics and one of Irbe's "students" almost single-handedly took down Canadian colossus at Sochi.
In that game versus the Canadians, Latvian goalie Kristers Gudļevskis, a 5th round pick of Tampa Bay Lightning, stopped 55 shots in a 2-1 loss. It was a very tight game that was tied until late in the third period.
Erik Erlendsson covers the Bolts for the Tampa Tribune. While writing about Gudlevskis he notes that, "Nolan credited Irbe for discovering (and working with) Gudlevskis, who was serving as the backup for a Junior B team in the Russian Kontinental Hockey League but rarely played."
Irbe started his coaching career in 2008 with Dinamo Riga of the KHL before coming to the U.S. then hooked up with the Washington Capitals from 2009-2011.
Katie Carerra of the Washington Post credited Irbe with "helping the organization’s trio of young goaltenders – Michal Neuvirth [who is now with Buffalo,] Semyon Varlamov [traded to COL] and Braden Holtlby – make the transition to the NHL."
Carerra also noted that for the 2010-11 season, "the Capitals became the first team in league history with three goaltenders age 22 or younger with 10 or more wins in a season, with Irbe credited for the development of all three players."
If Irbe does come on board, this could bode well for the rebuilding Sabres and their stable of young goalies. After the trade of Ryan Miller in February, Neuvirth and Jhonas Enroth became the "elder statesmen" of the bunch at the age of 26. The youth brigade features Matthew Hackett (24,) Nathan Lieuwen (22,) and Andrey Makarov (21.)
But, two months after parting ways with Washington, the Post's Slava Malmud writes about why Irbe left the Caps.
The gist is that Irbe said that he didn't feel as if the opportunity for growth was there with the Capitals. 'I want to grow professionally, move forward, earn more,' Irbe said at the time. 'Washington, after all, is quite an expensive city. So I had measured all the pros and cons of working for the Capitals and decided it would be better for me in Latvia.'
Malmud wrote at the time that Irbe "may have had some unrealistic expectations about the coaching market," as well and that there might have been more to his departure.
"It should also be noted," wrote Malmud, "that Irbe left among rumors that both of his charges, Neuvirth and Varlamov, were less than happy with his coaching approach. Varlamov, who in particular was expected to flourish under the tutelage of the fellow Russian-speaker, failed both to win the starting job and to avoid injuries."
Nobody won the starting job that year because all were playing exceptionally well.
That Irbe speaks Russian should also be noted as the Sabres have some talented Russians who look to be a big part of the team moving forward.
Former first round pick Mikhail Grigorenko (2012, 12th overall) and fellow first-rounder Nikita Zadorov (2013, 16th) are both in the early stages of their development might benefit from a coach who speaks their language.
Makarov acquitted himself very well in net for the Amerks late last season and should benefit as well.
If Irbe wants to get back into the NHL, Nolan could be the most comfortable fit for him and might be the home he's looking for.
Likewise, having someone Nolan's quite familiar with might be a good starting point as be begins to fill his coaching ranks.