Nolan is staying on as the head coach beyond this season after signing a three-year contract extension Monday. The deal comes 4-1/2 months after Nolan returned to Buffalo for a second stint — this time, initially, on an interim basis. And it's a reward for Nolan, who has provided a spark to a young, patchwork lineup on a last-place team.
"I said back in November that it was a dream to be able to come back and coach the Sabres, and that's still true today," Nolan said. "I'm excited by the challenge facing our team and our organization. And I'm truly thankful to have this opportunity."
The extension was more of a formality than a surprise. The two sides established the framework of a contract about a month ago and agreed to the deal in principle last week.
Nolan took over in mid-November after coach Ron Rolston was fired along with general manager Darcy Regier after Buffalo got off to a franchise-worst 4-15-1 start.
The Sabres (20-45-9) haven't done much better at 16-30-8 under Nolan and are likely to finish in last place with only two weeks left in the season. Buffalo is 1-10-1 in its past 12 games in preparing to host New Jersey on Tuesday.
Record aside, rookie GM Tim Murray is impressed by the job Nolan has done during what he called "a trying situation."
"I don't know if there was one 'Eureka moment,'" Murray said. "But I certainly got to the point where I knew I wanted him back, and I wanted him to be our head coach. And that wasn't yesterday or the day before."
The next step is providing Nolan more talent.
"We have to get him better players," Murray said. "It doesn't take a genius to figure that out."
The Sabres are a shell of the team that last made the playoffs in 2011, with Nolan the team's third coach in a little over a calendar year.
Regier began purging an over-priced and under-achieving roster last season. And Murray, who was hired in January, completed the overhaul in the days leading up to the NHL trade deadline on March 5. That's when Buffalo made four trades, including one that sent goalie Ryan Miller and captain Steve Ott to St. Louis.
The future looks promising with the team having stockpiled a series of first- and second-round draft picks over the next three years.
Nolan has a reputation as a motivator with a solid track record of developing young players.
This is Nolan's second stint in Buffalo. He went 73-72-19 in two seasons before leaving in the summer of 1997 because he was unhappy with the team's one-year contract offer after being selected the NHL's coach of the year. Nolan then spent two seasons coaching the New York Islanders and led them to the playoffs in 2006-07, before being fired after the following season.
Nolan also enjoyed a successful stint at the Sochi Games, where he coached Latvia to an eighth-place finish — the country's best in five Olympic appearances.
Sabres players greeted the news of Nolan's contract extension as an important first step toward establishing stability.
"He's a guy that I think is perfect for this type of rebuild as far as motivation and making sure the right guys are staying around," forward Drew Stafford said. "It's been a real challenging season, a lot of shake-ups, a lot of changes. To get that interim tag off is definitely some stability now."
Nolan is staying on even though Pat LaFontaine — the person who brought him on board — abruptly stepped down as Sabres president of hockey operations on March 1, after only 3-1/2 months on the job.
Thanking LaFontaine for the opportunity, Nolan said he's focused on the head coaching job.
"I'm really excited about going with the next step forward and helping shape this team into a very competitive team," Nolan said. "With Tim's knowledge in getting us the right players, hopefully, I can coach them good enough to win."