Rats' Nolan, flashing NHL-level talent, awaits chance
On the night Brandon Nolan made his National Hockey League debut, his dad got stuck at work.
Like any good dad, Ted Nolan, head coach of the New York Islanders, did the next best thing: He recorded it.
“He couldn’t be there. He had his own game that night,” Brandon Nolan said. “He watched it after, and actually gave me a DVD of the game that he taped. It’s pretty cool to look back on it now. It’s on tape, so no one can say it didn’t happen.”
Not to worry. As he continues to refine his game with the Albany River Rats, it is only a matter of time before Nolan is back in the NHL, for good.
“He’s got the skills, the toughness and the size to be a full-time NHL guy,” Rats head coach-GM Tom Rowe said. “He’s definitely getting closer. Now, he’s going to have to wait for the opportunity to go up and get somebody’s job.”
Nolan and the Rats take on Syracuse Saturday night at 7 in the second of three “home” games this season at the Glens Falls Civic Center.
Oddly enough, had Nolan been born a few months earlier or later, he’d likely be known as a Glens Falls native. His mother, Sandra, was pregnant with Brandon
during Ted’s fourth of five seasons for the Adirondack Red Wings.
“We talked about that the first time we went there,” said Brandon, who turns 25 on July 18. “He loved it there, and my mom loved it there. It was a great hockey town, they said. You could see that when we got to the arena for that game. It’s too bad we played the way we did, but we’re looking to play a lot better game, and show the fans the real way that Albany plays.”
Nolan assisted on the only goal in an 8-1 loss Dec. 14 to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, one when the flu-ridden Rats played with just 13 skaters. A week later, he was on a plane for Tampa Bay, where he had an assist and was plus-1 in his first NHL game, a 4-1 Carolina victory.
“It was awesome,” he said. “My mom and brother and girlfriend came down, and some other family members. Thinking about it right now, that it was a month and a half ago, it’s just weird looking back that it actually happened.”
In all, Nolan played six games for the Hurricanes, including a stretch from Jan 9-13, where he skated five consecutive nights, two in the NHL and four for Albany.
“You could see that the talent is there,” Hockey Hall of Famer and Carolina assistant GM Ron Francis said. “For a lot of these guys, it’s a process of learning, and for him, the key factor was learning to be consistent and bring what he had every night and be good every shift, every period, every game.
“You can’t have a bad shift at the next level. You can’t have an off period or an off night because it’s going to be costly. I think he’s done an exceptional job here in working toward that. When he got the opportunity to go up, he certainly didn’t disappoint us. He played well.”
Much like his father, Nolan’s success has been a study in perseverance. A native Ojibway, Ted Nolan faced racial prejudice as a player and coach, most recently in December 2005, when taunted by opposing fans during and after a QMJHL game.
Nolan is in his second season behind the Islanders bench, ending an NHL exile that began after he was named Coach of the Year with Buffalo in 1997.
Originally drafted in 2001 by New Jersey, Albany’s parent team from 1993-2006, Brandon Nolan attended his first pro training camp with the Devils, but couldn’t agree to terms. He re-entered the draft, and was taken by Vancouver in 2003.
Following three unsatisfying seasons in the Canucks’ system and a half-year in the Islanders’ farm system, Nolan was signed last summer by Carolina, which took over in Albany in 2006.
Given a chance to flourish under Rowe and assistant coach Geordie Kinnear, Nolan has responded with an all-star-quality season. In addition to goals, he leads the Rats with five game-winners and a plus-12 rating, and has had at least one point in 29 games.
The 6-foot-1, 192-pound Nolan has scored at least a point in 14 of his last 15 games (11-13-24), climbing to 15th overall in AHL scoring.
“This year was huge for me,” Nolan said. “It was pretty much make it or break it. If I didn’t play the way I thought I could play, it probably would have been Europe for a couple more years and then maybe shut it down, go to school and get a job.
“This season has just been a dream to play, with the ice time I’m getting and developing the way I thought I could have when I was 21 years old. Sometimes, it takes a bit longer for guys, and in my case, that happened, finally playing the way you think you can. Trying to keep that level is the main thing I want to work on, the consistency.”
Rats center Jamie Johnson was Nolan’s linemate for three junior seasons with the OHL’s Oshawa Generals. They played together earlier this season and will be reunited tonight, with Johnson taking Aucoin’s spot between Nolan and rookie Jerome Samson.
Johnson and Nolan are roommates in Albany, best friends and offseason workout and golf partners back in Ontario. They also skated together last season with Bridgeport.
“Even when he was in juniors, he had so much talent, and his skill level is above most,” Johnson said. “He’s always had that. Maybe it just took him longer to get used to the pro level. I don’t think he had a great opportunity to play as much as he probably should have been.
“He was young, but I think now he’s just getting the opportunity he needed with two great coaches that have taught him a lot. It’s just all coming together this year. He’s playing with confidence, and showing everyone now with the right opportunity what he can do.”
Before this season, Nolan had played 154 AHL games for Manitoba and Bridgeport, with 23 goals and 62 points. With 30 games remaining in the regular season, Nolan is on pace for 36 goals and 74 points.
“It’s weird. I was more of a skill player in juniors, and when I turned pro, they wanted to make me into a third- and fourth-liner,” he said. “When you play that way for three, four years, that skill kind of gets off to the side.
“It was pretty tough my first couple of years. I didn’t play a lot, and I was up and down between the [ECHL] and here. I couldn’t really find my place on the team. It’s good to know where I’m at on this team and what to expect. It’s just been the perfect fit for me, as far as developing and trying to get to that next level.”
Rowe, Ted Nolan’s Adirondack teammate for 20 games in 1982-83, is confident he’ll get there. Rowe first met Brandon as a young boy when Ted Nolan was an assistant NHL coach for Hartford and Rowe was the Whalers assistant GM.
“I remember him running around,” Rowe said. “He’s a good kid. He brings a lot to the table. His father was really in your face and dogged on the puck all the time, but he didn’t have the skills Brandon has. If Brandon played with a little more tenaciousness on the puck like his dad, he’d get [to the NHL] that much quicker.
“He’s got an NHL shot, and he’s got NHL poise. I love the way he plays. He’s not a bigmouth; he’s quiet and does his job. He comes to the rink every day, and his practice habits are good. I love having him around. He’s been really good.”