TORONTO – You must admit, after 14-plus seasons, it was a little odd seeing anyone but Lindy Ruff behind the Sabres’ bench Thursday night. It was like coming home and seeing a stranger sitting in your father’s recliner and wearing his slippers. It’s going to take some time to make sense of it all.
The Sabres began a new era without the longest tenured and most successful head coach in franchise history with a 3-1 loss to the Maple Leafs in Air Canada Centre. Buffalo scored first and played with a little more jump, which is to say it had a little jump, before giving up three unanswered goals in its first game under interim coach Ron Rolston.
Rolston comes off like a cerebral tactician, but that’s not to suggest Ruff was not. Do we need to qualify every sentence now? At some point, Rolston will become familiar enough with the players to make his own assessments and stand alone. He has a quiet demeanor, which should allow him to become a calming influence over his players.
Can he coach?
We’ll see. He didn’t arrive with a sparkling resume. He had no NHL experience other than giving his brother, longtime NHL forward Brian Rolston, a few tips. He coached in college before getting into USA Hockey. He made a living in hockey. It’s safe to assume he knows the game.
Anyway, he’s not here to build his career. He was promoted from Rochester in a desperate attempt to turn around a miserable season. He has a tall order ahead. He began taking command over his troops during the morning practice. In his first meeting with the media, he talked about the Sabres’ penchant for taking shortcuts.
It sounds about right.
Buffalo still had many of the same problems Thursday that it has had all year. The Sabres nearly gave up a breakaway in the opening minute. Their defense was loose, and they spent much of the game chasing the puck. In one embarrassing sequence, James van Riemsdyk literally skated a circle around their entire defense.
Ryan Miller spared his teammates from further humiliation with several fantastic saves that kept the Sabres within one shot of tying the game until van Riemsdyk beat him after getting robbed of a goal moments earlier. The Sabres have won four times in their past 16 games.
Most would have predicted a better effort Thursday because it couldn’t get much worse. Let’s face it, if the Sabres couldn’t get their fannies in gear a day after their longtime coach was fired, they might as well pack up their belongings and head home. It was marginally better than the listless performance Tuesday against Winnipeg but nowhere near enough.
Now, the Sabres would need a 19-7-4 record to finish with 55 points this season, or the number needed for eighth place in the conference. It tells you how much the standards have changed since Terry Pegula arrived, two years ago today actually, and started talking about Stanley Cups.
Pegula purchased the team with good intentions. He poured big money into the organization with the idea his players would play harder for him, but he showed how little he knew about professional sports. Give someone in the real world an inch, they’ll take a mile. Make a team too comfortable, and it turns into a country club.
Their effort was better Thursday, but it wasn’t as if it was dramatically improved in their first game under the new guy. The Leafs showed a greater sense of urgency, greater desperation. The Sabres looked like they were trying to survive. Maybe they didn’t feel an overwhelming need to prove anything to an interim coach.
Or maybe they’re just a bad team, much worse than many thought amid the happy talk and optimism going into the season.
I wondered if Ruff was watching from home, whether he was a frustrated fan screaming at the television rather than his players. Here’s hoping he enjoyed a nice, quiet evening without worrying about the Sabres, for a change.
So far, Ruff has exercised his right to remain silent. He didn’t return telephone calls seeking comment Wednesday or Thursday, which raised questions about whether he had a confidentiality agreement in his contract. Presumably, he returned to First Niagara Center at some point to clean out his office.
In the non-stop rumor mill known as the NHL, several theories circulated about his dismissal. One suggested that Pegula considered keeping Ruff and firing Darcy Regier before top aide Ken Sawyer interjected. Another suggested Regier had no plans to fire Ruff but buckled under orders from Sawyer and Ted Black. Yet another had Ruff refusing to resign, forcing Regier to fire him.
All seemed plausible.
None really mattered.
What does is that the Sabres’ organization is fractured and doesn’t appear to know where it’s going or how to get there. There are conflicting opinions within the organization about Ruff and Regier. Based on what happened in the first 17 games, and the past few days, let’s agree that it’s a mess.
Rolston’s job is making sense of it all.