The Buffalo Sabres are just 3-6-1 and there’s a chance by the time tonight’s game against Montreal in First Niagara Center is over they could be last overall in the NHL.
Just 1-6-1 in their last eight games, it seems there’s no way the Sabres can keep the status quo going unless their fortunes change quickly. So does that mean possible player moves or perhaps even the firing of longtime coach Lindy Ruff?
“It won’t be the coach,” General Manager Darcy Regier told The Buffalo News early Wednesday evening.
Ruff was hired on July 21, 1997, and is the second-longest tenured coach in the four major professional sports leagues, behind only Gregg Popovich of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs (who was hired in 1996).
But discontent with Ruff is clearly growing among a fan base quick to point out his team hasn’t won a playoff series since 2007 and hasn’t even qualified for the postseason in three of the last five seasons.
Ruff addressed the topic of his job security head-on Wednesday when asked about it by The News after practice in First Niagara Center.
“I think you’re always concerned,” he said. “My job is to keep the morale up. The hope for the team has been real good. The guys have been positive. They’ve been upbeat. They dug in, tried to come back” in Tuesday’s 4-3 loss in Ottawa, “tried to fight through the adversity.
“So you’ve got to give them credit for digging in but I understand the other side of it too. We need to win games. We need to win them now.”
Ruff, whose contract is believed to have another two years to run after this season, said he talked to Sabres owner Terry Pegula on Wednesday morning but that’s not unusual as Pegula talks regularly with his coach and GM. What was Wednesday’s message? Ruff wouldn’t give any specifics.
“We talked hockey,” the coach said.
Since Ruff’s hiring, there have been 170 coaching changes in the NHL and two of them (Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh in 2009 and Darryl Sutter in Los Angeles last year) resulted in a team winning the Stanley Cup the same season.
Ruff has 568 wins, second only to New York Islanders legend Al Arbour in wins with a single franchise. Arbour won 740 games and four Stanley Cups for the Islanders from 1973-1994 (and won his retirement game in 2007). Ruff, who has taken the Sabres to four Eastern Conference finals and a trip to the 1999 Stanley Cup final, has the most wins in NHL history for a coach with his first team.
The Sabres were supposed to be off Wednesday but Ruff got the players to agree to come downtown for a video session and an on-ice practice that lasted nearly an hour. Afterward, players scoffed at the notion a coaching change might be in the offing.
“That’s not something we’re going to have to worry about. We’re trying to get ourselves to play some hockey,” goaltender Ryan Miller said. “This is the team we have, these are the coaches we have. We’re not going to look at it like it might happen or a what-if kind of situation right now.
“It’s definitely not lost on us that we need to play better hockey. But I don’t think now is the time to start panicking. It’s time to keep building. We have to climb out of a hole. We can’t dig ourselves deeper by talking about Lindy or us as players and how effective we’re being. We all can be effective.”
“We just have to focus on what we have to do to get back on track,” added captain Jason Pominville. “We’re not that far off. We’ve cut down on” odd-man rush chances, “which was a big issue early on.”
As for a change in coaches, Pominville said, “That’s up to management. We have to worry about what we have to do and that’s win a game. Hopefully it snowballs from then on.”
After winning the first two games of the shortened NHL season, the Sabres’ problems have mushroomed. Chief among them is the fact they have given up an NHL-worst 37 goals in 10 games.
“That’s not a good place to be,” Regier said. “The confidence I do have is in this team to turn this around, in Lindy’s ability and in our ability to rectify that and that’s because I think one of the areas Lindy as a coach is extremely strong in is defensive play. Offensively, we’re fine.” (The Sabres are third in the East, sixth overall with 30 goals.)
“But defensively we have work to do. And when you think of where we are defensively, if I had a coach to pick to shore that up, Lindy is the guy. And it’s not just all on Lindy by any means. We have to work together to get this turned around.”
The Sabres entered Wednesday’s games last in the Northeast Division, 14th in the Eastern Conference and 27th in the NHL. If they lose tonight to Montreal in regulation, Washington beats Pittsburgh and Calgary beats Columbus in overtime (giving the Blue Jackets a loser point), Buffalo would drop to 30th in the league.
Over what’s nearly the first quarter of the 48-game season, the Sabres have been one of the biggest and priciest busts in the NHL.
As a team, they have a payroll that exceeds $65 million. Eleven players are making at least $3 million this season and eight make at least $4 million.
“We’re not a collection of first-year players,” Miller said. “We’ve got to lead the way. For the guys who might not have that firm grasp, the young guys and the first-year guys, it’s up to us to make sure they’re up to speed. We need to play some hockey. That’s been kind of missing the last 5-6 games. Get into some hockey. It’s not about thinking, not about ‘Here we go again.’ You just go out, do your job every shift and come out in the end like you want it.”