On Thursday morning, I asked Lindy Ruff if there had ever been a point during his time in Buffalo when he felt he was getting stale, and that a change of scenery might be the best thing for him.
“You know what?” Ruff replied. “When you get in these situations, you try to reinvent a lot of stuff. We went through a process this summer where we met with players and took a lot of input, traded some ideas.”
Ruff used the word again in his next breath. He said he had “reinvented” himself several times over the years, using information he had gathered at various international events to update his coaching style and reinvigorate his team.
So there you go. The team that has lost seven of its last nine, the sloppy defensive squad that has now allowed four goals or more in six straight games for the first time in the 15-year Lindy Ruff era, is actually the reinvented Buffalo Sabres.
Make what you will of Thursday night’s 5-4 shootout home win over the Canadiens. If you want to see it as evidence of an imminent turnaround, as a sign that the Sabres are on the verge of some heroic Stanley Cup run, be my guest. A late rally over a Montreal team that was playing its second game in as many nights doesn’t change the fact that the Sabres are a struggling team right now, a team with a fragile competitive identity. Ruff thinks he has remade them, but they look mainly confused and unfocused, like a team that has tuned out its head coach.
Why would this come as any surprise? Last spring, after missing the playoffs, a group of Sabres aired their frustration with Ruff on locker cleanout day. They made it evident that his methods of communicating had worn thin. Later, the players had an animated clear-the-air session with Ruff.
In most NHL cities, where the coach and general manager aren’t a conjoined entry, Ruff would have been fired. That’s what happens in pro sports, and particularly in the modern NHL. The coach’s message wears thin, the players get fed up, management whacks the coach.
But this is Buffalo, where owners come and go, but the Ruff/Darcy Regier tandem soldiers on, Cupless and undaunted. It’s where owner Terry Pegula, a fawning fan, defends the status quo and extends his general manager after the team misses the playoffs for the third time in five years.
Regier saw that his players had turned on his coach and took drastic measures. He traded Derek Roy, who was one of the players griping about the coach. The message was sent, as Pegula had made clear when he came to town two Februarys ago: Lindy ain’t going nowhere.
So what happened? In the first 10 games, the Sabres were worse than ever. Defensively, they were perhaps the worst team in the NHL.
Entering Thursday’s home game against Montreal, they had allowed the most shots and the most goals in the league, and they were staggering along near the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
Ruff wanted them to be “tough to play against” this season. What a concept! They have been exactly the opposite, the kind of soft opponent teams can’t wait to show up on the schedule. Winless? Struggling to score goals? The Sabres have just what ails you.
The one thing you could usually count on was that Ruff would get his team to play defense, within his “system”. The D has been brutal, a reflection of the team’s unwillingness to invest the effort necessary to win in the NHL. When players see that the coach and GM are above reproach, why should they feel a great sense of accountability?
Presumably, there would be no excuses this season. Before the opener, goalie Ryan Miller said “We’ll see what kind of team we are really quick.” When the team lost seven of eight, Miller said it was no time for panic.
That’s the prevailing sentiment with this sorry franchise, that firing a coach is the equivalent of panic. Never mind that the Kings fired Terry Murray during the season and won the Stanley Cup last year. Or that Pittsburgh did the same thing and won the Cup in ’09.
Coaches have a short shelf life in this sport. There have been 170 coaching changes since Ruff and Regier took over in 1997. What, they’re all wrong and the Sabres have the secret?
Ken Hitchcock has been fired three times since beating Ruff in the Stanley Cup finals in 1999. It doesn’t make him a bad coach. He took over the Blues during the season a year ago and led them on an astonishing regular-season run.
Peter Laviolette beat Ruff in the conference finals in ’06 and won the Cup with Carolina. Two years later, he got fired. A year after that, he took the Flyers to the finals. Laviolette won a playoff series each of the last two seasons (beating the Sabres in one of them), but his job could be in peril again.
Good coaches lose their jobs in sports. Ruff is a good man and a good coach. I used to think he had greatness in him. That seems a long time ago now. It’s hard to argue for him being among the elite coaches when his team is going on six years without a Stanley Cup series win.
Staying too long in one place has diminished Ruff. It’s a rare privilege for an NHL coach to remain in one city for 16 years, to see his kids grow up in one place, to be a revered Buffalo guy.
But it comes with a price. Ruff has grown too comfortable, a prisoner of low expectations. Most of the great coaches validate themselves by winning in more than one spot, by proving that their coaching acumen is transportable. Scotty Bowman comes to mind.
Ruff is beyond his expiration date. And when a coach stays too long, he becomes defined by his weaknesses, not his strengths.
He has mismanaged his backup goalies for years. His power play lacks imagination. Young, skilled offensive players tend to regress on his watch (Drew Stafford, anyone). He is not getting enough out of Tyler Myers, a prized organizational asset. One can only wonder what might come of Mikhail Grigorenko in this stagnant culture.
Even when Ruff has a player performing at an MVP level, he can’t get it right. As of Wednesday, Thomas Vanek was only 50th among NHL forwards in ice time.
Ruff wants to believe he has reinvented himself. He’s tried, I’m sure. But he’s rationalizing. Deep down, he must know that being forced to coach elsewhere would have helped his legacy. He says it’s fresh, but it sure looks like the same old thing.
Firing him now would seem like an act of mercy, like doing the man an overdue favor.