Lindy Ruff will roll into town today with a new team for the first time since the Sabres fired him last February. The Dallas Stars are off to a slow start. They entered their game Saturday against Winnipeg with a 4-5-0 record, leaving them in last place in the Central Division and second-last in the Western Conference.
Ruff was the best coach in Sabres history and should be applauded when he steps behind the visitors’ bench Monday night. He’s a good person who guided the franchise to some of its greatest moments. He spent more than half of his life here as a player and coach and can forever call Buffalo home no matter his address.
He deserves a warm welcome back.
It wasn’t intentional, but the Sabres did him an enormous favor when they sent him on his way. For starters, they spared him the indignity of this season. Ruff would be pulling out his hair if forced to coach this team. The Sabres are a laughingstock, an international punch line, an embarrassment.
How Darcy Regier survived longer than Ruff remains a great mystery that has baffled many across the league. It would have been interesting to see what Ruff would have accomplished with a competent general manager. That said, my opinion about Ruff hasn’t wavered since last season. The time had come to fire him.
But not if it meant hiring Ron Rolston.
Rolston shouldn’t have been named the interim coach, let alone the head coach going into this season. James Patrick was infinitely more qualified. At least he could have filled in the blank next to “NHL Experience” on the application. Patrick had two strikes against him. He wasn’t fond of Regier and refused to be a yes man.
Little did we know that the “interim” tag, like many things that come from the organization, was pure fiction. Rolston finagled a multiyear extension when the Sabres should have conducted an open search during the offseason. Let’s be honest, it wasn’t as if other teams were lining up to hire him.
Negotiations should have gone something like this:
Rolston: I’m looking for a long-term deal.
Regier: You’re dreaming.
End of negotiations. If Rolston wasn’t satisfied, well, tough.
Instead, the thinking was along these lines:
Rolston: I’m really going to the NHL?? Thank you!!!
Regier: With this long-term deal, he’s indebted to me for life. This is my kingdom, and he will march to my orders. It’s been my plan since the Paul Gaustad trade. I’m a genius. Ken Sawyer said so. Terry listens to him.
Wow, this Kool Aid really does work.
Look, it has become increasingly clear that Rolston is little more than a Regier clone, right down to his speech patterns and ability to bore the masses. He’s what you get when you put Regier in the dryer. He’s a shrunken version of the same, a Mini-Me, and he’s become another link on a long chain of incompetence.
Ask around, and I have, and you’ll find Rolston has no business coaching in the NHL. Rolston never played a shift in the NHL. He was a Division I assistant coach but never a head coach. USA Hockey’s development team was the first he called his own. He didn’t even make the final list at Penn State before Regier hired him in Rochester.
Apparently, they see the game the same way. It’s scary to think that met the criteria for him to coach at hockey’s highest level. Rolston has a credibility problem because he lacks credentials. But that’s what happens when a man is granted an opportunity he would not have otherwise received and did not deserve.
Simply, he’s not a threat to Regier. He’s a puppet.
Players will say the right things, how they’re behind their coach 110 percent, but they see through this charade. Veterans in particular aren’t going to waste their time listening to a small-timer who knows less than they do about hockey. It’s a matter of time before they check out for the season, if it hasn’t happened already.
Do you get a sense that they’re ready to break down the dressing room door on any given night, the way players did for Ruff or Ted Nolan before him? I’ll give Rolston credit for this much: There is no team in the NHL that is more reflective of its coach. Both are over their heads. Together, they’re irrelevant.
Every time you turn around, you hear someone in the organization praising Rolston for his teaching ability, as if he’s running a hockey school or coaching some travel team. Ted Black on the radio last week reiterated how Rolston is great with teenagers. OK, then he should be coaching the Junior Sabres. He can switch gigs with Michael Peca, who would be an upgrade.
Pegula can continue kidding himself that he has the right people in place, but he’s merely prolonging the agony. He would be wise to tap into a long list of hockey people who can help fix this mess. He can start with alumni that Regier hasn’t alienated. If Rolston is a skilled teacher, he should be working to his strengths, preferably somewhere else.
This is the NHL. The object is to win.
Ruff didn’t win enough and was fired. He should look around Monday and thank his lucky stars. Someday, his lucky Stars will be thanking him.