Lindy Ruff has finally been relieved of his duties and it’s about time. Almost 15 seasons of managing the Buffalo Sabres has made him a household name throughout the hockey world, especially in Buffalo, and Ruff likely won’t be out of a job for long if he desires to coach again in the NHL. I have no doubt that Ruff will do a splendid job where ever he lands, but the fact of the matter is that he wore out his welcome in Buffalo long before finally getting the ax yesterday.
Ruff coached the Sabres into the playoffs 8 times during his tenure. That’s not a bad average, especially when one factors in the bankruptcy and financial problems the team dealt with throughout much of his time in Buffalo. He’s definitely proven himself to be a good coach, however, was (or is) he a great coach? The simple answer is “no”. Ruff failed to bring the Stanley Cup home to Buffalo despite coming close numerous times. Sure, Ruff was capable of helping a mediocre roster overachieve on more the one occasion, but was this due to his coaching abilities or simply being blessed with a unique combination of personnel and luck?
First, let’s look at his first four seasons coaching Buffalo. The Sabres made the playoffs each year, but other than the 2000-01 season they didn’t do particularly well in the regular season. However, the playoffs were another story, especially in the first two seasons in which Buffalo reached the Conference Finals and Finals respectively. Those are great results, but they had next to nothing to do with Ruff; it was all Dominik Hasek. During those four seasons, the last of which he would play in Buffalo, Hasek was at the top of his game. He won the Vezina Trophy in three of those seasons (would have been all four if not for an injury) and was easily the best goaltender in the NHL. No matter how bad the rest of the team was on paper (and yeah, they were pretty damn bad), having Hasek all but guaranteed a playoff spot every season. No better evidence of this exists than the 1999-00 season in which Hasek was injured and only played 35 games. The Sabres just barely made the playoffs, doing so with merely a single point more than the team that would finish ninth. Again, all Hasek, as he lead the Sabres to seven wins over their final ten games, allowing only 12 goals in the process.
Once the playoffs rolled around, well, anyone with a lick of hockey sense can tell you that a hot goalie means everything. When Hasek played excellent, the Sabres won, simple as that. Otherwise they almost always lost. During those four playoff appearances from 1998 to 2001, Hasek allowed 4 or more goals in a game only four times and the Sabres only won one of those games. Just one. The fortunes of the Sabres were exclusively tied to the fortunes of Hasek and Ruff was simply along for the ride.
Hasek was traded to Detroit following the 2000-01 season and with him went any hope of success for the Sabres. Buffalo placed dead last in the Northeast Division during each of the next three seasons prior to the lockout. Ruff was unable to get the team near the playoffs without Vezina caliber goaltending, despite the fact that one could argue the rest of the team was better than those which Hasek had to work with. But enough about Hasek, as I could talk about him all day, let’s now turn to what Ruff accomplished post-Lockout, which is when he actually started to make a name for himself.
Coming out of the lockout in 2005 the NHL wanted to create a more exciting and fast-paced brand of hockey in order to win back old fans and attract new fans alike. This just so happened to play right into the hands of the Sabres, who had built a young, fast team stock piled with depth throughout the lineup. Ruff introduced an up-tempo style of offense that immediately worked to the team’s advantage in the new NHL, earning them back-to-back trips to the Conference finals to go along with a Jack Adams Award for himself in 2006 and a Presidents’ Trophy for the team in 2007. Ruff was successful in taking advantage of the league’s new rules and getting his players to buy into a system that exploited them. That’s good coaching, but it isn’t great coaching.
The Sabres should have won the Stanley Cup during one of those two seasons, or at the very least reached the Finals. Both teams had largely the same makeup player wise, with only a few minor differences, and both excelled at the same up-tempo style. More importantly, both teams featured plenty of offensive depth throughout the lineup, more so than any team they faced in the post-season either year except maybe Carolina. Nonetheless, they failed to reach the Finals and a lot of that has to do with Ruff. Sure, the 2006 team was also hit by a rash of injuries, but they still forced Game 7 and every team has to deal with injuries at some point.
In 2006 against the Hurricanes, Ruff was out-coached by Peter Laviolette. Laviolette made much better use of his goaltenders, using both at crucial times to ensure victory, while Ruff simply rode Ryan Miller despite the fact that Martin Biron had provided equally impressive goaltending during the regular season. Obviously Ruff was used to riding goaltenders due to his days with Hasek at the helm, but why ride a rookie? Carolina didn’t and look where it got them. That rookie even went on to win the Conn Smythe Trophy that year. Sometimes you just have to pull the plug on a guy having a bad game. Laviolette could do it, Ruff couldn’t (Miller arguably should have been replaced by Biron in either Game 2 or Game 4). Worst of all however was the complete breakdown of the Sabres in the third period of Game 7. They blew a 2-1 lead, took an unfortunate penalty, gave Carolina the lead after a terrible PK attempt, and finally failed to capitalize on a PP opportunity of their own. It was a mess and any mess is largely the fault of the coach for not getting things under control before they spin out of hand.
As for 2007, that was even worse when it comes to Ruff. Bryan Murray had an answer for anything Ruff threw at him. Murray had learned from his mistakes the previous season and this time coached Ottawa to a dominating victory over the Sabres, easily dispatching them in five games. Ruff failed to take advantage of any sort of line matching, nor was he able to get the Sabres to sufficiently protect a lead. This was a colossal failure for arguably the league’s best team and probably the best Sabres team ever on paper. But Ruff couldn’t get it done and the offseason brought substantial changes to Buffalo.
The following two seasons saw the team dismantled due to free agency and the lack of common sense in the front office. However, despite the losses, the Sabres still iced a relatively good team that should have made the playoffs, but they didn’t, missing out by 4 points and 2 points respectively. The 2007-08 team had a +13 goal differential, highest among non-playoff teams, better than six playoff teams, and much better than Boston, who grabbed the last playoff seed in the East with a -11. The problem that year was that they lost twelve games after 60 minutes. Pissing points away like that shouldn’t be tolerated and once again I’m going to blame the coach for not preaching to the players the importance of every game. 2008-09 was much the same as the Sabres once again had a solid goal differential of +16, better than seven playoff teams, yet again pissed away points by losing 9 games in OT/SO and failing to pick up points in their last two important home games of the season. Again, it’s up to the coach to make sure this doesn’t happen.
We’ve now arrived at the exact point in time when Ruff should have been fired. Buffalo missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons and simply wasn’t performing as well as they should be. However, he was given yet another chance and his job was once again saved by a Vezina Trophy winning goaltender as Miller put together a masterful season in 2009-10 to send Buffalo back to the playoffs. But in the playoffs the team fell apart once again as they were upset by the Boston Bruins. 2010-11 was much the same as Miller once again carried the team into the playoffs and did his best while there, posting two 1-0 victories in helping the Sabres jump out to a 3-2 series advantage over the Flyers. However, in an outcome becoming all to common now, the Sabres blew multiple 2 goal leads in Game 6 before losing in overtime and then lost Game 7 in horrendous fashion. Once again, where was the coaching during all of this? Ruff just wasn’t up to the task of keeping his players in check when needed and failed time and time again during the most critical situations.
The contract extension Ruff “earned” following Miller’s Vezina Trophy winning season likely bought him another year despite the playoff failures, so he was once again behind the bench for the 2011-12 season. This time the lineup was bolstered by numerous expensive free agent acquisitions at the hand’s of new ownership. How could Ruff screw this up? Quite easily actually. He mismanaged players from the outset, most noticeably Ville Leino, who just couldn’t find a regular spot in the lineup, and Luke Adam, who after starting the year with such promise was shuffled down the lineup at the first sign of weakness. This was a regular occurrence with Ruff throughout his tenure actually. Any time a line started to have even the slightest glimmer of slumping they’d be broken up. Lines would be shuffled almost continually throughout a season, never given any time to grow or develop chemistry.
In the end the 2011-12 season was a complete bust and once again Ruff should have been let go on the spot. However, once more luck was on his side as the lockout rolled around to buy him some time. Strangely enough, when the 2013 season got underway it wasn’t back to the same old, same old Ruff. Lines almost immediately took shape and the team performed moderately well in January despite the poor play of Ryan Miller. But then February arrived and the wheels fell off. The defense regressed to an even worse version of the year prior’s, completely negating the improved play of Miller. The offense, which had almost completely relied on Thomas Vanek up until this point, continued to sputter and little to no contributions were received from the second line down. The special teams were abysmal, with the power play unit near the bottom of the league and the penalty kill only moderately better. You could sum up the team in one word: lazy.
It wasn’t just the team that was lazy, so was Ruff. For awhile now it seemed like Ruff had simply had enough with this team. He didn’t care anymore and the players too didn’t care what he had to say. Sure, they respected him, but they didn’t really listen to him. He had been tuned out now for so long that he himself had resigned to the fact that nothing he did was going to change things. This is likely why the lines were more stable than usual. When it looked like Ruff’s job was in danger he finally started to take matters into his own hands, scratching guys like Tyler Myers, but it was too little too late. His time was up and now we’re up to the present.
In the end, Ruff did a heck of a lot for the Sabres and the city of Buffalo. He helped to bring stability to a franchise in turmoil and produced solid results at times. Nonetheless, he didn’t win a Stanley Cup when given ample opportunity to do so. It’s beyond time to bring in a new voice, but at least it’s finally at hand. Next up, Darcy Reiger. Don’t hold your breath, Sabres fans.