On Friday the Dallas Stars made the hiring of Lindy Ruff as the team's next head coach official, and instantly the decision became a very polarizing one. The reactions to the hire run the gamut of emotion and response, from those that are pleased that the team has hired an veteran NHL head coach with a wealth of experience behind him to others who feel unsure about what to think about the former coach of the Buffalo Sabres now being in Dallas.
It's true that there was a big push against the idea of Lindy Ruff being hired as the head coach, especially from those of us that preach the strategic side of hockey that has become so successful the past five years or so. There's a concern that the game has passed Ruff by, that he can no longer keep up with the strategies being employed by coaches around the league and that was a big reason for his struggles in Buffalo since 2007.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was never a fan of Ruff as a Stars coach possibility and I'm still skeptical about how this will work out -- both in the short and long-term. At the same time, however, I have to have faith that Jim Nill has found a coach with which to share his vision moving forward and that perhaps that consistency and partnership will be what it takes to make this a successful organization once more.
Which is why I think it's important to attempt to understand exactly why Nill decided Lindy Ruff was the best coach for the job.
The decision on which coach to hire was obviously not a quick one for general manager Jim Nill, who has spent the past month interviewing 10 or so coaches as he worked hard to find the right fit for his vision for the team. From the very start he spoke of finding a coach with experience who would bring a certain culture to the locker room and while he talked to many candidates, those desires in a coach narrowed down the list just a bit.
It's clear that Alain Vigneault was Nill's first choice. He interviewed extensively with Nill and it seemed that he was on the verge of getting an offer from the Stars before he informed the team he would be headed to New York. It was disappointing for the team, for sure, but while the Stars may have wanted Vigneault what was most important is that there was a mutual attraction from both sides in this hiring. Vigneault felt he fit better in New York, for reasons on and off the ice, and perhaps it's better he didn't make a sacrifice to come to Dallas.
What the Stars need is a coach that wants to be in Dallas, and that wants to be a part of this transition and rebuilding of a proud organization.
The most important aspect of this hiring is the shared vision between the head coach and his general manager. Jim Nill comes from a stable and long-term situation in Detroit where the Red Wings organization has been the most consistently successful in the NHL over the past two decades, and he's stated he wants the same situation to develop in Dallas. He want's to bring long-term and consistent success back to Dallas, and chances are he's going to model his organization in the same manner in which the Red Wings were run.
Part of that consistency is to have stability behind the bench. The Dallas Stars have been on a rollercoaster ride the past five years, going through ownership and bankruptcy troubles while also going through three head coaches since 2008. Marc Crawford and Glen Gulutzan both lasted just two seasons, and the transition between what each coach wanted from his team was rough for the players and the fans. It's no surprise the past five years have also been marked by a five-year drought without playoff hockey in Dallas.
Nill wanted to find a coach that would not just be here for the short term, but the long term as well. This is a general manager that has had the opportunity to leave the Red Wings organization before but chose this team, this year, to finally make the jump. He did not jump into this situation blind; this is a general manager that has a plan in place in his mind and has already been aggressive in building his vision for a successful hockey team in Dallas.
If there's one thing that became clear during Joe Nieuwendyk's tenure is that there is no more important relationship than the one between coach and general manager. Too many times the decisions made by the GM were not reflected by the decisions made by the coach, and too often we saw a clash between the vision of the front office and the coaching styles, strategies and approaches behind the bench.
With the hiring of Ruff, Nill has apparently found a coach that shares his own vision for how to build a team and how to be successful. Nill has a history of building a team built on defense, goaltending and the two-way abilities of its players along with extensive organizational depth. Don't expect to see young prospects rushed to the NHL any time soon, and expect Nill to build a team that is just as defensively responsible as they are offensively capable, the same model that has guided Detroit for all of these years.
Ruff comes from a very similar background as a coach, one who preaches two-way responsibility and prefers players that are just as capable in their own zone as they are on offense. Ruff is also a coach who prefers to roll four lines as evenly as possible during games, relying on that two-way system for success, and it seems that this is the approach that Nill is also looking to build his team around.
There's a lot of talk about what happened in Buffalo over the years and why Lindy Ruff was fired after 14 seasons with the team. For years Ruff and GM Darcy Regier had operated on a shoestring budget and had found consistent success with that approach -- including a Stanley Cup Final appearance and two conference finals appearances, as well as the Jack Adams trophy in 2006. Yet since 2007, the Sabres made the postseason just twice in six seasons and never advanced past the first round.
The latest struggles of the Sabres also coincided with the acquisition of the team by owner Terry Pegula, who came into Buffalo with money pouring out of his pockets and promising a three-year plan to return the organization to glory. He was aggressive in his approach and gave Regier a blank check, wanting his team to be rebuilt over the course of one offseason no matter what the cost. As we all know, that approach was disaster for Buffalo and not only is Ruff now gone, but the team is attempting to figure out how to deal with lucrative contracts for underperforming players.
So how much blame should be placed on Ruff? It's clear that he had "worn out his welcome" in the Sabres locker room and that while his tenure should be commended for its longevity, it's possible that perhaps he should have moved on a few years before. This also seems to be a situation where the vision between GM and coach no longer meshed, with the Sabres trying to build a team in a hurry and didn't know exactly what sort of team that would be.
There have been concerns that a return to a defensively-oriented system will mean a return to the "boring" hockey that defensive teams are known for. We've seen the Stars try and embrace a more exciting brand of hockey the past few years with incredibly limited success, and while the Stars may not become the high-flying teams found in a place like Pittsburgh -- winning and getting back to the postseason will be all that matters, no matter what sort of playing style the team embraces.
What we do know of Ruff is that the approach that Stars fans have been wanting to see for the past four years is likely to change once more. This isn't a coach that gets caught up in advanced tactics or line-matching strategies; we're not expecting a sudden breakthrough to a more modern, advanced statistics approach like we were starting to see the past year or so under Nieuwendyk. Instead, Ruff is more of the old-school type of coach who wants to build a solid team up and down the ice and wants all of his players capable of playing in most every situation.
Ruff also has a bit of an uneven track record when it comes to the development of young talent, although that could also be a factor of the drafting done by Regier as much as it is about Ruff himself. Ruff is a disciplinarian of a coach and is known for being hard on his players at times, and it's not uncommon for young players to find themselves in the doghouse when their play doesn't match his expectations. This strategy has worked for some players (Tomas Vanek) and has stifled the development of some others.
Yet that same approach is also what the Dallas Stars need. For the past few years, and especially under Gulutzan, accountability was a subject of much discussion. There just didn't seem to be any consistency in how the players would approach games on a day-to-day basis, which resulted in uneven effort levels from one game to the next as well as mixed messages from the coach and the players themselves.
Nill has spoken a lot about accountability in the locker room, a certain culture that breeds success and the confidence of the team in themselves and their ability to win. The past few years this is a team that lacked any sort of confidence in themselves and it seemed the 'identity' of the Stars would fluctuate depending on which month it was. Were the Stars an aggressive forechecking hockey team? Were they hard to play against, a pesky and physical team that ground down opponents? Was this a puck-possession team built on veteran leadership? Or is this a simplistic, north-and-south hockey team built on the speed of the youthful players?
Part of Nill's job, and that of his head coach, is to determine just what sort of team the Dallas Stars will become. While Nieuwendyk's tenure was seen on the surface as disappointing, there's no doubt that he left this organization in a very promising position with several talented and potentially great prospects in the pipeline. It doesn't hurt that the majority of the top prospects in the system all seem to fit the vision that Nill has for this team; big, physical forwards that are also capable of two-way responsibility, as well as a wealth of defensive prospects that range from shut-down physical types to offensively-capable puck movers.
There are many out there who regard Lindy Ruff as a fantastic head coach, one who is highly-respected and instantly brings a level of accountability to the locker room that hasn't existed in perhaps half a decade. While there are legitimate concerns about how he'll fare in an NHL moving forward with new strategies, and whether his coaching style will hinder or help the young players this franchise is depending on moving forward, this is the coach that our hopes and dreams as Dallas Stars fans are depending on.
The Dallas Stars have a new head coach, a new general manager and endless possibilities moving forward. This is still an incredibly exciting time to be a fan of the Stars, and that's all that really matters.