With the hiring of Lindy Ruff, the Dallas Stars now have a head coach that the NHL is very familiar with. As coach of the Buffalo Sabres since 1997, Ruff was the longest-tenured coach in the NHL when he was fired and had survived through numerous changes both in the NHL and on his own team. His time in Buffalo was defined by extreme highs and extreme lows and by the time he was fired by the Sabres just a few weeks into the 2013 season, it was clear that perhaps his coaching style had just worn too thin after too long with the same team.
Lindy Ruff was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the 1979 draft and played 691 games in the NHL as a defenseman and left wing. He was known for his hard work and toughness on the ice, a grinding type of player with high character who served as captain of the Sabres for three years before he was traded in 1989 to the New York Rangers. After retiring from hockey, Ruff was an assistant coach for the Florida Panthers before being named as the Sabres head coach in 1997 -- just a month after the Panthers' appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.
Just how good of a coach Lindy Ruff is currently is certainly up for debate. There is a general feeling that Ruff is not one to really worry about zone matching and that he focuses too much on two-way play and defense in an NHL that is ranging more and more to the offensive side of things, with the best teams the ones that put their offensive stars in the absolute best position to rack up the big numbers.
This was one thing that was frustrating at times the past few years, with Jamie Benn essentially playing a two-way game that severely limited his offensive potential -- this was especially true during the 2011-2012 season. With Lindy Ruff, don't expect to see Benn suddenly unleashed with 60 percent offensive zone starts against easier competition; Ruff is a coach that wants his top two lines to play good two-way hockey while utilizing a checking line and essentially sheltering rookies and fourth line players.
That's the current belief, however.
During his time in Buffalo, Ruff coached teams with very different makeups and approaches. Ruff rode a strong defense and elite goaltender to the Stanley Cup Final in 1999, and then coached the highest-scoring team in the NHL in 2006-2007 while getting to the Eastern Conference Finals in two straight years. Ruff's ability to mold his coaching style to his players is an aspect of his tenure in Buffalo that seemed to have been overlooked, but it's a prime example of why he was able to last so long with one team.
"I think an adaptability because the team changed," said Ruff during Friday's press conference on how he stuck with Buffalo for so long. "I've been through almost every type of circumstance, from being bankrupt, being run by the league, a defensive team, a top offensive team for a couple years, a President's Trophy team. So there's an adaptability there. I think first and foremost, it'll be a relationship that Jim and I have that we create and the relationship with the management team and ownership of being all on the same page and that leads to stability."
So, the big question now is just what sort of team Lindy Ruff will coach when combined with the vision of Jim Nill. There was a belief that the two would combine the return the Stars back to the days of the boring two-way hockey instead of the exciting brand of hockey fans were promised for the better part of the past four years.
While it's true that both Nill and Ruff will put an emphasis on defensive responsibility and two-way play, both the general manager and the coach made it known the Stars will aim to be an aggressive team playing an energetic style of hockey.
"Well again, I think I mentioned the adaptability," said Ruff when asked about what sort of team he coaches. "I've had different teams. I've had teams that were good defensively. I've had teams that have been top offensive teams. I think some of it is based a little bit on personnel. Probably the one thing is trying to set the bar high enough and hold the players accountable to get them to a certain place where you can have success but knowing that it's always in reach. The type of style that we've played has always been, it's been a real hard, up-tempo game. There's a lot of energy inside of it."
It's clear that the sort of team that Ruff will be coaching over the coming years in Dallas will not just rely upon his own style but the team that Jim Nill builds for him. The Stars are currently in a transition phase as an organization with a solid pool of prospects and core players to build around. The defense has been revamped the past few years through the draft and trades, and there is a wealth of skilled power forwards that are close to knocking on the door of the NHL. The team desperately needs centers, but that's another topic of discussion.
For now, it's tough to nail down exactly what sort of coach Lindy Ruff will be in Dallas. It's clear that he's certainly an "old school" coach who doesn't prescribe to the hardcore zone matching strategies you'd see from a coach like Alain Vigneault, but he also doesn't just blindly roll four lines no matter the cost. What we do know is that Ruff is a coach that will preach accountability and will hold his players to a high standard -- some say that standard is too tough at times, but this is a Stars team that has gone too long without such a coach behind the bench.
The more you dig, the more you hear about just how adaptable Ruff is as a coach. There are certainly some very real and very legitimate concerns about Ruff's coaching ability and style in today's NHL, and whether he needed to take some real time off between coaching jobs after so long in Buffalo. It's something that Ruff spoke of on Friday, referring to how a change of scenery for a coach has a revitalizing effect.
"I've really had seven months to think about it," said Ruff. "Coached at the World Championships this year and just realized how much I miss the game. When you coach for that number of years and in the same place, the exciting part for me is in talking to a lot of other coaches, from former coaches here to coaches that have gone from organization to organization how it revitalized them, energized them. I'm excited about the personnel here that I'm working with. I'm excited about the ownership. I'm excited about working with Jim [Nill] and all his experiences that he had in Detroit. It was just a real good fit."
Over the coming weeks we'll be diving even deeper into the coaching tendencies of Lindy Ruff, especially the past five years when the Buffalo Sabres struggled the most with disappointing season outcomes. What we've found may surprise you a bit.
In the meantime, we reached out to Andy Boron of Die By The Blade for a closer look at Ruff's time in Buffalo and what went wrong in the end.
For years, everyone in Buffalo and beyond has said that Lindy Ruff is a great coach. It's been said so many times, that over his 17 year career in Buffalo it simply became a given - Ruff's a great coach and he'd be snapped up in five minutes if the Sabres ever fired him. However, after three disappointing seasons from 2010-2013, and growing frustration from players media, and fans, Ruff was mercifully cut free from the sinking ship that was the 2013 Buffalo Sabres.
Many people now question whether Ruff actually was a great coach, or whether he was just great at writing Dominik Hasek's name on the lineup card. Was he really so good, or did he just luck in to a team of budding young stars built to play the perfect post-lockout style in 2005-06? I, for one, believe that Ruff was, and still is, a great coach. If you look at his career in Buffalo, not only has he advanced to two Conference Finals and one Cup Final, he did so with remarkably different teams that played styles that were completely opposite from one another.
Ruff learns and makes adjustments every year, something he picked up while working with Mike Babcock and the Team Canada coaching staff, and will do his best to change or tailor his system to fit the personnel he has on his squad. He's a hard-nosed coach who won't tolerate laziness or poor defensive play from anyone on his roster, but he's also a great communicator on the bench and puts his players in a position to succeed. He also has a killer mustache and an impressive collection of ties.
Of course, you do have to have players with strong mental make-ups to thrive under Lindy. He's not quite John Tortorella in terms of reputation, but he'll let a guy have it if Ruff is dissatisfied with said player's effort. The constant and public calling out of Derek Roy was what sparked Roy's seething comments regarding Ruff upon the forward's departure from Buffalo, and it's something that the media in Buffalo latched on to. He has a tendency to run with the hot hand for too long in net, burning out goaltenders by the end of the year, and he gives the guys he trusts far more ice time than they might deserve (see: Hecht, Jochen).
However, the one thing everyone in Buffalo agrees on is that Lindy Ruff is a great guy. I don't know a single Sabres fan who dislikes him personally, and I've never heard a player or employee say a bad thing about him off the ice. Ruff has a great sense of humor, which you've already gotten a taste of, he's fiercely loyal to his players, organization, and city, and is a very kind, easy-going guy away from the rink. Despite the fact that Ruff's coaching career was far past its expiration date in Buffalo, we were all still sad to see him go, and we'll always consider him a Buffalo guy, even if he went to the f**king Dallas Stars.