Lindy Ruff, Zone Entries, and Formative Assessment

Rick Stewart

Lindy Ruff says some interesting things.

The Russians knew. and took it to the extreme, when they stomped every nation in the world in international competition in the 70's and 80's. The Detroit Red Wings picked up on it in the 90's. Most NHL teams, if they don't all think of it in the same vocabulary, know the significance of possession. Dallas Stars new general manager Jim Nill certainly does. New Head Coach Lindy Ruff does too as evidenced by his opening remarks way back at his initial press conference.

Do you ever wonder how Ruff is always involved in international competitions with Team Canada? I still do, but the more I hear from him the more I get it. In his short time in Dallas he has shown to be a very cerebral coach with a strong grasp of the game.

In his introductory press conference Ruff discussed some of his views on possession:

"Puck possession is a big deal," Ruff said. "How you get into the other team’s zone is a big deal in today’s game… Ideally, if you can have good puck possession into the zone and in the zone, it usually forces the other team into the get it out, get it in and change and you get to come to the other way… It’s a tough style, a demanding style. The players have to make the right decisions."

The quote isn't groundbreaking, but the parallels with recent research initiatives in the statistical community are hard to ignore. Possession is there, but more significantly is the emphasis Ruff added to zone entries. Eric T posted a description of the zone entry tracking project here. The zone entry project and Ruff's quotes align themselves well with what we have seen from the Stars in their preseason efforts thus far. The Stars seem to be carrying the puck into the zone more often with speed and skill. The holdover from last year most likely to benefit from that strategy is newly minted captain Jamie Benn.

Ruff didn't stop there. He shed further light on his thoughts about possession and his efforts to hold his players accountable for possession decisions:

"I’ve used a lot of different analytics," Ruff said. "I even tried to create some of my own last year… how they compete in one on one battles, how they compete for possession of the puck. We were pretty big for all the analytics last year."

Ruff was pretty vague, but he mentioned that the Sabres emphasized winning one on one battles and how players competed for possession. How either was measured, or how he measures it under the Stars, is anyone's guess. The point is that he states that he has made efforts to emphasize the value of possession.

Ruff's efforts to assess his players with the also vague "metrics" not only shows evidence of the value he placed on possession, but it's also evidence of the coming high level of accountability that the Stars have needed for a few seasons.

The Stars preached accountability from day one of camp in the 2013 season, but it never seemed like it was enough. The Stars of previous days seemed to have a vague notion of accountability. "Play hard", "work every shift", and other buzz phrases were common. The on ice product rarely reflected the accountability the Stars demanded.

Ruff's attempt to provide direct assessment of his players' play clearly states what he and his coaching staff expect from each player. He's telling them specifically how they need to be successful, and giving them tangible evidence of their success or lack of success. If Ruff says Player A didn't compete he had enough he can back up what he says with evidence. If he says Player B was too careless with the puck he can show specific examples of where the player was lacking. The impetus is then on the player to improve or alter his game to meet the standards of what it means to play Dallas Stars hockey.

Based on his quotes we can expect Ruff to emphasize competing for the puck, possession of the puck, and accountability for every player on the ice. Accountability doesn't just come in the form of restricted or extra ice time. It also comes from a coach holding his players to clearly defined standards, holding them to high standards, and giving them rigorous and constant assessment of their game so they know where they stand.

Ruff's early quotes suggest that he is an excellent teacher with goals that align well with modern hockey thought. The Stars had many qualified candidates for their opening, and the more Ruff talks the more his hiring makes sense.

The possession ideas percolating through the NHL have made their way to Dallas. The approach Ruff described from his time in Buffalo would be a welcome improvement for a Stars team trying to establish an identity..


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