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Dallas Stars Soul Searching: Coaching, Perspective, and Lindy Ruff

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What more can Lindy Ruff do, and do we really know how to critique his job this season in the first place?

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I am probably going to come across as a Lindy Ruff apologist. I don't feel like I am, but the fact that the only words I have put to digital paper so far are an admission that I may come across as an apologist for Ruff probably betrays my subconscious position.

I feel like I can relate to Lindy. After a few years of teaching in public schools I have a different perspective about what it means to lead a group of individuals towards a clearly defined goal than those that have never been charged with carrying out that task.

This isn't to say that you can't relate to his task without experience. You certainly can, but the experience of attempting to lead people of varying competencies to the same goal, I think,  naturally tends to make you more appreciative of the situation. People who have coached at lower levels of any sport will have a different valuable perspective. As you go higher up the experience ladder in any profession the developed perspectives of these individuals will tend to give added depth to the observations they make.

Should you trust them all equally? That's for you to decide, but I would argue no. Experience in anything is very valuable, but experience isn't the end-all-be-all of a discussion. Anyone able to articulate a position clearly with clear evidence following a logical progression has the potential to move a discussion along regardless of their experience level. Experience just tends to make the chances of a person having something useful to say more likely.

I can't speak for the perspective of others. I can only genuinely speak to my experiences. Most of my adult experiences come through the lens of being a teacher. I make situations comprehensible to myself by relating them to my own experiences to see what meaning I can derive. When I derive that meaning I share it to show others what I see to hopefully help them gain another perspective on a situation that they might not have because they don't have the same life experiences I have.

This is what we try to teach students to do. We want them to take multiple types of information and synthesize the multiple perspectives into their own understanding which they can then relay to the rest of the world. My experience teaching is the dominant lens through which I understand situations at this stage of my life, and the lens through which I share most of the insights (valuable or otherwise) I have about a situation.

And because of that I am probably going to sound like an apologist for Ruff. When a team runs cold the coach inevitably will take the brunt of the criticism. The people he is in charge of aren't meeting expectations so the tendency in our society is to look for someone to take the blame. The coach is the obvious target, and is usually all too willing to take that blame to shield his players.

Lindy said this in Mike Heika's piece from Wednesday:

"For our fans, I'm frustrated...I know they're frustrated," Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. "It's my job to change it."

Ruff is absolutely correct. His job is to win games. Period. If he doesn't win games he has not been successful. If his players love him and they miss the playoffs no one will care. It may make the players personally feel bad for letting down someone they admire, but at the end of the day Ruff works in a results-driven business where smiling bunny rabbits and unicorns pissing rainbows don't overcome the realities of a string of ugly losses. He is currently failing at his job.

But what about his job are we really qualified to discuss? We have the results, and we have the public comments he makes. But really, that's it.

Publicly, Ruff is making it known how unacceptable the current state of the Stars game is to him.

"Enough of the pond hockey, enough of ‘hope’ plays," Ruff said. "We have to get going in the other direction. We’ll start with simple and build it back up again."

...

"When I look at this sheet and see 19 giveaways, we’re not going to win hockey games that way," Ruff said. And that’s where I have to change the mentality, it’s my job to change the mentality."

The only things we know beyond a shadow of a doubt are that Ruff is publicly taking responsibility for the way things are going, expressing the general changes that need to take place, and we can get a pretty good idea of how he wants to deploy his roster with #fancystats. The other day Brandon hinted at the issue we have with judging the job Ruff has done:

If Ruff is saying publicly what we all know to be the issues, then you'd have to believe he's following that up in practices and meetings with his players. So is this the players just not responding to the coaching? Or is it a case of the system put in place by the coaches simply hasn't good enough or nearly quick enough to adjust what the opponent is throwing out there?

What Brandon brought up were questions, not answers, because no one outside of that room is fully qualified to discuss what has gone on in that room. We simply don't know what Ruff is doing to right the ship. We are left to criticize the results because obviously something isn't working so the man in charge needs to fix it. He needs to do something because the results aren't meeting our expectations.

The dirty truth of the matter is that Lindy can perform his job at a high level and the Stars can still lose much like a teacher can perform their job at a high level and still produce uninspiring results. Both professionals are usually working to better themselves and their methods, but both the coach and teacher are only individual people. Neither professional can force those under them to perform. They can only offer guidance.

Ruff can't force Jordie Benn to not pass the luck blindly through the middle in his defensive zone. Does anyone believe the "stop doing that" conversation hasn't taken place? Of course it has. When the Stars were in the process of being drilled by the Minnesota Wild Jordie was tattooed to the bench in the third period while playing a season low 15 minutes.

All Ruff can do is hold his players accountable. All of the evidence we have suggests he has been. Ruff hasn't been shy about handing out healthy scratches to send messages when things aren't going to his expectations. Alex Goligoski found out about that last year. Tyler Myers once upon a time found out how that works too. Both raised their games in the aftermath. The evidence is clear that he is working to hold his guys accountable. At what point is this their fault?

In "The Game", Ken Dryden covers so many topics with wonderfully interesting insights. The most eye-opening to me were those about Scotty Bowman. The goals of people in leadership positions have not changed from the 70's as laid out by Dryden's interpretations of Bowman:

"(Bowman) believes that while he can set a constructive tone for the team, and can prepare these players physically and tactically, reminding them from time to time to their annoyance that they are not playing as they can, ultimately what drives them is them (emphasis mine)." (Dryden, 48)

At the end of the day a coach can only do what he can do. Without the results he isn't going to be satisfied, but that doesn't mean a downturn is his fault entirely. The players have to take responsibility for their part in this and handle their business. As a teacher I can provide every opportunity for a student to be successful, and they can still show up to a test, refuse to read any word problems, bubble in random answers, and provide data that says I haven't done my job.

Students can become complacent, lazy, or lack confidence. It's my job to do whatever I can to reach those students, but there is no way I am going to reach every single struggling student regardless of what I do. Ruff has been publicly expressing the same thought. And so far, no one has really brought up the elephant in the room.

What if the Stars, as presently constructed, just aren't that good? We don't want to think that. We shouldn't need to. They have copious amounts of talent. Maybe when the goaltending is no longer 7th worst at even strength in the league things will turn around. It can't hurt, but if the team defense, decision making, and awful transition play continues none of this will matter.

Ruff probably doesn't need to be as ruthless as Dryden's portrayal of Bowman, but the sentiment is legitimate:

"If you don't play the way I want you to play, why should I speak to you?" (Dryden, 47)

A coach has to adjust to the talent at his disposal, but he doesn't have to accept play that doesn't fit in with the team concept when alternatives are available. The Stars have few NHL-ready goalies or defensemen despite what they state publicly. If they did the inexperienced kids wouldn't have been rotating lineup spots. A veteran would have been on the bench. If these issues persist the Stars will be forced to make a move to shore the situations up or the playoffs will be a pipe dream.

"What makes Bowman's style work is an understanding, the understanding that must exist between a coach and his team: he knows the most important thing to a team is to win; we know he does what he does to make us win." (Dryden, 53)

There are bad coaches just like there are bad teachers, but in both professions you don't make it for almost 20 years without knowing a little something. The responsibility is on the players to stop making silly errors and cute plays. From Jamie Benn down to Jamie Oleksiak this is applicable. This has always been true of hockey and always will be. Everyone has to work. Everyone has to be on the same page.

And sometimes, a coach has to take his team back to square one before they can move forward.

Any team. even a great team, has many more Rejean Houles than it has (Guy) Lafleurs and (Larry) Robinsons. Grinders, muckers, travailleurs, they form the base of any team; they do the kinds of diligent, disciplined, unspectacular things that every team must do before it can do the rest. (Dryden, 81)

As Ruff said, "We’ll start with simple and build it back up again". The Stars are a skilled speedy team unafraid to get their hands dirty. Everybody ropes, and everybody rides. As soon as the Stars get back to what made them a quality team last season they will get back into the win column.

And you know, Heika is right.

...the players and coaches have to live in a world where you have to produce every day, where you have to put in the work, and pay the price, and wear your lucky jersey.

Anyone in a results-driven industry has to deal with this reality. Anyone in a position of leadership has to understand that when things go poorly they will be forced to answer for the poor results. You as a Stars fan have every right to criticize him. Please do, but we need to remember he isn't on the ice. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink. This is on the players.

After sitting here for a few hours I think I have convinced myself that I probably am a Ruff apologist. We don't know what he is doing privately to fix what ails the Stars, but I think we have enough public evidence to know he isn't satisfied with the results. He is doing something, and because of that I have a hard time not defending him.

I can relate on some level enough with what he is dealing with that I must be an apologist. We've seen what poorly run teams look like. We've seen what it looks like when uninspiring figures are behind the bench. I see too much good coming from Ruff to think he is the problem. The players need to fix this.