When the Dallas Stars parted ways with Glen Gulutzan, there was a lot of discussion about who the best candidate for the job was as the soon to be 7th head coach for the franchise since 1993. And no candidate was more polarizing than Lindy Ruff.
You can't blame fans too much. In 1999, Lindy Ruff was the gorgon eyes of Medusa. The Terminator sequels to our James Cameron.
But Jim Nill made the move, and the rest was questionably executed history in the eyes of the critics.
Hiring so many coaches in such a short time span feels disruptive. A coach's shelf life is relatively short lived to begin with. Especially in the NHL, where NHL head coaches have an average tenure of 2.4 years; one of the highest in pro sports, with a turnover rate that is directly tied to the team's payroll. Not surprisingly, Mike Heika has indicated that Ruff will be on the proverbial 'hot seat' if Dallas gets off to a slow start.
Ruff's first season was a hell of a roller coaster. They needed one of the lowest point totals to qualify for a playoff spot too. The odds were stacked against them to say the least. As Adam Gretz noted late last year:
Over the past five full seasons (going back to 2008-09 and excluding the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season) 78 percent of the teams (62 out of 80) that occupied a playoff spot on Nov. 20 ended up making the playoffs.
Of the 18 teams that ended up overtaking a playoff spot after that point, only two of them overcame a deficit of more than four points on Nov. 20 to make it. The 2008-09 St. Louis Blues overcame a six-point deficit, as did the 2013-14 Dallas Stars. That's it.
Did Ruff "get lucky" his first season? Or was last season, in which Dallas failed to make the playoffs, a better indicator?
Figuring out a coaches' tangible effect on a team's efficiency is as nebulous a concept there is. It's difficult to pinpoint a nexus where systems and possession meet.
If we want to go further down the rabbit hole, we might even ask 'what's in a system to begin with?' We know they exist. Be it Toronto's wingers set low swarm under Carlyle, or LA's method of dump and possess neutral zone control. Then there's our very own Stars, with their emphasis on posting their left wingers high in their own zone. But to what degree do elements of each system overlap? To what degree do the instincts of the players drive the system?
I say let's not fret over the equivalent of puck hadron colliding. Let's just focus on what we got.
On the surface, Ruff didn't improve the team much in terms of Bettman points. Excluding the lockout season, from the 2014-2015 season until the 2009-2010 season Dallas went 92 (Ruff), 91 (Ruff), 89, 95, and 88. That's a very small uptick on average.
The Power Play under Ruff went from being ranked 23rd in his first season with Dallas, to 12th for the 2014-2015 season. Under the Non-Ruff Dallas teams the PP between 2012-2013 and 2009-2010 went as follows : 18th, 30th, 14th, and 12th. The average CF% (Corsi For Percentage of Total) during the PP through the seasons under Ruff versus the teams without Ruff was identical at 86 percent.
Shorthanded there wasn't much of a change either. Under Ruff Dallas went 19th to 21st on the PK. Under everyone else, Dallas went 17th, 13th, 23rd, and 27th going back to the 2009-2010 season. And the possession metrics for players (like Jamie Benn, Alex Goligoski, and Trevor Daley) who played with Ruff and without him reveal nothing out of the ordinary.
But we can reasonably assume that coaching has a strong influence in specific situations. Think about all the times coaches scramble to go Full Madden on the their whiteboards. So I averaged some numbers comparing Ruff to his predecessors in some oddball situations and some not so oddball situations (all 5 on 5). I'm hardly an expert with this stuff, so feel free to berate me in the comments section. Again, all numbers courtesy of War on Ice and Stats.HockeyAnalysis.
Ruff had a pretty positive effect overall, improving the team in their CF%, Shots Against Per 60, Offensive Zone Time (ZSO% is Fraction of Off vs Def Zone Starts), and Faceoff Winning Percentage. As you can see however, Dallas played with the lead under Ruff like the puck had greyscale.
Part of the problem with this analysis is that it doesn't account for personnel. Being a better faceoff team surely has more to do with adding Seguin and Spezza right? After all, Ruff inherited a far different team than the one Gulutzan had to work with. Or Crawford.
True, we could look at the difference each Stars team had possession wise. Hockey Analysis has a pretty basic stat called iCorsi/60; Individual Corsi per 60, which as most of us know by now totals shots on goal, shots that missed the net, and shots that were blocked. The average iCorsi/60 for all players who played 200 minutes or more under Ruff during his two years was 12.28. The average iCorsi/60 for all players who played 200 minutes or more under Crawford and Gulutzan was 10.8.
However, there's a circular logic to affirming Ruff's efficiency with the roster he has versus indicting him for the roster he doesn't. And it begs more questions than answers going back to how influential a system is on a player's possession, and vice versa.
The team has improved in most areas. And a lot of the criticisms seem to stem from lingering stigmas. Like Ruff as a veteran obsessed Michel Therrien clone. This despite Dallas icing up one of the younger bluelines in the league. While injuries may have forced his hand in some cases, it's easy to envision a scenario where all of John Klingberg, Jyrki Jokipakka, Patrik Nemeth, and Jamie Oleksiak were given less opportunities under a different regime.
The Trevor Daley trade may also be a point in his favor if you assume that coaches and GM's collaborate when it comes to decision making and personnel. At worst, it'd be hard to believe Ruff is a silent partner.
This isn't to say Ruff doesn't deserve criticism though. Whether deliberate or unintentional, the Jamie Benn, Jason Spezza, Tyler Seguin line played into a philosophy that Dallas could outscore their problems. And there's a strong case to be made that Dallas' improved power play was directly connected to Klingberg's presence (although what is coaching if not first an adjustment of personnel?).
In his first season, Ruff inherited an island of misfit toys. Did he overachieve with an average roster? Or did he underachieve by not capitalizing on the team's true potential? In his second season, Dallas failed in spectacular fashion. But the asterisk of putrid goaltending has us wondering what might have been. Whatever the case, there will be no excuses for Ruff this upcoming season.