Lindy Ruff is about the start his third season behind the bench with the Dallas Stars. Ruff was brought in during the changing of the guard after the lockout shortened season of 2012-2013. In his first year, the Stars made the playoffs on the back of newly acquired Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. Things were looking up in Dallas.
Then, last year happened. The media portrayed the Stars as a team on the cusp of contention, and high -profile acquisitions of Ales Hemsky and Jason Spezza fueled the fire of hope. The Stars stumbled out of the gate and never really looked like a playoff team. A sketchy blue line and terrible goaltending left the team wanting at the end of the 2014-2015 regular season.
Where does that leave Lindy Ruff's job security at the beginning this season? Some might begin to wonder if the Stars were to (seemingly) underperform again this season, the blame may fall on the shoulders of the bench-boss.
Another offseason of big moves by management all point to a team that sees a window opening, and the team looks ready to take the next step to contention. How much patience will the team have if the Stars stumble out of the gate again this season?
That is a hard question to answer. Jim Nill was a part of a very patient organization in Detroit, one that did not change coaches every time something went wrong. But, really, how often did it really go wrong? Do we have any idea what kind of rope Ruff would be afforded if things turned the wrong direction?
The facts of the case are these: (1) Many will argue the Dallas Stars underperformed last season, though the blame for that varies, (2) The team is full of offensive talent regardless of who you ask, (3) Stars management has made several moves indicating a win-now strategy, (4) This team, with so many young stars, will require a steady coaching hand.
With a mature team like the Red Wings, management could afford to have patience with coaches because the team was a self-managing organism once it reached its peak in the late 90s and early 2000s (and before that, they were under the helm of the legendary Scotty Bowman). The Stars haven't reached that level yet. These young players will require instruction and a coach that can grow their game on an individual basis.
Dallas has chosen a two-headed goalie approach. Who decides which one starts, and who decides who gets yanked and when? Lindy Ruff.
Not every team is as reliant on their coach as this one. Young developing players, multiple goalies, new players on the roster trying to find a fit, all of these responsibilities will stop with Ruff. And all of these factors point to man that could be sitting on a very warm seat if the team starts slow.
I like Lindy Ruff. I think he is a good coach with a lot to offer. He is steady, and the players play hard for him. He is a calming presence on the bench and in public. That cannot be overstated. I would be disappointed if he got a quick hook this year, but pretending that isn't on the table is naïve.
In some ways, it feels like Ruff has been the Stars' coach for much longer than two seasons. He has been a part of some emotional highs and lows, and guided the team through one of the more traumatic nights in franchise history when Rich Peverley collapsed on the bench and the high of the return to the playoffs.
His record in Victory Green is 81-62-21 averaging 91.5 points per season. One year it was enough, one year a slightly better season wasn't. Patience is a hard prescription to take with a team entering a window of opportunity, but I think that is exactly what this team needs to have with its coach. Last year's disappointment was just that, a disappointment; a disappointment with blame that can be laid at the feet of many individuals.
The teams that have success in this league are one's that find the balance between "win this year" and "patience". It is a difficult line to walk for management, and impossible for fans.
So what does the team need to do in order to buy Ruff another year of rope?
If the Stars make the playoffs with another first-round exit, I believe the conversation around the fan base will have the same feel next offseason as it does now: patience, but everyone has mentally located the eject button.
For Ruff to have true job security with the most optimistic of fans, this team needs to win a round in the playoffs and have a good showing in the second round. That kind of year is the expectation for those seeing the bright side in Dallas, and that is not an unattainable goal. For most others, making the playoffs will be enough to keep the vultures from circling, but that's a tall task in the uber-competitive Central Division.
Should Ruff be worried about his job this year? Likely not. But like anything else in sports, results are the only thing that matters in the end. The team is ready to contend, and Lindy Ruff will have to prove he is the right man to lead them back to the promised land.