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On Lindy Ruff, And The Challenge Of Coaching Changes

A slow start to the season has put the Stars head coach under the microscope. Where does the team go from here?

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Dallas Stars Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It’s only December 14th, but it’s already starting to feel like the 2016-17 season is slipping away from the Dallas Stars.

The reigning Central Division champions are only looking marginally like the team that put up 50 wins and 109 points last year. As of right now their record is a paltry 11-13-6, and even more concerning, they only sit a handful of points out of the NHL’s basement.

Unsurprisingly, the main focus now is directed towards analyzing what’s going wrong for the Stars, and what the team can do to get their season back on track.

There’s no shortage of places to start looking. The big guns on offense aren’t firing. The goaltenders have looked solid at times but allowed weak, inopportune goals at too many others. The defense has been shaky as they’ve tried to adapt to life as a young, crowded, revolving group.

And right in the middle of all of it, by virtue of the job itself, is head coach Lindy Ruff.

Ruff is one of the most important persons of interest in the ongoing investigation, for obvious reasons. As the team’s head coach, it’s his role to take the pieces laid out in front of him and, in some way or another, assemble them into a winning puzzle. If the team isn’t winning, it makes rational sense to begin looking at how the coach is assembling those pieces.

Deciding to inspect a coach’s performance is the easy part. Coming to accurate conclusions about his performance, however, is an entirely different problem altogether. This is especially true right now with regards to Ruff and the on-ice play of the Stars.

If the Stars of this season don’t look like the same Stars of last season, it’s because, in one way, they physically aren’t. Of the 20 players that dressed for the most Stars games last season, only 12 of them were in the lineup for Tuesday’s 6-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks. Because of offseason transactions and injury woes, the Dallas roster has undergone a major overhaul over the last six months

To use the puzzle analogy again, it’s a serious challenge to determine whether or not Ruff is assembling the pieces correctly right now because so many of these pieces are so new to the situation.

Is 34 year-old defenseman Dam Hamhuis a good fit for a team that had very recently relied on speed to win games? Is Esa Lindell ready to regularly play over 20 minutes per night? Can Brett Ritchie and Lauri Korpikoski replace the contributions of the injured Ales Hemsky and Mattias Janmark?

To make matters worse, a lot of the players that have returned are not looking like their former selves. Whether it’s because of injury or otherwise, some of the team’s most important players (specifically Jamie Benn, John Klingberg and Jason Spezza) all seem to be playing one level lower than where they were last year.

These are all important areas to inspect because a head coach, regardless of how good of a coach they are, simply cannot win if the pieces are not sufficient.

A great example of this is Mike Babcock and the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s pretty much a unanimous opinion around the league that Babcock is one of the best coaches in the game today, and many would argue the best, even though Toronto finished dead last in the NHL last season with 69 points. Babcock’s coaching prowess was never really brought into question due to the fact that the Leafs are in the middle of an aggressive rebuild and dressed a roster that was dramatically inexperienced. No coach in the NHL would have gotten a winning season out of that group.

What makes analyzing Ruff’s impact on the Stars’ current struggles so difficult is the fact that we’ve seen him be so successful so recently, finishing as a finalist for the Jack Adams Award last season because he was able to create a winning team out of the players under his stewardship.

To put it bluntly, the big question facing Ruff right now is whether or not he’s doing a good enough job with the roster at his disposal. With the Stars floundering and the season in jeopardy, this is something unavoidable that Dallas general manager Jim Nill has to carefully deliberate and assess.

Now, there’s also an entirely separate train of thought that is also going around, that it doesn’t really matter whether or not Ruff is the right man for the job, because the Stars are in serious trouble and firing him could be an effective way of waking up the team and getting them to alter their direction. Even if you consider Ruff to be a great coach, the thinking goes, you can’t fire all 23 players, so you fire the coach to provide a spark that is necessary.

The roots of this train of thought are obvious. It’s a tactic that has been deployed in the NHL for decades, sometimes to immediately smashing success. Everyone saw the story of Mike Sullivan last year, taking over the head coaching duties of the Pittsburgh Penguins from the fired Mike Johnston mid-season and guiding them to a Stanley Cup Championship in the spring. It’s genuinely a fantastic story.

The flip side to this train of thought, of course, is that far fewer people remember the times where coaching changes have had the opposite effect. Change, it needs to be said, isn’t always a positive thing.

Stars fans can look into their team’s recent history for an example of this: former head coach Dave Tippett. He was fired by the Stars after the disappointing 2008-09 season, despite guiding them to the Western Conference Final the year before in 2007-08.

It was accepted at the time that, even though Tippett was a good coach, the team needed a new direction. The problem was that the Stars failed to find that direction under their next two coaches, Marc Crawford and Glen Gulutzan, while Tippett went on to some notable success with the Phoenix Coyotes, winning the Jack Adams in 2009-10 and coaching in his second Western Conference Final in 2011-12.

Of course, the situation that the Stars were in then is not the exact same as the one that the Stars are in now, just as Ruff is not the exact same coach as Tippett. The point, rather, is to illustrate that a coaching changes is not a miracle cure, and that such a decision is one that should always be made with sufficient thought and analysis.

Nill is a patient, calculating man, and he’ll need to be that way now more than ever. The Stars might have the capacity to be a championship team in the near future, possibly even still this season if they can really get everything clicking all at once.

Whether or not Ruff is the right man to lead the Stars to a championship is still undetermined. It’s a question that needs to get answered, but it’s also imperative that the team takes the necessary amount of time to get the decision right.