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Lindy Ruff Skillfully Managing Improved Dallas Stars

Questioning authority has been the American way since a group of guys wearing powdered wigs dumped some tea into a harbor and wrote a song with the lyrics “this land is your land, NO, this land is my land” to be performed for the King of England before he was politely asked to board the next plane home.

I think that’s how it went. You can’t trust much you read in the internet though, so they might not have been wearing powdered wigs.

This questioning of authority extends to many outlets in American society, none of which are more critical for furthering the goals of this post than that of fans questioning every decision a coach of our beloved team makes. Coaches, by rule, get the shaft more times than not. They are the first to get blamed for failure, and the last to get credit for success. We have an actual common English phrase for this phenomenon because it is so common: “You can’t fire all of the players.”

The coach wears many hats, but the one we are most consistently faced with is his on-ice hat. What happens on the ice impacts the standings which impacts money which makes the world go around. Results are quantifiable. A win means something went right and a loss means the wheels shot off somewhere. Sometimes the wheels shot off because of a coaching decision, and most of the time when we notice a coach it’s because of this unfortunate reason.

Coaches do a lot off the ice and in the locker room too which isn’t quantifiable. You will not be able to come up with a statistic to appropriately evaluate how well a coach manages his locker room, handles players, and deals with whatever fires flare up. No one with a brain will tell you these things aren’t important, though some will exaggerate how important it is. No coach is going to manage a team full of fourth liners to a Stanley Cup.

We’re talking about fringe benefits here, but fringe benefits will often make a big difference come the spring. Every NHL team is full of quality players, and every good team is an even closer match in ability than that.

All of that is to say that Lindy Ruff gets more flack than he deserves. One example is his exuberant willingness to change up lines. He still does it this year. The Stars are 11-3 and can’t help but score goals. Tyler Seguin scored the easiest hat trick I can remember against the Boston Bruins. How much does the line jumbling really hurt? Many decisions are made that have real little impact on the outcome of a game or season that get overblown into being more significant than they really are.

Conversely, some very important off-ice decisions go under-appreciated. For me, the way Ruff handled the Stars after their first loss was a bit of quality leadership.

“It’s disappointing. It’s embarrassing, worse than disappointing,” Ruff said. “It’s a 3-3 game with 20 minutes left, that’s not good enough. They won the battles and their best players were the best players and ours weren’t.”

Scathing commentary in the wake of the Stars 6-3 third period meltdown in Colorado, but true nonetheless. After the second game of the season Ruff publicly lit into them and set the tone for how serious it was for the Stars to respond to adversity from the get go. They responded appropriately.

And I wouldn’t try to suggest to you that this one event is why the Stars are as high in the standings as they are. They’re a good team regardless, but this is the type of learning experience that can be taken and stored for later. When adversity hits it will be easier for the Stars to collectively point back at an example of a good response. They took the abstract idea of responding to adversity and added a concrete example of how to do it.

It sets the Stars up to self-monitor themselves. A coach that has to constantly berate players is going to be run out of town within a few years. No one wants to be constantly yelled at. After subsequent losses Ruff has been much less angry. After the Leafs game:

“We missed some opportunities to turn the momentum,” Ruff said, “but when you hand a team a couple of goals on missed assignments, I don’t think at the end of the night you deserve to win.”

“We didn’t get the job done,” he said.

An honest response, but not “you were all terrible, please stop”. The tone of this response is we missed some opportunities, but the acknowledgement here is that they were in position to succeed. They simply failed. It’s a subtle difference, but the shift in tone is clear.

A team that aspires to be great has to be able to self-monitor their progress. Sometimes it’s difficult for an individual to see the forest for the trees and an outside voice is needed to right the ship. The way Ruff responded to the Colorado loss, and his subsequent responses to other losses, is one example of the good qualities Ruff brings to the position that are sometimes hard to see.

The natural tendency is always going to be to question the coach. Our powdered wig wearing ancestors wouldn’t have it any other way. Sometimes the establishment does good things. It isn’t always popular to recognize the good deeds of the establishment, but here we are basking in unpopularity.

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