Wednesday was a strange day in Buffalo. At 3 p.m., a city that is far more concerned with hockey than politics learned of the firing of their long-time mayor Lindy Ruff. In fact, the local news radio station immediately switched to all-Lindy, all-the-time.
Normally, we avoid first person here at Hockey Prospectus, but this one is pretty personal. Lindy Ruff is the reason I love hockey. Well, sort of. It can probably be more attributed to Michael Peca and Dominik Hasek, but he was the coach of the team that hooked me for life to the game on ice: the 1998-99 Buffalo Sabres.
At the time, Ruff was looked at like a defensive genius. His system demanded hard-nosed two-way players and smart, versatile defenseman. The roster was perfect. Peca, whose face looks a bit like a hammock these days after years of sacrificing his body for Ruff, was the perfect captain for a coach who was every bit as gritty during his playing days. The late 90s Sabres would beat you down and frustrate you like crazy with Hasek, arguably the best goalie of all time.
And they were always underdogs. Ruff was the perfect leader of underdogs. He yelled and scowled on the bench and demanded nothing short of toughness out of his club. If there was trouble, he would throw Rob Ray on the iceone of the NHL's all-time great fighters. There was no better moment in my life as a young sports fan than cheering for his underdog club facing the stacked Stars in the Cup Finals.
When the 2004 lockout ended, Ruff reinvented himself. He got rid of the underdog gritty sandpapery stuff and created an offensive super power behind Chris Drury and Danny Briere. The long-time coach still relied on an All-World goalie in Ryan Miller, but these teams played wild and wide open. They made back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals with those clubs and Ruff was about as untouchable as a coach can ever be in pro sports.
But things changed when Drury and Briere left. The team floundered, then briefly bounced back behind a Vezina Trophy year from Miller, then fell off again, then went through an ownership change and spent like drunken sailors
but it was never the same again.
Since billionaire Terry Pegula took over, Sabres GM Darcy Regier has done little to help his coach. Sure, he made deals and signed or acquired players like Brad Boyes, Ville Leino, Christian Ehrhoff, and Cody Hodgson, but he failed to find players that fit his coach's sensibilities. He never found another group of high-flying offensive players or gritty two-way players.
What Regier put together in the last two years is a group of flawed, one-dimensional players who were doomed to fail under an old school, set-in-his-ways coach.
Ruff's player usage compared with his players' skill sets paints a pretty clear picture. Outside of fourth-liners Patrick Kaleta and Cody McCormick, the Sabres' coach of the last 15 years used all of his players in both offensive and defensive situations and matched his top lines against the other team's top lines instead of matching his best defensive players against the Sidney Crosbys and Claude Girouxs of the NHL.
Grinder Steve Ott's 48.0% offensive zone Start percentage matches that of scoring winger Drew Stafford and offensively-skilled center Tyler Ennis. Cody Hodgson, who has been absolutely awful in his own end this season, has faced the hardest competitionand unsurprisingly has been on the ice for the highest percentage of goals against on the team.
Ruff has no interest in splitting up his players into specified roles. He doesn't want to throw Ott, Kaleta, and Jason Pominvillehis three best defensive playersout against a top line for a defensive zone start. He wants to use Pominville with weak defensive players Thomas Vanek and Hodgson because
well, just because that's what he has always done.
Last year, playing the everybody-does-everything dance was a failure. This year, it's been a disaster. And after winning just six of 17 games, the Sabres had to let him go. It wasn't that Ruff had become a bad coach all of the sudden, but it was that he didn't fit his roster. And as they say, you can't fire 20 players.
Now it's up to Ron Rolston to solve the one-way player puzzle. I have had the chance to cover Rolston with the Rochester Americans for the last two seasons, and I can tell you that he is the opposite of Ruff. He is an intellectual who never played in the NHL. He wants his team to be tough, but he would rather have them be smart.
Systematically, there will be differences, too. Amerks assistant coach Chadd Cassidy said Rolston believes defensemen are there to keep pucks out of the net, not to step up in the play as much as Ruff liked them to.
"I think you'll see more structure from the defensemen," Cassidy said. "Ron may adapt according to the D-core up there and what his feelings are, but they call them defensemen for a reason. Their first job is to keep the puck out of the net."
There are several players who have been massive underachievers who could bounce back with the right strings being pulled by Rolston:
It's obvious Hodgson has offensive skill and chemistry with Vanek and Pominville. The three are one, two, and three on the Sabres for points per 60 minutes at even strength. The problem? They all have negative Corsi ratings and Hodgson is a minus-3 despite 15 even strength points.
Rolston would be smart to provide his 22-year-old center with more protected minutes. Instead of putting him out on the ice against #87, how about against opponents' depth lines whenever possible? And how about keeping him away from those pesky defensive zone faceoffs whenever possible? His 45.5% faceoff percentage doesn't give him any advantages when in the D-zone, either.
The 23-year-old former Calder Trophy winner has been more up and down than a mechanical bull over the past two seasons. Ruff isn't entirely to blame, of course. Myers is still immature and struggles with conditioning and the mental aspects of the game. Rolston will certainly have a challenge with his 6-foot-8 defenseman. But Lindy didn't help the cause by asking his young D-man to be a decision maker. Ruff's system asks defensemen to jump into the play oftensomething that Myers never quite grasped. Rolston is a little more conservative with his defensemen. His approach is less yell-in-your-face and more analytical as well.
Poor Drew Stafford can't buy a goal this season after posting 51 in the past two years. He is averaging the same amount of shots per game at 2.9 as he has the past two seasons, but can't catch a break. Ruff's response was to put him on the fourth line. He also gave his one-dimensional forward 48% offensive zone starts and cut his power play time. This should be an easy one for double-R.
It's hard to say Lindy played this one wrong because, well, he didn't play Grigorenko. The Sabres' first round pick was a healthy scratch in the two games before he was fired. It is still early in the young center's careervery earlybut he could bring far more to the lineup than fighter John Scott. Grigorenko should play protected offensive minutes and see power play time. Ruff tried to keep his O-zone starts up, but refused to use him at 5-on-4 after two or three failed attempts.
Ruff was a perfect fit for a few different Sabres clubs and he accomplished a lot during his 15-year term in Buffalo. He brought the grit and a hard-nosed approach any kid would love watching in the 90s, and a fan-friendly, high-flying game in the mid-2000s. But his time has come and gone. Now it's up to Ron Rolston to turn this thing around.
Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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