It took about 0.004534 seconds for former Sabres' coach Lindy Ruff to be connected with the Tampa Bay Lightning following the firing of head coach Guy Boucher. In his long tenure in Buffalo, Ruff had a good deal of success, including three Eastern Conference Finals appearances and one Stanley Cup appearance. But his time ran out after failing to make the playoffs in six of the last 10 years, including failing to get past the first round every year since 2007.
Could hiring spark the Lightning to a Cup run a la 2011-12 Kings? Or would Ruff see similar results to Boucher?
Could Ruff help to solve Tampa's possession problems?
Tampa Bay's biggest problem is pretty much the same as Buffalo's was when Ruff was fired: puck possession. The Lightning currently rank dead last in the NHL. When Ruff was let go, his team ranked 28th.
Can Ruff's system improve Tampa's brutal possession numbers? History says it's worth questioning. Since 2007-08, the Sabres only ranked in the top 10 once according to Behind the Net's Fenwick-close statistics.
Tampa Bay is currently getting outshot 26.6 to 30.2 per game. Ruff may be able to help a new club get more shots on goal, but he certainly wouldn't be able to improve shots against if he brought his old Sabres system south.
Take a look at the Sabres' NHL rank in Shots Against per game since 2007-08:
Now look at where Buffalo ranked in Shots For per game:
Ruff's system may be able to put a few more pucks on net and improve possession somewhat in that way, but it certainly wouldn't keep pucks away from the not-so-reliable goalie tandem of Mathieu Garon and Anders Lindback. The ex-Sabres coach was always blessed with great netminders who could bail his team out when facing high shot totals.
When goalies not named Ryan Miller or Dominik Hasek were in net since 2007-08, the Sabres' team save percentage was .903. Miller's career save percentage during that time was .917 and his tenure included a Vezina Trophy.
Would Ruff's system fit Tampa Bay's roster
Boucher used specialization in player usage. He attempted to use offensive-minded players in more offensively-advantageous situations, such as giving them more offensive zone faceoffs and easier competition. Ruff, on the hand, asked his best offensive players to play in an equal amount of offensive and defensive situations. Last season, the difference between Boucher's highest offensive zone start player and his lowest was 37.6%. The only team that specialized players more in 2011-12 was Vancouver. Conversely, the Sabres' difference between the highest and lowest O-zone start player was 15.8%.
Would that approach work with Tampa Bay's lineup? Some players might argue yes. Victor Hedman and Sami Salo might appreciate more offensive zone starts than their current 39.3% and 40.2%. Even with Ruff's more balanced approach, it's unlikely he would take O-zone time away from Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, or Vinny Lecavalier.
Where Ruff struggled in Buffalo over the past several years was with one-dimensional offensive players, such as Brad Boyes, Ville Leino, and Luke Adam. His system asks forwardsespecially centersto take on the most difficult defensive assignments, while requiring defensemen to regularly jump up into the play and make snap decisions on whether to step up or drop back on defense.
During his tenure, the types of players who had the most success were two-way centers and smart all-around defensemen. Maybe you could say that for any coach, but the players who did not fit those categoriesa la offensive-minded forwards and defensemenoften found themselves in Lindy's doghouse. He never quite figured out how to get the most out of players like Boyes and Leino by putting them in situations where they could flourish without severely damaging their team's defensive efforts. Even some star players have fallen into this category throughout the years in Buffalo, with the most recent examples being Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek.
Would Ruff's personality be a fit
The answer is
maybe? Ruff has a reputation for being extremely hard on his players. He rewards hard-working grinders while riding scorers for not being tough enough. In last year's exit interviews, several Sabres players even noted their coach's tendency to call them out in the media. He would sometimes publicly embarrass a struggling scorer with a fourth-line assignment sure to be talked about by media and fans.
That said, Ruff can also be a great leader for the right types of players. Michael Peca and Jason Pominville are the two that come to mind. Both were hard-working, two-way, never-take-a-shift-off types. Will that work with the current makeup of the Lightning roster? It seems impossible to say without putting his old school style into practice. Some of the leaders in Tampa Bay won a Cup with hard-nosed John Tortorella behind the bench in 2004, so it seems possible an older coach with credibility could catch their attention.
Would it work?
It might, but a close look at Tampa's roster indicates it would be a miracle if Ruff willed them into the playoffs. While Stamkos is in the conversation for the league's best player, the Lightning's depth at forward and defense is weak, and goaltending is downright terrible. While there are some nice pieces to work with including rookie Cory Conacher and recently-acquired Benoit Pouliot, the Lightning do not have enough talent throughout their ranks to compete with the likes of the Pittsburgh Penguins or Boston Bruins.
As a long-term option, GM Steve Yzerman would have to make sure to find the types of players that fit with Ruff. That may seem simple, but Darcy Regier's acquisitions and draft picks often failed to mesh with his coach's sensibilities.
Matthew Coller is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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