Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Lifetime of Ruff

Lindy Ruff was hired as the Sabres coach in 1997, which means that every Sabres game I've ever watched - I'm not going to count games I may have seen when I was too young to, you know, get it - has been coached by Lindy Ruff. That's every hockey game I've ever been invested in. Through about 2010, I loved Lindy Ruff. He was the guy to listen to after every game, the guy who led the Sabres to back-to-back Eastern conference finals, the guy who did this:

Lindy has always been the coach. I grew to love hockey (partly) because of him. For a while, I thought he could do no wrong.

But it got old. You can only be a tough, growly hardass for so long before it starts to lose it's efficacy. A player gets chewed out the first couple of times, it works. It gets them motivated, especially when the team is otherwise doing well. But there comes a time when a player messes up, expects the chewing out, and it does nothing. They know what's coming, and it becomes white noise - especially in the midst of a slump. No player is perfect, and if they get chewed out for every mistake, it grates. Ruff, in interviews this season, claimed that he had mellowed out, but that too was ineffective- Lindy Ruff doesn't exist as a good coach without anger.

Ruff hadn't just lost the players message-wise; Ruff is simply behind the times in terms of coaching. His system forces players to perfectly play both offense and defense. This is increasingly rare in the new NHL, where specialization is rampant. The reason why Jonathan Toews is so valuable is that he is a true two way center, able to play in both zones. But most teams don't have their own Toews-level player; that's why you see a lot of teams manage their lines such that defensive lines take more draws in the defensive zone, and offensive lines take more draws in the offensive zone. In Ruff's system, players were taking roughly 50-50 splits. This would be fine if the team rolled four lines of defensively capable players, but they do not. The one successful line (Vanek-Hodgson-Pominville) should be taking about 75% of their draws in the offensive zone. Instead, we have to watch Cody Hogdson dick around in the defensive zone. On the flipside, the fourth line (some mixture of Kaleta-Hecht- and ugh why are you on this team John Scott) should be starting almost all their draws in the defensive zone. Instead, we see John Scott trying to do things in the offensive zone (never a good idea for someone who can only fight).

 In addition, Ruff constantly tinkered with lines (oftentimes to punish a slumping player, to the detriment of the team), and his managing of rookie Mikhail Grigorenko has been terrible. Putting a young player in the press box is not in itself a bad move every once in a while, but even when Grigorenko plays, he is put with defensive wingers. The guy needs scorers around him to actually succeed. If the team doesn't think he's ready for the NHL, they shouldn't have kept him past the five game tryout and wasted a year of his deal. It's a clusterfuck on all levels of the organization. But back to Ruff - as much as I've loved him, the Sabres have had trouble getting the puck out of their own zone for as long as I can remember. Even when the Sabres had a 'good' defensive core, they couldn't consistently get the puck out of their zone. Now they have a tire-fire on defense.

What comes next? Ron Rolston's hiring as interim coach isn't horrible, but he's going to have to fix a lot for this team to make the playoffs. The defense and power play both need to vastly improve, and some players not named Thomas Vanek need to start scoring consistently. The East is really, really mediocre this year, which puts the Sabres, despite their meager 13 points, only 5 points out of a spot at this point. If the Sabres can fix their defense and find some secondary scoring (perhaps through a trade?), they've got a chance. A very small one, but, still: a chance. Tanking seems to be the best choice right now- the Sabres are short on premier talent across the board. A top 3 pick in this year's draft would go a long way to fixing that.

Lindy Ruff couldn't keep this team motivated, couldn't maximize their potential, so he had to go. The GM who put this team together- full of great pieces, but not in the right places - ought to be next. It's going to have to get worse before it gets any better. So long, Lindy. Thanks for making me love hockey enough to know that it was time to move forward.