You can’t say Lindy Ruff never had enough chances to succeed in Buffalo. Indeed, the Sabres’ longest-serving coach and the man who had more tenure with his team than any other current NHL coach spent 5,693 days on the job before the franchise fired him Wednesday afternoon. But although Ruff was done in by a stumbling 6-10-1 start to the season, the reality is this move should have been made long ago.
That’s not to excuse the moribund performance of the team this season and Ruff’s role in it. However, anyone who takes a look at the franchise in recent years could see a team that had some significant issues. Indeed, when you consider the Sabres have made the playoffs just four times in the past 10 years, it’s no small wonder a management change of some sort didn’t come sooner.
Now, there’s certainly something to be said for continuity of message. But 16 years of the same approach stretches far beyond that and deep into cult of personality territory. Even worse, it gave the core of the team a face and persona to protect it year after year, even as ownership changed hands numerous times, even as star players such as Dominik Hasek and Derek Roy came and went.
In many regards, that’s a credit to Ruff’s abilities, which will remain highly respected and coveted around the league regardless of his employment status. The 53-year-old made more lemonade out of lemons than the Country Time and Mike’s Hard empires combined, so for a very long time there was the sense the team didn’t have to spend as much to compete as the league’s consistent Stanley Cup contenders. That has changed under present-day owner Terry Pegula – and even though the team has some very promising youngsters in the midst (including Cody Hodgson and Tyler Myers), they somehow had put those youngsters in positions of massive importance. Hodgson has responded well so far this year, but Myers has struggled mightily. And honestly, when Hodgson is expected to be your No. 1 center after just one season where he posted decent numbers, I’d argue the organization as a whole is asking too much of the 23-year-old.
If Ruff had been dismissed after three straight years of missing the playoffs from 2002-2004 – or after two straight trips to the draft lottery from 2008-09 – the franchise might well have charted a far different course. Instead, the roster retained much, if not most of its core under equally-long-tenured GM Darcy Regier. Certainly, many of those players still have great value. But what if the mix was just the wrong mix? That happens often across all sports. Usually when the wrong mix happens, a coach gets tossed out as well. But, for better or worse, the mix remained the same in Buffalo because Ruff believed in players. Yet year upon year, they were still failing to get it done for one reason or another.
And this past summer, rather than looking at an aging core and deciding to acquire more youth, what did the Sabres do? They doubled down on the grit Ruff loved to see by dealing Roy and acquiring agitator Steve Ott. Did that make sense considering Buffalo already had a world-class pest in Patrick Kaleta? You could easily argue it did not. But as we know, many NHL teams wind up being built in the image of the man behind their bench. The Sabres became more like Ruff and less like one that could compete with younger, more skilled divisional rival squads in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.
Now all the heat gets directed at Regier, who has been in his position as long as Ruff was until today. With cornerstone goalie Ryan Miller scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after next season, you would imagine the Sabres have to scramble in a big way to show him the future is worth sticking around for. But there’s a danger there as well: If Regier makes a push for more veterans, he easily could wind up chasing his tail and putting Buffalo in the no-man’s-land of a ninth-or-10th-place finish, far from the elite prospect pool and just as far from the post-season.
In other words, the Sabres’ big decisions are far from over simply because Ruff is no longer in town. They may yet be able to pull out of this tailspin and return to being the franchise that made two consecutive Eastern Conference final appearances, but they’ve been at a crossroads for a very long time. At the very least, the removal of a team legend like Ruff – however painful it might be in the short-term – gives Buffalo a better chance at a more honest appraisal of where they stand in the NHL’s pecking order.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.