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Ruff’s contract almost up, leaving Stars tough choice behind the bench

Lindy Ruff’s contract in Dallas is up at season’s end and with the Stars struggling, change could be coming behind the bench. The Stars will have plenty of coaches to choose from, too.

It’s hard not to feel bad for Lindy Ruff.

The Dallas Stars have two dozen games left on their schedule before the season is up, and there Ruff is with a team that’s sunken rather unexpectedly to the bottom of the standings. This was supposed to be a year in which a threatening Stars lineup took another step forward, pushed deep into the post-season and maybe even flirted with winning the franchise’s second Stanley Cup. Instead, Ruff’s Stars have plummeted to the bottom of the standings. Only the Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche — both real, honest to goodness bad teams — have fared worse.

We’ve touched on it before, but this isn’t exactly Ruff’s fault. Given the injuries his roster has sustained, the changes his lineup has seen and the fact the duo of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi still aren’t getting the job done between the pipes, Ruff hasn’t had all that much help. Losing Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers seems to have had a bigger impact than anyone could have suspected, and making matters worse is that while the pure firepower that was Dallas’ calling card before isn’t exactly gone, it’s not succeeding at the same rate as past seasons, so outscoring opponents on a nightly basis hasn’t quite worked, either.

Put that all together and you’ve got a Stars team that’s right near the bottom of the standings, and that has to be tough enough on Ruff. Somehow, though, that isn’t even really the worst of it. 

The most difficult part about Ruff’s position has to be that he’s a sitting duck. Throughout this season, Gerard Gallant, Jack Capuano, Michel Therrien and Claude Julien have been fired. The blindsided nature of those firings, especially for Gallant and Therrien, had to be tough, no doubt, but Ruff may be able to literally count the days until he’s gone. His contract, a four-year deal he inked back in 2013, is up after this season, and with the Stars looking like a lock to miss the post-season, it seems more likely than not that Dallas will be moving on.

If Ruff is indeed gone at season’s end, it then becomes a question of who steps in to take over the position. Before the Canadiens swooped in a picked up Julien, he would have been the perfect candidate for the Stars job. Problem is, he was also the perfect candidate for the job in Montreal. And he also would have worked well in Florida or Brooklyn or Vegas. Even if the Stars wanted Julien, he was going to have options, and now that option is completely off the table.

One intriguing scenario would be if the move by the Canadiens to bring back Julien, who coached in Montreal from 2002 to 2006, has somehow inspired the Stars to look to their own past. There are two bench bosses available who fit the bill of a former Dallas coach who could be in line for the gig, Marc Crawford and Ken Hitchcock. The likelihood either return to Dallas might be slim, but they’re options nevertheless.

Crawford held the Stars job on his way out of the NHL back in 2011, but his two-year stint with the franchise was fruitless. Despite turning in two consecutive winning seasons, the team finished outside of the post-season both years, even if was by only a slight margin. His candidacy for the job would be interesting in that he’s coming off of several years coaching overseas and won two championships in the Swiss league. Now an associate with the Ottawa Senators, he could take what he’s learned over the past few years and apply it to a team with more firepower.

The more interesting of the two former coaches, however, is Hitchcock. Crawford’s had his own success, but only a select few can match what Hitchcock has done throughout his career, and fans in Dallas will certainly remember him fondly. He joined the franchise in 1995-96 and over the next four seasons the Stars gradually built to a Stanley Cup championship in 1998-99. The next season, Hitchcock again led the Stars to the final, but they came up just shy of back-to-back titles. Even when he was let go, Dallas was above .500. A tough coach? Maybe. They don’t come much better, though. 

And what of the other three recently relieved bench bosses? Therrien, Gallant and Capuano will all have their suitors, and Dallas could be among them.

Therrien’s the most successful with 406 wins to his name and his .563 points percentage is the highest of any of the trio of recently removed coaches. Therrien also has 71 post-season games under his belt with a .535 winning percentage, including an Eastern Conference title with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2007-08. Playoff success can be alluring, especially for a team that appears a piece or two away from a deep run, and that alone could be enough for the Stars to take a long hard look at Therrien.

But Gallant and Capuano are also worth taking a look at if Dallas is in the market. Gallant’s work with the Panthers was admirable. He was given a young roster with loads of potential and turned them into a playoff team, and many had the Panthers pegged for another successful season before his shocking firing. As for Capuano, he had a lengthy tenure with the Islanders and one could argue had Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen stuck around Capuano might still be around.

Of course, hiring Crawford, Hitchcock, Therrien, Gallant or Capuano is contingent on their availability. There’s a job to be had with the Vegas Golden Knights and questions about the future behind the bench for the three interim coaches, Bruce Cassidy in Boston, Tom Rowe in Florida and Doug Weight in New York. If the interims give up the job, that’s three more openings. None of this is to mention Crawford inked a three-year deal with the Senators, so he might be sticking in Ottawa for a while.

Dallas could look anywhere, though. The talk of Utica Comets coach Travis Green taking over an NHL bench has grown consistently and Sheldon Keefe’s success with the Toronto Marlies could see him draw some interest. Even Texas Stars coach Derek Laxdal could be in the conversation. Then there’s current NHL assists like Kirk Muller and Kevin Dineen among others, which is to say the options are near limitless.

The most unexpected move of all, though, would be giving Ruff one more shot and it wouldn’t be an unprecedented move. After a disappointing end to the 2014-15 season, a third-straight first-round exit, St. Louis gave Hitchcock another shot on a one-year deal. He subsequently took the Blues to the Western Conference final in 2015-16, beating the Stars along the way, and earned another one-year deal before his eventual firing when the Blues ran into some mid-season difficulties.

The situation isn’t all that similar for Ruff and the Stars, but the down year doesn’t necessarily represent what he’s been able to manage in Dallas. Ruff led the team to one of the franchise’s best regular season performances in 2015-16, and each of the past three seasons the Stars earned 90-plus points. Does he come back? That’s for Dallas’ front office to decide. One would guess Ruff lands on his feet either way.

The Stars’ decision for the future behind the bench will be one of the most important the franchise makes in the coming months. There are plenty of options available, be it Ruff or otherwise, and choosing the right coach for the job could very well be the difference between Dallas taking the next step or a few years where the playoffs aren’t quite a certainty.

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