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Do the Sabres struggles trace back to how Lindy Ruff handles his players?

May 17, 2012

Over his 15-year tenure, Ruff’s job has been called for a number of times. Fans on the radio and message boards have typically been those leading the pitchfork mob, but the media has even begun to levy more criticism against Lindy Ruff as of late.

Most notably, Ruff’s players have come out to question some of the methods he has become known for. Derek Roy and Ville Leino’s locker clean out day remarks were the two that stood out the most in terms of questioning their coach’s approach.

There was a lot of pieces that were kind of out of place,” Leino said. “Also, they’ve got to work with what they were given. We have a lot of good players and we’re a good team, which we proved at the end. We just didn’t get that chemistry and all that right away at the start, and it was probably too late.

Coaches do most of the work, and obviously players want to be better, too. I think we’ve just got to get more out of everybody, which we did at the end. It doesn’t matter who plays if you don’t get their talents out. You’ve got to try to use everybody with what they’re best at. ~ Ville Leino

Terry Pegula and Ted Black have voiced their support for Ruff and Darcy Regier many times. Black all but confirmed the two would be back for 2012-13 at the All-Star break. When it was announced they would return, there wasn’t too much surprise. However, the long stretch of listless hockey last year and ultimately missing the playoffs has brought more heat on the Sabres’ bench boss. Ruff has been coated with Teflon for a long time. However, it seems as if his coating is starting to wear out.

The base of this argument centers around the fact that the Sabres have not won enough hockey games the last few seasons. As most are quick to point out, the Sabres haven’t won a playoff series since 2007. They also failed to make the playoffs last season and suffered through a season-long string of inconsistent play and injuries.

While Lindy Ruff certainly isn’t the only person to blame for the struggles the Sabres suffered through last year, he is certainly part of the puzzle. Ruff didn’t seem capable of righting the ship at various times. He certainly didn’t sit idly by as the Sabres took a nose dive, it just seemed as if he wasn’t capable of finding the answers with the players provided to him. With reports from people on, or close to the team (like Paul Hamilton) that players had begun to tune him out.

Ruff’s ability to utilize his players properly has long been a knock against him, but usually it was centered on his underutilization back-up goaltenders.  The 2011-12 season brought out a mob of fans who felt he wasn’t capable of getting the most out of his scorers as well. Personally, I think this may be Ruff’s greatest failing.

Looking at the teams remaining in the Conference Finals, you see a quartet that utilized a specific system – and impressive individual play – to reach this round of the playoffs. Each team has found their own niche and their individual“systems” have played a key role in their success. However, each team(except maybe for the Coyotes) have gotten key contributions from their top players as they have advanced. Each team has also gotten great goaltending, something that isn’t a weakness for the Sabres.

The Kings and Devils, in particular, have made sure their top players and most potent scorers have been in the position to contribute at all times. That means ensuring to put those players on the ice in a position to make a difference in the game. Typically that involves playing in the offensive zone. WGR’s Matthew Coller has done some tremendous work in identifying the offensive zone starts for numerous players throughout the league. In fact, his in-depth statistical analysis of the entire Sabres roster is something to behold.

Among his findings was the fact that Buffalo’s best scorers (example: Thomas Vanek) do not see the same number off offensive zone starts as their counterparts with other teams. Basically, Buffalo’s top scorers don’t get the same opportunities to start in the offensive zone as players on other teams.

While that single statistic doesn’t tell the whole story, it does tell part of it. What it points to is the portion of Ruff’s “system” predicated on the ability to play two-way hockey, no matter what your cap hit is. If you want to draw a broad conclusion from that point, you might say that Ruff cares more about playing defense than ensuring he is using his players to the best of their ability.

That is a very broad assumption to make and it is probably incorrect. Yes, Ruff preaches two-way hockey and expects his players to be capable of playing defensively responsible hockey. It is foolish, however, to think that Ruff is purposefully choking the offensive life from his players with this approach. You might say that his commitment to sound hockey has caused the general decrease in offensive production across the board.

This decrease, which shows across the stat sheet, was prevalent this season. It may also serve as a way to understand why so many trade deadline acquisitions fail to catch on in Buffalo. Dominic Moore was injured and allegedly Raffi Torres was out of shape, but can anyone say that Darcy Regier seriously missed on Danius Zubrus, Steve Bernier, Dominic Moore, Raffi Torres and Brad Boyes? I don’t think that would be a fair assessment. Some of them probably weren’t the correct choice, but I have to imagine a majority failed to mesh with the system that Ruff expected them to play in on a nightly basis. Add in his constant line shuffling and you may have a case for why the Sabres don’t seem to produce at the rate of other teams.

Another way to look at it would be the impressive hockey played by Boyes and Cody Hodgson in the week or so immediately following their acquisition, versus the less impressive runs they had once they were settled in. One might draw the conclusion that once they grasped the system, their offense began to dry up. I know that is the train of thought I follow.

The point I’m trying to prove here is that the Sabres have been very good at producing a team with a bunch of 20-goal, 50-point players. Rarely do the Sabres have a player (or players) finish the year with more than 80 points. Yes, they typically have one player near the point-per-game plateau. However, there is typically an impressive drop from the team’s leading scorer and the next few players. Is this solely due to the way Ruff utilizes his forwards? Probably not, but that certainly is a major contributing factor.

There is nothing wrong with building from the net out in hopes of winning a Cup. But not making full use of the skills of your team’s top-six is foolhardy.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 18, 2012 7:53 am

    I think the major factor in the Sabres lack of elite talent is the lack of top 5 draft picks that this team has had over the years.

    Since the Sabres took Pierre Turgeon 1st overall in 1987, they have picked on average 17th overall with their first pick in the draft. There are two years (2007 & 1993 where they didn’t own a 1st round pick). But, if you take those two picks out, you are still at an average pick of 15th overall.

    Within those 24 drafts, there are only two top 10 picks and one top 5 pick [96 – Rasmussen 7th & ’03 Vanek 5th].

    The utter lack of bottoming out and not having multiple top 3 to 5 picks on the roster has not helped. And the Sabres haven’t gotten lucky with a late round pick like Detroit did twice with Datsyuk & Zetterberg.

    Ruff has worn out his stay in Buffalo and they team needs a new voice. But, it’s not like there is a ton of “Can’t miss” talent on the team or in the system.

    And Regier hasn’t traded for a big time difference maker offensively since the B&D deals.

    • May 18, 2012 9:58 am

      You make a pretty interesting point. I agree that the Sabres could use more elite talent, but I don’t think it is because of their lack of lottery picks. Getting elite talent and lottery selections aren’t mutually exclusive. Example: Raffi Torres and Tim Connolly are top-10 picks.

      I think if you look at some of the deals Regier has made lately, you will see the attempt to infuse offense (Boyes a 40-goal scorer, Hodgson). However, the way these players, and those already on the roster, have meshed with the “system” hasn’t worked out.

      That is kind of the crux of my argument, of course. Is Lindy Ruff capable of utilizing the talent given to him to make the Sabres an elite offensive threat?

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