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A new path for the Sabres as Ruff’s time ends

February 20, 2013

After 170 coaches came and went since Lindy Ruff was first hired, the time finally came for the Sabres organization to take things in a different direction. It certainly seems like an overdue decision.

Lindy Ruff truly is a terrific hockey coach. It was said by Ted Black that no one has done so much with so little over the past number of years. You really can’t contend with that logic. Calling the shots for a club handcuffed by an internal budget, forced to deal with trade deadline acquisitions that often left many wanting more, Ruff was able to cobble together a number of impressive campaigns.

Perhaps his most impressive work came before the lockout when the Sabres were truly hampered by their lack of an owner and further lack of talent on the ice. His post-lockout success has been intermittent but still significant. A pair of conference finals and a President’s Trophy was built on the strength of a deep, talented roster that keyed on a puck possession system. Two further playoff berths came with an arguably lesser roster but were visibly stamped with Ruff’s brand of hockey.

Of course it was probably that brand of hockey that may have done him in. The post-Drury/Briere era has been riddled with inconsistency and bland hockey. More often than not fans and media reverted to pointing at the stale message coming from behind the bench or the front office as the same ugly issues cropped up year after year.

This season was no different. An inconsistent stat devolved to a tailspin that needs to be corrected. The team hasn’t been able to defend or provide consistent scoring. The same slumping players are experiencing the same slumps they have over the past handful of seasons with no answer as to how to snap them into reality. At his press conference yesterday, Ruff truly looked like a man with no answers.

For the first time in his long tenure I truly thought he was at the end of his rope. Turns out that was exactly where he was. The past five seasons have come with two playoff berths but have also been accompanied by mismanaged goaltenders, the lack of progress from young players and long spells of listless, uninspired play. Sixteen more games of the same song was finally enough and I can’t say I’m in disagreement.

I’ve always been a fan of Ruff. I think he is effective with his firm attitude and willingness to play a tight, puck control system. However, with the moves made by Darcy Regier since Terry Pegula issued his first blank check made me wonder if Ruff wasn’t the right man to handle this roster.

Taking a closer look at players like Tyler Myers, Drew Stafford and even guys like Ales Kotalik and Max Afinogenov makes me wonder if his ability to cultivate talent was his greatest shortcoming. For every Jason Pominville or Danny Briere that Ruff built from the ashes of the waiver wire, there seems to be more stalled projects who remain far from reaching their greatest potential.

Look no further than the way Mikhail Grigorenko has been handled this season. While Ruff was cornered with two additional young, skilled centers; Grigorenko has been left on the wayside to only see minutes with defensive wingers or serving as the grocery stick on the bench. Is this all Ruff’s doing? Absolutely not. But there also appeared to be some apprehension to allow Grigorenko to skate with linemates who will truly let him flash his offensive skillset. To provide a comparison, Alex Galchenyuk is skating with Brendan Gallagher and Brandon Prust which is a line with a little grit and plenty of skill for the lottery pick to grow with.

The use (or misuse) of Grigorenko certainly wasn’t the breaking point for Ruff. However, the potential that Grigorenko holds makes the introduction of Ron Rolston somewhat exciting.

While Rolston isn’t a sexy pick, he is a smart pick. Not only is he familiar with many of the young players that dot the current roster, he is also widely respected for his ability to cultivate young players. Putting him in a situation to provide some grooming to Tyler Myers, Tyler Ennis, Grigorenko, Cody Hodgson and others provides the opportunity for these players to grow, improve and possibly snap out of the rut they may be playing in.

Rolston may not end up as the permanent coach for the Sabres. However, I think introducing him as the interim coach makes sense. It makes plenty of sense if Darcy Regier is also out of rope and is let go by the end of the year. If that is the case a brand new regime will likely take over.

Placing Rolston in a situation to see the rest of the season out and maybe restart the growth process with some of these players gives the Sabres something to build on during what has started to look like a lost season. It could even be argued that having Myers, Drew Stafford and Grigorenko find their confidence will mean more in the long term than sticking with a familiar, tired product.

No matter how overdue his departure was, it was always going to be difficult seeing Lindy Ruff depart. He did great things behind the bench in Buffalo and I’m certain most fans will remember him warmly. It’s too bad he didn’t win a Cup in Buffalo, but hopefully his departure sets the wheels in motion for us all to see a Cup in Buffalo.

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