It is surprising, yet a bit unsurprising that the reeling Buffalo Sabres fired head coach Lindy Ruff Wednesday afternoon. Surprising to see the NHL’s longest-tenured coach of 16 years out of a job in Buffalo less than halfway through a lockout-shortened season, while not surprising considering the Sabres were 6-10-2 through Wednesday, two points out of last place in the Eastern Conference.
It was clear changes needed to be made for the small-market team with a high payroll that has been unable to produce the past two seasons. In fact, it got so bad that the Sabres were booed on their home ice after a 2-1 loss to Winnipeg on Tuesday.
The unfortunate reality is that in the eyes of Sabres upper management, Ruff’s philosophy was not clicking with his players, and to salvage a condensed 48-game season, a leadership change was needed. The reality is that short of Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, and goalie Ryan Miller, the Sabres do not have a load of talent and it has shown, particularly defensively.
They rank 26th in the league with 3.29 goals against per game, and have not made it any easier for Miller. It is hard to pinpoint what exactly is going wrong with the Sabres, a team that committed to a $140 million payroll last season to put together a Stanley Cup caliber team, only to become a big bust, as the Sabres went 9-19-5 during a 33-game stretch, which included 12 consecutive road losses.
But they also nearly leapfrogged the Eastern Conference during an 18-5-5 through February and March in which they jumped from 14th in the conference to eighth on March 24, before falling three points short of the eighth seed and missing the playoffs. What makes ownership think they couldn’t turn it around again this time?
Even more surprising is that general manager Darcy Reiger gave his stamp of approval for the oft-and-on criticized Ruff, whose job security has been in question for years, only to be backed again and again by Reiger.
New owner Terry Pegula also liked Ruff, who has been a symbol of Sabres hockey since he was drafted in the second round in 1979, and a team he spent 10 years with as a player.
And despite the recent struggles, Ruff is also a great coach, and the same coach who guided the Sabres to the playoffs in each of his first four years as coach, including the Conference Finals in his first season, and to the Stanley Cup finals in 1999. Yet the reality was that the past decade, the Sabres have never been able to reclaim the great runs they had in the late 90s.
The Sabres have only advanced past the first round twice in the past nine seasons, and made the playoffs only four of the last nine years. They have also missed the playoffs in three of the past five seasons.
High expectations coupled with another slow start, this time during a 48-game season, led to Ruff’s demise. But for someone who is almost completely synonymous with Sabres hockey, this was certainly a ‘Ruff’ exit for the franchise’s winningest coach, and all the bit undeserving for such a revered figure in Buffalo.
This was a coach who always placed the accountability of the team upon himself, and was committed to the city of Buffalo, living in the area year-round. The bitter, and essentially sad, reality, is that even small market, blue-collar teams, face the constant pressure to win and win consistently.
Yet if you are going to fire him, at least wait until season’s end. The Sabres nearly pulled off the improbable last year, albeit with high expectations, and I am inclined to think they could have done it again under Ruff’s guidance.
I for one am not a big proponent of firing coaches mid-season (in this case not even mid-season), let alone during a lockout-shortened one. And even if plans were in place to save this season, hiring an interim coach from your AHL affiliate is not the route to take.
Although Ron Rolston has had some success in his first two years coaching the Rochester Americans, he has no NHL coaching experience. And if the Sabres miss the playoffs, Reiger is next.
It’s the end of an era in Buffalo. To put it in better perspective, there have been 170 coaching changes since Ruff was hired. It’s a poor way to end a relationship with an ever-lasting figure to a city that lives and dies by their sports teams; the Sabres had a new record for average paid attendance of 18,272 per home game last season.
And while fans may have booed, called for a coaching change, and even believed it was long overdue, it doesn’t change the team Ruff built from the ground up.
Ruff deserved better. Instead, he was shown the door a third of the way into a lockout-shortened season.