Since 1997, when the Buffalo Sabres first hired Lindy Ruff to be the franchises 15th head coach, there have been; 14 different Stanley Cup Champions, 13 other coaches to win the Jack Adams Award (NHL’s top coach) and 168 different coaching changes.
Of the 14 coaches to win Lord Stanley’s cup over that span only four still stand behind the bench of the team with whom they won; Claude Julien (BOS), Joel Quenneville (CHI), Dan Bylsma (PIT) and Mike Babcock (DET). Not coincidentally the last four coaches to win the cup.
The Sabres struggles this season have beckoned the questioning of Ruff’s stronghold on his place as longest tenured bench master in the NHL.
Inconsistency not only has marred the team on a game-to-game basis, but even more discouragingly on a period-to-period basis. As this team struggles to find an identity and develop a consistent chemistry, high expectations leave fans anxious for a quick turnaround.
Injuries have contributed greatly to the team’s angst, but in a world where the only thing that matters is winning the cup, how much time can Lindy honestly have before owner Terry Pegula starts looking to his administration rather than his roster to disperse blame?
In Ruff’s defense, he has often made the most of his low-budget show, commanding teams that overachieved throughout his time in Buffalo. He has not always had top-tier talent to work with, but if great coaches who have won cups in the last decade (Randy Carlyle, Peter Laviolette, John Tortorella, etc.) can be let go; the Sabres organization has to at least consider it an option.
In 2004-2005, the NHL locked out what would have been the 88th season in NHL history and the result was a new collective bargaining agreement and, more importantly, a new brand of hockey.
So, before the team decides to mutiny the captain of their sinking ship, let’s review the history between Lindy and his team. Give him a fair shake and rationally assess whether or not he deserves a chance to right this ship that has so many holes.
In the 1996-1997 season the Sabres unveiled a new black and white uniform scheme at the newly built Marine Midland Arena. The season unfortunately culminated with a second-round playoff loss at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Then head coach Ted Nolan won the Jack Adams Award that season, but season-long tensions between Nolan and then General Manager John Muckler, led to the Sabres offering a low-ball 1-year contract which Nolan refused to take and the two parted company. Muckler was also dismissed at the end of the year.
With Nolan and Muckler out, that opened the door to a new era in Sabres management and so began a regime that has endured the last 12-years.
Ruff took over a team led by a Hart and Vezina Trophy winning goaltender with a gritty, defensive style of hockey.
In his first season at the helm, Ruff continued to employ a tough, defensive style. The team leaned on the strength of Dominik Hasek’s second consecutive Hart and Vezina Trophy winning season to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they fell to the Washington Capitals in 6-games.
Ruff’s second season in 1998-1999 would prove to be one that lives in infamy for Sabres fans. The Sabres rode Hasek’s fifth Vezina season to the franchises second-ever Stanley Cup Finals appearance versus the Dallas Stars. The exciting season was ended prematurely however, when well, you know what happened – if you don’t ask Brett Hull, @2ndBestHull on twitter.
The ensuing NHL draft would prove to net a future star as the Sabres drafted Ryan Miller in the fifth-round out of Michigan State.
Despite losing Hasek for the majority of the 1999-2000 campaign to a groin injury, Marty Biron stepped in and cemented himself as a fan favorite in Buffalo. Biron however, wasn’t the answer as the Sabres lost in the first-round to the Flyers.
In 2000-2001, Hasek would return to form, carrying the Sabres to a second place finish in the Northeast Division. Although the Sabres grinded through the playoffs to the Conference Finals, the return of Mario Lemieux and heroics of Darius Kasparaitis proved to be too much as the Pittsburgh Penguins cut down the Sabres hopes of returning to the finals in double overtime of game-7.
The end of an era of Sabres hockey came in the next offseason as the Sabres ended a contract dispute with former captain Michael Peca by trading him to the Islanders for much maligned Tim Connolly and Taylor Pyatt. After the season the Sabres would also bid farewell to its catalyst between the pipes, trading Hasek to the Detroit Red Wings.
Some of the darkest times to be a Sabres fan followed the trading of an all-time goaltender. Over the next 3-seasons, Regier and Ruff would have to endure controversial ownership scandals, franchise bankruptcy, missing the playoffs and declining game attendance.
The tandem made the best of an abysmal situation by staying the course, drafting for the future and attempting to instill a sense of continuity in their club through a sequence of significant trades.
In 2002-2003 Reiger traded Chris Gratton for Daniel Briere of the Phoenix Coyotes at the trade deadline.
Then in 2003-2004 the Sabres missed the playoffs for the third straight season, but Regier made the second of his two best moves as the Sabres GM thus far. By trading former first-round pick, Keith Ballard to the Colorado Avalanche for Steve Reinprecht he garnered the ability to send Reinprecht to the Calgary Flames in exchange for Chris Drury.
Finally all of the prospects drafted over the course of the dark days began to develop and a contingency of leadership began to take place, giving the fans a reason to believe. Combine the upswing in on-ice play with Tom Golisano buying the team to keep them from leaving the area and Buffalo seemed to be on to something – enter NHL Lockout.
With a new salary cap and new rules limiting the slow, defensive style of hockey that had become fashionable in the NHL over the course of a decade, the Sabres burst out of the lockout as the poster boy for adapting to the new style.
As one of the teams that had completely exemplified the style of hockey the NHL wanted to eliminate pre-lockout, give Lindy Ruff credit for taking all the new rules into account and applying them accordingly.
The Sabres became a high-flying, transition-based team that scored goals in bunches by employing aggressive defensemen on the attack and tic-tac-toe passing that was exciting to watch.
In 2005-2006, the Sabres finished second in the Northeast Division and made the playoffs for the first time since 2000-2001. The year was one for the ages as the Sabres finished the regular season with 110-points and if it not for a rash of injuries on the blue line, very well may have been the Sabres first-ever Stanley Cup.
The injuries to McKee, Numminen, Tallinder, Kalinin and Connolly were all very real and though the Sabres battled, the Carolina Hurricanes were able to defeat a roster chalked full of Rochester Americans.
2006-2007 saw the Sabres wave good-bye to the black and red in a return to the traditional blue and gold jersey colors. The season would prove to be the Sabres last as the darlings of the new style, because the rest of the league began to catch up with the adjustment.
After winning the President’s Trophy with the best regular season record, the Sabres were ousted by Ottawa in the Conference Finals and wouldn’t see the playoffs again until 2009-2010, losing key player after key player along the way.
Briere, Drury and Campbell gone, the Sabres continued a long standing tradition of relying on prospects to fill the voids, but Ruff just couldn’t find the right mix to push the team through to the playoffs.
Until 2009-2010, when the Sabres got a Calder Trophy season from Tyler Myers and a Vezina Trophy winning campaign from Ryan Miller. They won the Northeast Division with a 45-27-10 record, but were eliminated by the Boston Bruins in the first-round of the playoffs.
Then, last season brought change and with change came hope. Now the Sabres have a committed owner and a wealth of core players signed to top money. However, the money spent hasn’t correlated to wins, and as the Sabres attempt to remain afloat in the Northeast that boasts the defending Stanley Cup Champion, Bruins and a resurgent Toronto Maple Leafs something has got to give.
Jack Adams coached Detroit’s hockey team from 1927-1947 and was the longest consecutively-tenured coach in the history of the NHL. He was the coach of the team through three different name changes; first the Cougars, then the Falcons and in 1932 they finally settled on the current name, Detroit Red Wings. Over his illustrious career Adams collected; 3-Stanley Cups, 413-wins and has the league’s annual top-coach award named after him.
Lindy Ruff has won a Jack Adams Award, made 8-playoff appearances, including a cup finals and 3-conference finals. There is never any way to tell how another month of hockey can effect a team, but if the losing continues, he may be ending a tour of coaching that has spanned longer than anyone currently employed as an NHL head coach.
Then again, with a little luck in the health department and a winning-streak, the tough start could easily be forgotten. Also, should Ruff manage to net this franchise it’s first-ever cup, he may end up surpassing the legendary Jack Adams – in 2021. Where does Lindy stand with you?