Lindy Ruff, the Teflon Don

It’s one of the key components of any drinking contest related to a nationally televised Buffalo Sabres game.  Every time you hear the phrase “Lindy Ruff is the longest tenured coach in the NHL”, take a drink (but only if you’re of age, of course – we at Buffalo Wins don’t condone illegal activity by the under-21 crowd, you know).

The followup to an acknowledgement of Ruff’s lengthy tenure is always a mention of the number of coaching changes that have taken place in the NHL since July 21, 1997, the date Ruff became the coach of the Sabres. In the NBC Sports War Room of Acceptable Talking Points there’s an old-fashioned dial-based counter that keeps track of this number, and it slowly cranked over to 169 when the Montreal Canadiens dismissed Jacques Martin this past Saturday.  (Coincidentally, my own counter cranked over to three – signifying the number of times I’ve had to revise this article since I started writing it because coaches keep getting fired. Slow down, willya guys?)

Think about how much turnover that is for a moment. Excluding the Nashville Predators – whose current coach, Barry Trotz, is the only coach they’ve ever known – that’s an average of more than six head coaching changes per NHL team in fourteen years.  Put another way, NHL teams send a head coach packing once every 2.3 years.  Some teams change coaches as frequently as underwear and cause that average to skew higher – looking at you here, New Jersey – but the point remains: in a profession where it’s often easiest to replace the man in charge instead of the highly-paid athletes he leads (right, Bruce Boudreau?), Ruff’s tenure is equal parts impressive and mystifying.  In fact, only Gregg Popovich, coach of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs since 1996, has currently held the title of head coach longer than Ruff in the four major professional North American sports.

In a conversation I had with Joe a couple weeks ago, he referred to Ruff as the “Teflon Don”.  It’s an apt description for a man who seemingly dodges unemployment much like John Gotti once dodged the law, despite a perennially slow-starting band of underachievers and a general tendency by NHL general managers to shake things up at the slightest hint of a slump.  This year alone, six NHL head coaches have already been handed pink slips and we’re not even through December yet. Two of them – Boudreau and Randy Carlyle – have a higher points percentage throughout their careers than Lindy Ruff.  Carlyle even won a Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2007.   Yet Ruff soldiers on.

Most reasons for Ruff’s job security are obvious and oft-discussed, but I think they’re worthy of scrutiny regardless.

His record speaks for itself, or at least the numbers behind it do. Nobody has coached or won more games, regular season or playoffs, for the Sabres than Lindy Ruff.  In just over 13 seasons, the 542 wins (as of this writing) piled up by Ruff are well over 300 more than Scotty Bowman, who is #2 on the list with 210, and his 54 playoff wins dwarf Bowman’s 18. His career regular season points percentage of .564 (through 2010-11) doesn’t put him within the top 20 all-time, but it’s the best of any Sabres coach since Bowman.  Ruff is the 16th coach in NHL history to win 500 games and also has a Jack Adams award to his credit, having been nominated for it twice.  Among head coaches that have only been with a single team, nobody has won more games than Ruff; the legendary Toe Blake, whose only coaching stint was a very successful 13 years with the Canadiens, is second on that list with 500 wins. In short: although Ruff hasn’t delivered a Stanley Cup to Buffalo, he has the sort of track record that suggests his leash should be longer than, say, John MacLean and his ill-fated tenure with New Jersey last year.

For years, Ruff has been a beneficiary of ownership that only cared about the money. Ruff was technically hired while the Knox family was still in charge of the Sabres in 1997, but John Rigas and his merry band of criminals took control of the team shortly after.  Five years after the Rigases took the reins, we learned how they truly saw the Sabres: not as a competitive hockey team that nearly won a Stanley Cup, but as nothing more than a piggy bank they could use to fund the construction of golf courses.  The Rigases were sent to prison for their embezzlement of funds from the Sabres and other family-owned businesses, and the team wallowed in bankruptcy limbo until B. Thomas Golisano rescued them.  I will forever be indebted, as I believe all Sabres fans should be, to Golisano for saving the Buffalo Sabres – but after a few years of ownership it became apparent that he, too, was much less interested in the hockey than the financials.  To Golisano’s credit, unlike the Rigas family he actually did his best to make the Sabres profitable. But winning didn’t seem to matter to him after a while – all he knew and cared about it is that he employed a coach and management structure that was good enough to keep the paying customers returning, and that meant he didn’t need to rock the boat.  And speaking of keeping the watercraft steady….

Darcy Regier will never, ever fire Lindy Ruff. I suggested that Ruff’s leash is long because of his track record… well, combine that with the fact that he’s the only head coach Regier has ever known, and you can essentially quadruple that leash.  Heck, maybe you can just put a little sideways eight on it if you prefer.  As long as Darcy Regier is the general manager, Lindy Ruff will be his coach.  Period.

There’s also the matter of Ruff’s multi-year contract extension. If one presumes that Darcy Regier will, in fact, never fire Lindy Ruff, then the task of swinging the axe would fall to Terry Pegula.  It’s awfully hard to believe that Pegula could go from “Lindy ain’t going nowhere” to “Lindy, here are directions to the local unemployment office” in just a few short months.  The multi-year deal Ruff was given in the offseason (believed to be three years, although I’m not 100% certain it was ever confirmed) suggests that Pegula is willing to allow Ruff to turn things around.  Which, by the way, happens to be something he’s been rather good at…

Ruff has a remarkable ability to right the ship. Following the most depressing season in Sabres history, when the team went bankrupt and very nearly folded or left town, Ruff’s squad started very slowly in 2003-2004.  After a seven-game losing streak in December that left the Sabres six games below .500 and well out of a playoff spot, Ruff rallied his young and rebuilt squad with one of the NHL’s best post-December records, including a 10-2-1 stretch in January and February.  Similarly, after a horrendous start to the 2007-08 season the Sabres rebounded remarkably until being eliminated from playoff contention in game 81 of that season.  These pale in comparison to last season’s turnaround: a team that sat in last place in the East on November 5th after a 3-9-2 start earned the seventh seed on the strength of a 16-4-4 finish.  Although slow starts are frustrating and are known to get coaches canned in normal situations, Ruff has shown a tendency to know how to fix what’s broken over the course of a season.

At this point, I probably sound like a Ruff apologist.  But despite the points above, I’m starting to suspect that the next year or two may be Lindy Ruff’s (and by extension, Darcy Regier’s) last stand, and perhaps rightfully so.

Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier have survived despite mediocrity (defined, for the purposes of this article, as “zero championships”) for fourteen years, in part because their teams have never been so bad as to cause complete fan revolt, and in part because prior ownership was focused on more important prorities than winning hockey games, such as embezzlement and fraud for the Rigases or escaping New York state taxes and dating Monica Seles for Tom Golisano.  Terry Pegula, on the other hand, cares not about such things.  His list of concerns has one entry on it: winning a Stanley Cup.  He says he wants one within three years and is spending money hand over fist, sometimes to the point of ridicule (criticism which I happen to think is rather absurd, by the way), in order to do just that.  In short: Terry is paying far more attention.

When Pegula drastically remodeled the Sabres this summer from top to bottom, he emphatically identified Lindy Ruff as the man best suited to run the show.  We’re a mere 33 games into the Pegula era, and so far it’s been marked with a ridiculous string of injuries that make it downright impossible to truly understand all the dynamics.  Although many are calling for Ruff’s head on a platter right now, I’m actually pleasantly surprised that the Sabres are treading water, what with five called-up Amerks currently in the lineup (and two more call-ups on the injured list).  Sure, the Sabres haven’t won consecutive games since Veteran’s Day – but they also haven’t failed to gain a point in more than two straight, either. 

Yeah, I know – I just used injuries as an excuse, and you’re likely punching your computer screen in response.  But I believe it’s a valid justification for not pulling the trigger on Ruff and Regier so soon, and I also acknowledge it’s an excuse that has a very limited shelf life.  With all of the other traditional excuses like ownership and spending eliminated, I think Ruff and Regier need to start being concerned if we’re still having the same discussions about being outside of the playoff picture with rampant inconsistency up and down the lineup a year from now.

Based on the modest success Ruff and Regier have enjoyed during their long reign, I expect that Pegula will give them every opportunity to succeed.  But I truly believe that, if he feels his spending will be for naught otherwise, he won’t hesitate to show Ruff and Regier the door if that’s what he thinks he has to do to improve the team’s results.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to check the news to see if any other coaches have gotten fired since I hit the publish button.

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