The Buffalo Sabres are struggling these days and they are rapidly falling in the standings with only two wins in their last 10 games.
During that span, Buffalo has managed just 19 goals, and its defense has developed a bad habit of springing leaks at inopportune junctures of games. More troubling is the timing of this slide, which has come just as the season kicks into high gear. It isn't a particularly good sign since a couple of extended slumps kept the Sabres from making the playoffs last season after they were bounced in the Eastern Conference final the year before.
|Lindy Ruff is the type of coach that players respect. (Getty Images)|
But in Buffalo, there is apparently no such danger surrounding Lindy Ruff, who is the league's longest tenured coach. He is in his 12th season with the club. "More often than not, I think change has to do more with relieving tension than with the achievement of a goal," said Buffalo general manager Darcy Regier, who made Ruff one of his first hires when he took over in June 1997. "But Lindy is a good coach and a successful one and we're in this for the long run."
Through thick and thin. Ruff had no NHL head coaching experience when he arrived in Buffalo, although the new coach did have goaltender Dominik Hasek in his prime and got the Sabres to the playoffs in each of his first five seasons. Buffalo even made it to the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals against Dallas, yet despite being a tough team to play against in those days, the Sabres were just never quite good enough to get over the hump.
The bigger problem, though, was having owners who ended up in jail for fraud and basically bankrupted the organization. Things were so bad, there were questions about the organization's survival before the lockout. They persisted until regional businessman Tom Golisano bought the team in 2003, but the new owner kept a very tight grip on spending and forced the Sabres to let several key players walk over money issues.
Buffalo was forced to play a plodding defensive style as a result, and didn't make the playoffs in any of the final three seasons before the work stoppage. But when play resumed, Ruff was still behind the bench and demonstrating the importance the organization places on continuity.
"We have a lot of trust from the top down, and I think it sends a pretty strong message to the players that they're not going to be able to use that as scapegoat," Ruff said. "It tells the players they still have to be accountable and to play."
Even if it's a way they're not particularly used to. The Sabres made enough roster changes during the lockout to return with a revamped lineup that was speedy, dynamic and as it turned out, perfectly suited to the new NHL. Ruff took advantage of that new look by turning his players loose and emphasizing a more aggressive approach to the game that produced one of the league's most dangerous offenses. "I think you have to re-invent yourself as a coach in the way you approach things because you can't be the same year in, year out," Ruff said. "You do have to have a plan, but inside that plan, you could make it interesting."
For Ruff and the Sabres lately, the interesting part has been dealing with the trappings of its success in the last couple of seasons. Buffalo created very high expectations after getting to the Eastern Conference Finals in that first post-lockout season, but the Sabres have slid backward steadily since then, going a lot younger in large part because key veteran players like Daniel Briere, Chris Drury and Brian Campbell have been priced out of the market by free agency.
"It's a situation every team has to deal with under the cap," Ruff said. "The only way to approach it is to evaluate what you have, build your team from that and go from there."
The philosophy seemed to be working earlier this season. Buffalo did start out fast going undefeated in regulation through its first eight games largely because of Ryan Miller's goaltending and Thomas Vanek's blistering scoring pace. Lately though, the Sabres seem to have hit a wall and now look like they'll be in a tough fight the rest of the way just to make the playoffs.
Still Ruff isn't hitting the panic button, which may be the biggest reason he is still hanging on to a job that isn't known for offering much security.
"He's lasted this long because he has a way he handles himself and the way he treats everyone the same whether they're a fourth line player or a first line guy," said veteran Craig Rivet, who joined the team in the summer.. "I've played for a lot of coaches who seem to tip toe around players maybe that get paid more money, but that's not the way Lindy and players respect that.
"He wants to push players to be the best they can be. In tough times like this, he's the type of guy you want."