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Canucks Army Coaching Candidate Profile: Lindy Ruff

Willie Desjardins wasn’t the only NHL coach handed his pink slip last week. One day before Desjardins, the first official coaching casualty of the off-season became (now) former Dallas Stars bench boss Lindy Ruff. The long-time Buffalo Sabres coach had spent the last four seasons coaching in the Lone Star State before losing his job on April 9th. With Desjardins’ ouster, it only makes sense to assess how Ruff might fit in Vancouver.

Once a depth player at the NHL level for Buffalo and the New York Rangers, Ruff transitioned almost immediately into coaching as his playing career ended. He was a part of the expansion Florida Panthers coaching brass, first as an assistant to Roger Neilson and then later Doug MacLean. In 1996, he helped the Panthers attain their greatest achievement to date – an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final. (As a side note, two of the assistants in that series – Joel Quenneville and Ruff – would go on to post more NHL wins than the head coaches of both teams, Marc Crawford and MacLean)

After Ted Nolan was unexpectedly fired following the 1996-97 Sabres season, Ruff, the former Sabres utility player, was brought in to coach the club. Ruff would go on to become one of the longest-tenured coaches in NHL history, staying on with Buffalo until February 2013. He amassed a 513-432-78-84 (W-L-T-OT/SO) record during the regular season and led – along with a goaltender named Dominik Hasek – the franchise to its second Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1999.

Following the 2005 lockout, Ruff would guide Buffalo to some of the best regular seasons in the organization’s history. In 2007, the Sabres won the President’s Trophy as the NHL’s top regular season team, with 53 wins and 113 points. Playoff success would elude Buffalo, however, as the club fell short in the Eastern Conference Final in both 2006 and 2007. Ruff, meanwhile, would at least bring home some personal hardware in the form of the Jack Adams Trophy in 2006.

But the Sabres would fail to qualify for the playoffs in three of the next five seasons – and when they did, it was only to lose in the first round. When the club got off to a 6-10-1 start in 2013, he was replaced behind the bench by Rochester American coach, Ron Rolston. At the time of his dismissal, Ruff was the longest-tenured active NHL coach with a single team.

He was hired by Dallas in the 2013 off-season and was at the helm for four up-and-down seasons. The Stars always looked poised to breakthrough as the next great Western powerhouse – especially after topping the Central Division in 2016 – but consistently fell victim to bad goaltending and a porous defence. This past year, the team had a save percentage of  89.39% (across all situations), tied with Colorado for the worst in the league. In fact, the Stars never had a total team save percentage above 18th in the league during Ruff’s tenure – a shortcoming that ultimately falls at the feet of GM Jim Nill, not Ruff. The Finnish netminding tandem of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi were simply never good enough in Dallas. But I suppose Ruff had to play one of them. For his part, Ruff actually had the Stars playing at a positive 5v5 Corsi, better than Edmonton, Anaheim, and Minnesota – all playoff teams – and only slightly below Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Columbus, and Toronto. If the coach’s job is to put his team in the best position to win, one can reasonably argue Ruff did exactly that.

The writing on the wall appeared early this season in Dallas. The Stars were beset with a litany of injuries. Patrick Sharp played only 48 games, Johnny Oduya 37 (before he was traded), and Cody Eakin 60. Dan Hamhuis couldn’t make up for the loss of both Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers, while newcomers like Esa Lindell and Stephen Johns struggled to make an impact on the blueline. Ruff’s fate was sealed when Niemi and Lehtonen continually failed to stop the puck.

So would Ruff fit in Vancouver? That’s an interesting question. On the one hand, he is the fifth-winningest coach in NHL history. On the other, Ruff has often been a living embodiment of the adage “show me a great goaltender, and I’ll show you a great coach.” His best seasons with Buffalo came when Hasek, and later Ryan Miller, were on top of their game (or, in Hasek’s case, the world). When his goalies were poor or merely average, so were his teams. That’s not anything particularly revelatory – great teams do, after all, have great players – but how it works with the Canucks is certainly relevant.

Ruff has demonstrated that he is capable of playing both an up-tempo, offensive game, as well as a tight-checking, defensive style. He plays, ultimately, to the strengths of his players. When the Sabres had Hasek and little else (sorry, Mike Peca), his teams were built around defensive structure. When he had the guns to push the pace of play, such as with the post-lockout Sabres and most recently with the Stars, he showed a unique aptitude for coaching offensive teams. Ruff has consistently taken the team at his disposal and made the most of it.

Should the Canucks decide to re-sign Ryan Miller, Ruff may be interested in reuniting with his former starting goaltender. It is also likely that he and Canucks GM Jim Benning have a working relationship from when Benning served as Buffalo’s director of amateur scouting from 1998-2004. It would seem that Ruff has more than a passing familiarity with a couple of key cogs in the Canuck organization, and connecting the dots is never a bad idea in the NHL.

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But as with all coaching candidates, the question remains: would Lindy Ruff even want to come to Vancouver? Matthew Sekeres put a damper on that possibility earlier this week on TSN 1040.

For a coach only lacking a Stanley Cup on his resume, coming to Vancouver at this time might not be especially appealing. He may even follow the recent NHL trend of returning to coach his old team, in Buffalo. Many teams will come knocking, yet if the Canucks are serious about looking for the best possible replacement for Willie Desjardins, Benning and company would be wise to knock, too.