Lindy Ruff will have ‘big voice’ in Sabres’ offseason as he attempts to restore past glory

Lindy Ruff will have ‘big voice’ in Sabres’ offseason as he attempts to restore past glory

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Lindy Ruff stood at a lectern inside the atrium at KeyBank Center after owner Terry Pegula and general manager Kevyn Adams had just re-introduced him as the head coach of the Buffalo Sabres. But it was clear Ruff needed no introduction around here. His name was displayed on televisions all over the arena. A billboard near the arena displayed the message “Welcome Coach Lindy Ruff.” Dozens of staff members, some of whom were still here from when Ruff coached the Sabres from 1997 to 2013, stood in attendance at the news conference. Assistant coaches, including some of Ruff’s former players, sat in the front row.

What’s old is new again in Buffalo. After extending their league-record playoff drought to 13 seasons, the Sabres are bringing back Ruff to try and get the franchise back to respectability. As Ruff had his conversations with Adams leading up to this announcement, he said he was questioning himself.

“You know, why would I do this?” Ruff said. “Then I came to a point, why wouldn’t I? Because I’m a risk taker. And I think if there’s no risk, there’s no reward. So, I’m putting myself in that position.”

There is risk in Buffalo. In just over 11 years since Pegula fired Ruff in 2013, the Sabres have had seven different coaches. Most recently, Don Granato lasted 274 games before he was fired. None of the other six coaches between the two Ruff eras lasted 200 games. At 64 years old, this could be Ruff’s last shot as a head coach, and his pristine reputation in Buffalo will be on the line as he tries to get this group of Sabres over the edge and into the postseason.

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“I’m humbled by the opportunity that I’m getting,” Ruff said. “I get a chance to do something that I wasn’t able to do as a player. Then I became the coach of the team and didn’t succeed with what I set out to do. And now I’m getting one more opportunity in which I really feel I’m blessed to have that opportunity.”

Tuesday was a reminder of Ruff’s large presence in this franchise’s history. He’s now either been a player or coach for the Sabres in every decade the team has existed. Clearly, Pegula has an affinity for Ruff. Adams, who coached under Ruff, trusts him, too. Which is why it wasn’t altogether surprising to hear Adams say Ruff will have “a big voice” in Buffalo’s offseason roster debates. That’s part of why Adams said he wanted to move quickly to get this done, because he believes the quicker they can get to work on those offseason decisions the better.

“When I got to the point where I felt strongly, and I went to Terry and said I believe this is the right decision, the reason I was ready to move is because the work’s now,” Adams said. “Training camp in September isn’t when we start. And that was the message to the players in the exit meetings, that it’s now. And this is part of it. The work that we have to do, and with the other coaches, it’s all part of it.”

The speed of the process will be a point of conversation because only six days passed between the Sabres firing Granato and hiring Ruff. Adams said he spoke with “double-digit” candidates for the job and each conversation led him back to Ruff. But how extensive were those conversations? It certainly felt like when Adams was speaking a week ago, the candidate he had in mind was the one he ended up with six days later.

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But if the Sabres moved the process along to get a jumpstart on evaluating the roster through Ruff’s eyes, that’s defensible. Ruff’s contract as coach of the Sabres is for two seasons, but this could be the bridge to a longer partnership between the two sides. Ruff has the hockey chops to work in the front office if that’s a path he desires. Barry Trotz’s career arc in Nashville is one Ruff could mirror. Adams is also high on Rochester Americans coach Seth Appert, who could have a future in the NHL. But Ruff’s sole focus right now is coaching a team that he believes is close to a breakthrough.

“I take it one day at a time,” Ruff said. “So I got one more day. No, I just, I love the game. That’s really all I can tell you. I get asked that every time I go somewhere or leave somewhere. How much more? I don’t know, I’m just gonna keep coaching. It’s what I’ve done my whole life.”

Ruff’s first order of business is filling out his coaching staff. Ruff did say he plans to add to the staff and that he is “looking to get all the pieces in the right place” with the existing staff, which includes holdovers Matt Ellis, Marty Wilford and Mike Bales. Those moves will be key, but Ruff has always been open to exploring new ideas and getting input from coaches with different backgrounds.

That’s how he’s managed to coach teams to at least one 100-point season in each of his coaching stops. He said he loves analytics and wants a team that plays fast, which the Sabres roster is built to do. He may be among the most experienced coaches in the NHL, but Ruff is not entirely old-school in his tactics.

“My coaching style from when I left here — I actually laugh at some of my coaching style because a lot of things have changed,” Ruff said. “I won’t go into a lot of detail, but I’m a lot better coach now than I was when I left.”

Sabres players said last week they’re craving some of that “accountability and structure” that an old-school coach can provide. Ruff is certainly known for that, but also said accountability starts with each individual looking himself in the mirror. Four current Sabres were in attendance at the news conference Tuesday: Jacob Bryson, Peyton Krebs, Connor Clifton and Alex Tuch, who grew up a fan of the Ruff-led Sabres teams.

“Not everyone is going to love him and at times we’re all going to hate him,” Tuch said Tuesday. “That’s what happens when you have a coach that asks a lot of you. With that is going to come a lot of success. We’re ready for him and we’re ready for the opportunity.”

Ruff will bring instant credibility to the Sabres, and that’s why his voice will be vital in a pivotal offseason for Buffalo’s build. Maybe that means he can call out some issues with the current roster, get more out of an underperforming player or attract some outside talent, either on the ice or within the coaching staff. Ruff’s voice should be a big one in all of the decisions this team makes going forward because it’s the last voice fans remember leading a winning hockey team in Buffalo.

And Adams reiterated over and over again this hire is about winning. Pegula may have waxed poetic about Ruff’s glory days in his opening statement and the social media team might have leaned into the nostalgia, but Adams is staking his reputation as general manager on Ruff winning with the team he’s built. All of the talk about patience and rebuilding has been replaced with talk about winning. That, more than any press conference or feel-good hire, is what is going to help the Sabres win over their fans who have suffered through more in the last decade-plus than any fanbase in the NHL.

“Our fans will be back,” Ruff said. “They’re great fans.”

(Photo: Joel Auerbach / Getty Images)

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