Lindy Ruff is no stranger to Buffalo, but when he arrives at HSBC Arena on Monday, he’ll certainly be in a new place.
Ruff was the Sabres’ coach for 15 seasons until he was fired after a 6-10-1 start to lockout-shortened 2013, after which he was brought in to helm the Dallas Stars. His career in Buffalo surely had its highs and lows: Ruff guided the Sabres to the franchise’s only Stanley Cup Final appearance (a controversial loss to Dallas in 1999), but his teams also finished out of the playoffs from 2001 to ’04, 2007 to ’09, and in 2012 and ’13. At the time of his firing, he was the longest-tenured coach in all of professional sports, and his 571 wins with Buffalo are the second most for a coach with just one team. Ruff is also one of only four coaches who have ever been behind the bench with a single franchise for more than 1,000 games.
Now, he’ll get a view from the visitor’s side in his first visit to Buffalo since being relieved of his duties.
“I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it,” Ruff said after the Stars’ shootout loss to Winnipeg on Saturday.
Ruff has plenty to keep him otherwise occupied. His Stars sit last in the Central Division at 4-5-1, and haven’t played particularly well away from Dallas (1-4-0). Young stars Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin are the anchors of an offense that features budding scorer Alex Chiasson (5 goals in 10 games) and 2013 first-round pick Valeri Nichushkin, who has mustered all of one point in nine NHL games. Goalie Kari Lehtonen has already spent a stint on the disabled list while backup Dan Ellis and rookie Jack Campbell have struggled.
“The No. 1 thing on my mind is our road record,” Ruff said. “Really focusing in on that on this road trip.”
Comparatively, Ruff is having big-time success in his first season in Dallas while his replacement in Buffalo, Ron Rolston, has yet to have an up he can list alongside his considerable number of downs so far with the Sabres, who are an NHL-worst 2-10-1. The team has also had numerous encounters with the league’s Department of Player Safety, and its young stars have been accused of listless, lazy play. Buffalo’s issues have been put under a microscope due to questions surrounding two veteran stars who will become unrestricted free agents after the season. Winger Thomas Vanek was traded to the Islanders on Sunday, and goaltender Ryan Miller is likely to be the next big deal that Sabres GM Darcy Regier makes. It’s safe to say that the scrutiny will continue throughout the season.
“We’ve got bigger things to focus on ourselves. Worry about things that we can have control over,” Rolston said when asked about Ruff’s return.
The Sabres are young — their roster features four teenaged players – and they’ve already waved the white flag, officially entering rebuilding mode after a few off-seasons of bad free agent signings took them from the cusp of being a Stanley Cup contender to cellar dweller.
Another storyline for tonight’s game: Veteran Steve Ott will be facing Dallas for the first time since the Stars traded him to Buffalo for Derek Roy in July 2012. The rugged forward was acquired as the Sabres tried to get tougher through a series of moves that led to Ruff’s departure and Buffalo’s current woebegone status.
This is certainly not the team that Ruff last saw when he exited Buffalo, but one has to think that while his view at HSBC on Monday will be a fresh one, a win against his former team will surely be a highlight of his new gig.
“It’s going to be great walking in the building, say hello to old faces,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of good friends there, good memories. We had a lot of great hockey in there. It’ll be a good day. I want to see our team play really well.”