Ruff criticism misguided as accomplished Rangers assistant takes Devils coaching job

Much has been made of Lindy Ruff in this area from impatient fans. The truth is the Rangers have one of the most polarizing fan bases in all of hockey.

Such is the mentality of the New York sports fan. That goes double for the most spoiled fans in the city. As a Yankees fan, I would know. Having been lucky enough to see the 90’s Yankee Dynasty that won four World Series titles between 1996-01, they made winning look easy.

As I’m sure resident Devils blogger Hasan can attest due to his team once capturing three Stanley Cups in nine years, it’s not. Once, New Jersey had their own Core Four that included Martin Brodeur, Ken Daneyko, Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens. They were similar to the classic Yankees Core Four of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettite, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera. The latter of which led the Yankee Pinstripes to five World Championships and seven pennants.

We often take for granted such amazing accomplishments. It isn’t easy to be that successful in sports. Similarly, the Rangers during the Henrik Lundqvist Era gave our fans plenty of exciting moments. Between 2012 and 2015, the Blueshirts made three Conference Finals and appeared in one Stanley Cup. They captured the imagination of a loyal fan base that lives and dies with every game the Original Six franchise plays.

The same can be echoed of every move they make. Like the classic Police hit song, it truly is that way for the passionate fans who sit in the Blue Seats all the way up. Even an assistant coach like Ruff can come under fire. A very accomplished and proven veteran NHL head coach who’s won 736 games including a Sabres franchise record 571, he was up and down in Dallas over four years. The Stars made the playoffs twice and missed the same amount before they dismissed Ruff in 2017.

A hockey lifer who spent 11 years as a player with the Sabres and Rangers between 1979 until 1991, he eventually graduated to coaching. He served as an assistant under Roger Neilson with the Panthers from ’93-94 through ’96-97. He was part of the former expansion franchise’s success which culminated in a surprising run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final where they were swept by the powerful Avalanche.

Ruff was hired by the Sabres in 1997 to replace popular former coach Ted Nolan. It was a home run. He immediately had lots of success in leading Buffalo to consecutive Conference Finals. That included defeating the rival Maple Leafs in 1999 to advance to the Cup Final. Along the way, they upset three higher seeded rivals including sweeping second seeded Ottawa in the first round before eliminating the Bruins in six games and Leafs in five. Unfortunately, controversy surrounded the conclusion to Game Six of the Final when Brett Hull’s toe was in the crease during triple overtime to give the Stars the Cup. Had the Sabres won, who knows what would have happened with Dominik Hasek in net.

Astonishingly, Ruff lasted 15 years in Western New York. A Jack Adams winner in ’05-06 when he guided a very talented roster to 110 points including a upset of the Senators that sent them to a third Eastern Conference Final, he lost out on his best chance to win due to a depleted blueline. They lost in seven to eventual champion Carolina. The following season, they were even better going 53-22-7 for a franchise record 113 points tying the Red Wings for the most in the league. However, Ottawa avenged their second round defeat by defeating the higher seeded Sabres in five to break Buffalo hearts. Those two years were their best opportunity to deliver a championship to Buffalo.

Unfortunately, the Sabres never could reach the same success they had following the lockout. Key departures that included Chris Drury, Daniel Briere, Brian Campbell and Maxim Afinogenov would hinder the club. While the team remained competitive thanks in large part to Ruff and goaltender Ryan Miller, they missed the postseason in four of his final six years behind the bench. The two they qualified for, they were ousted in the first round.

The franchise’s unstable ownership issues didn’t help. Eventually, Ruff was fired in 2012-13. He finished his Sabres coaching career 571-432-78-84. The third column was when there was this thing called ties. He posted a .560 winning percentage and is .561 overall when you tack on his four years spent in Dallas. A place that never felt right considering what happened in ’99.

After coming to the Rangers as an assistant during Alain Vigneault’s last year in ’17-18, he served under David Quinn in the same role the last two seasons on Broadway. Despite the personnel declining including on a revamped defense, Ruff inexplicably received too much blame from misguided fans.

Here’s the thing. If he gets blamed when things go wrong which is ridiculous, does he get any credit for helping develop young defensemen Tony DeAngelo, Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren? All have progressed nicely under both Quinn and Ruff, who handled the D. That includes the very cohesive rookie pair of Fox and Lindgren. The most consistent on the team that faces the Hurricanes starting in August. DeAngelo has always fit in well with veteran partner Marc Staal. Another whipping boy for biased fan blogs that don’t understand hockey.

If there is a player who must perform better in the five game preliminary round, it’s Jacob Trouba. After struggling to find consistency with friend and now current Hurricane Brady Skjei, he has paired up with vet Brendan Smith. If the Rangers are to advance past an improved Canes that should have both Dougie Hamilton and former Devil Sami Vatanen available, they’ll need a big series from Trouba. He will likely have to contend with dangerous trio Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov.

The big question regarding Ruff’s hire with the Hudson rival Devils is does he stay on as an assistant for the expanded playoff format under Quinn. The season isn’t over. Whether some realize it or not, it isn’t easy to replace a key assistant this late in a strange season. Players are familiar with Ruff, who emphasized how important communication will be in a interview with Devils correspondent Amanda Stein that appeared on Zoom.

No stranger to being in charge, what does the 60-year old have left in the fuel tank to offer the Devils? Clearly a team in transition with new GM Tom Fitzgerald getting good returns for Taylor Hall and Blake Coleman, they’re going to be built around young centers Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier. How fast Hughes develops under Ruff will be crucial.

Ruff wants an aggressive team that attacks. One that doesn’t hesitate. For him, it’s probably his final stop in a long hockey journey. Or as Hasan put it, one last kick at the can. Did the three years away from being in charge help recharge his batteries? How much has he learned in a new hockey world where analytics are part of the process? We’ll find out.

A questionable hire by Devils ownership due to interviewing and passing on strong candidates Peter Laviolette and Gerard Gallant, Ruff has something to prove. No. He doesn’t have to answer to the critics. His NHL resume speaks for itself. But you have to think there will be some motivation.

He’s always had a fire in his belly. How many times did he get in the face of a official if he thought his Sabres were being jobbed? He’s been there and done that. Maybe he can instill the kind of work ethic needed for the Devils to improve. They compete in a tough division.

With Travis Zajac entering his final year of his contract along with Nikita Gusev and leading scorer Kyle Palmieri, who they should extend and consider making captain, Fitzgerald and Ruff have plenty of challenging decisions ahead. They’ll have almost nine million dollars in cap space. Continuing to improve a defense that relies on Damon Severson and Will Butcher will be crucial. What about PK Subban? He’s got two years remaining at a whopping $9 million cap hit. Likely immovable.

The Devils will look towards the future with prospects Ty Smith and Kevin Bahl (acquired from Coyotes in Hall trade) to help steady the back end. They have Mackenzie Blackwood and veteran Cory Schneider in net as a tandem. Barring a trade or buyout, Schneider is locked in at $6 million through 2022.

After winding up with the number seven pick in the Draft Lottery, the Devils could decide to select top Russian goalie prospect Yaroslav Askarov. The 18-year old is highly regarded. Given that he plays for KHL power St. Petersburg SKA where current Rangers number one goalie Igor Shesterkin graduated, it could make sense for the long-term of the Devils franchise.

Whatever they decide, they have their new GM and coach in place for 2020-21. We’ll see if Ruff can excel in his likely final NHL stop.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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