As somebody who gets annoyed at how disposable head coaches are to NHL teams, I respect the Buffalo Sabres for giving Lindy Ruff over a decade and a half to run their team.
That being said, Ruff's firing this week was actually a few years overdue.
In his 16th season with the club, Ruff was given his walking papers on Wednesday, ending a successful partnership that produced a Stanley Cup Finals appearance and four trips to the Eastern Conference finals. However, the club's most recent sojourn to the conference championship was in the spring of 2007 and Buffalo has missed the postseason in three of the last five seasons.
So, it was obvious Ruff had something to prove this season to the front office, including owner Terry Pegula, who upon taking over the franchise in 2011 said, "Starting today, the Buffalo Sabres' reason for existence will be to win a Stanley Cup."
Buffalo's recent history since making back-to-back conference finals in 2006 and '07, makes Pegula's dream of leading the Sabres to their first Cup seem far-fetched at the moment. The Sabres have bowed out in the first round in both of its postseason appearances over the last five seasons and the club is currently sitting 14th out of 15 teams in the East standings.
It's not fair to blame Ruff for all of the Sabres' struggles over the last several years, but at a certain point somebody has to absorb the blame or else it'll look like the team tolerates losing. Even in a hockey-crazed town like Buffalo, it's important for an owner -- especially a new one -- to prove to his fan base that winning is at the top of his to-do list. Firing a popular coach like Ruff sends that message, even if it was a tough call to let go of him in the middle of a season.
"The hockey world knows how I and the entire Buffalo Sabres organization feel about Lindy Ruff not only as a coach but also as a person," Pegula said upon announcing Ruff's dismissal. "His qualities have made this decision very difficult. I personally want Lindy to know that he can consider me a friend always."
Of course, Ruff isn't going to be out of work for too long. On Friday, while addressing the Buffalo media, Ruff responded to a question about whether he plans to return to coaching by saying, "I miss it already." The only question is whether his next chance to lead a team comes this season or sometime before the 2013-14 campaign, but the only way Ruff will stay out of work longer than that is if he personally chooses to take time off.
Ruff also made a plea to Sabres fans to not turn on Pegula for firing him, which is the kind of classy thing Buffalonians come to expect from the longtime coach.
"We'll get it right here," Ruff said. "You've got to trust him (Pegula) because he's a competitor.
Whether or not they actually take him up on that advice is another matter altogether.
With Ruff out, general manager Darcy Regier has to be feeling the heat. Regier, who ascended to his post along with Ruff back in 1997, is the longest- tenured GM in club history and was given an unspecified contract extension before the start of this season, but it's hard to believe he'll be around to see the end of it.
Regier's contract extension likely hastened Ruff's demise. After all, it wouldn't reflect well on Pegula if he handed his GM an extension in January only to hand him a pink slip a month later.
In the end, it was Ruff who had to pay for Buffalo's slow start, but it would be unwise for Regier to breathe a sigh of relief. As a billionaire natural gas tycoon, Pegula can afford to lose money on Regier and it's unlikely he'll think twice about giving him the axe should the Sabres' downward spiral continue much longer. In fact, if things get much worse this season, Regier might not be around long enough to pick a permanent head coach to follow interim bench boss Ron Rolston.
Pegula has said in the past that he doesn't consider the Sabres to be a business venture, once remarking, "If I want to make some money, I'll go drill a gas well."
Of all people, Pegula should know when a well has run dry. He realized it was time to say goodbye to Ruff and you better believe he's already sizing up Regier's prospects.