Hindsight is 20/20, but the New York Rangers’ decision to hire Lindy Ruff as a defensive assistant in 2017 was a mistake. Bringing him on seems to have been based on his relationship with the coaching staff, rather than his ability to build a reliable and consistent defense. It’s unbearably obvious that Ruff has never been a good defensive coach, both before and during his time with the Rangers.
His relationship with the players and coaching staff seemed to shelter his shortcomings, to the point that the New Jersey Devils were willing to give him the reins across the Hudson. Despite just a few weeks before the NHL returns to play, the Rangers should look at Ruff’s departure as a blessing in disguise.
Ruff Times on the PK
The Rangers defense has gone through extensive changes since Ruff first took over. When he began, Alain Vigneault was the head coach, Ryan McDonagh was the captain and Brendan Smith was still a defenseman. To say that Ruff has had to deal with a revolving door of a D-core would be an understatement.
That said, in those same three years, Ruff drove the defense into the ground because of his lack of adaptability and his traditional system. Multiple players were negatively impacted during his tenure. Marc Staal was bad before but regressed considerably in the past three seasons. Neal Pionk was statistically one of the worst defensemen in the league. Frederik Claesson was sheltered despite being one of the team’s best shutdown D-men. Brady Skjei became a liability. Jacob Trouba is a shell of his Winnipeg Jets form. Kevin Shattenkirk forgot how to play defense. Smith forgot how to play hockey. The list goes on.
Some regression could be the result of injury or age, so the blame shouldn’t be entirely put on Ruff’s shoulders. However, it is his fault that he forced penalty kill pairings that were dreadful. The Pionk and Staal duo was one of the worst penalty kill pairings over the past three seasons. The duo appeared on the PK in 92 games, allowing 243 shots against between 2017 and 2019. That ranks 13th amongst all penalty kill pairings over that time.
Almost every other pairing had considerably more ice time than Pionk and Staal. Despite having less time and games together, the pairing ranks amongst the worst in shot suppression on the penalty kill. That is due to Ruff’s judgment.
From Bad to Worst
When Ruff took over, he was given a defense that was already pretty bad. In the 2016-17 season, the Rangers at five-vs-five ranked sixth-worst in Corsi For (CF%), seventh-worst at shots for (SF%), and 12th worst in expected goals for (xGF%). He wasn’t handed a good offense, but it was far from the worst.
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At the helm, Ruff coached the Rangers to three of the worst defensive seasons. Since 2017, at five-vs-five the Rangers have the worst CF%, the third-worst SF%, the fifth-worst xGF%, and the third most shots against. The team was bad and going through plenty of changes, but Ruff’s defensive coaching did not work. Many coaches have worked with less and had more success.
It’s also worth mentioning that Pionk, McDonagh, Shattenkirk, Skjei, Ryan Graves, and Nick Holden all performed better after they left the Rangers. Particularly Pionk has excelled, recording a career-best 45 points and leading the Jets’ defense in scoring. Again, this could be due to injuries or the new teams they joined, but part of the blame has to be on Ruff and his outdated defensive system. Defense and the penalty kill are not Ruff’s strong suit.
For right now, the Rangers will look to Gord Murphy to take on the assistant coaching duties. The 53-year-old former rearguard has spent the better part of the last 18 years as an NHL and AHL assistant coach. Most recently, Murphy has served under Kris Knoblauch on the Hartford Wolf Pack’s coaching staff. He’s been mainly the defensive coach, helping lead the Rangers’ affiliate to a 31-20-6 record before the AHL season was canceled.
It’s unclear whether he’ll fully take on Ruff’s responsibilities. It’s possible that David Quinn’s behind the bench crew will consist of David Oliver, who’s coached the forwards, and Greg Brown who’s been coaching from the press box. It’s also possible that Brown will be promoted to behind the bench while Murphy will become the “eye in the sky.”
Whether the Rangers lean towards Murphy as their full-time replacement or go elsewhere during the offseason, it’s fairly clear that the departure of Ruff will lead to more positives than negatives. He wasn’t the only problem with the Rangers defense, but he was never part of the solution.