As the Dallas Stars’ most disappointing season in over 20 years comes to a close, the summer of 2017 promises to be one of change for the organization. General Manager Jim Nill will wheel-and-deal to improve the Stars’ goaltending and defense, but his first move could happen behind the bench. Though unthinkable in October, the departure of Lindy Ruff, the fifth-winningest coach in NHL history, now seems likely.
Even if they win their two remaining games, the Stars are guaranteed their lowest point total since 1995-96. Two wins would give them 81 points, a stunning 28-point free fall from last season’s conference-best finish. That’s the worst season-over-season drop in franchise history. While coaching was far from the Stars’ biggest problem this year, Ruff and his staff earned their share of blame. For all parties, it’s time for a change.
Where does Ruff go from here? Over 700 career victories means the veteran bench boss can pretty much pick his destination from the handful of clubs in need of new coaches, but some are more likely landing spots than others.
Will Ruff Bounce into Boston?
When the Boston Bruins fired Claude Julien in early February, the team was stumbling along with a record of 26-23-6 and on the verge of falling out of playoff contention. Faced with the prospect of missing the postseason for the third year in a row, Julien was axed and assistant Bruce Cassidy was named interim head coach.
Though “interim” remains in Cassidy’s title, the Bruins are 18-7-0 under his stewardship and have clinched a playoff spot. Public sentiment is running in his favor. While GM Don Sweeney might be tempted by the availability of a coach with Ruff’s pedigree, he’d have a hard time selling the change in the face of Cassidy’s success. When next Ruff walks through the doors of TD Garden, he’ll go where he always goes – to the visitors’ dressing room.
Will Lindy Land in LA?
With the Los Angeles Kings set to miss the playoffs for the second time in three years, speculation as to Darryl Sutter’s job security is heating up. Even if Sutter, who has two years remaining on his contract, is fired, several factors make a Ruff-to-the-Kings scenario unlikely.
First, Kings Associate Head Coach John Stevens has been with the club for seven years and must be considered the front-runner for Sutter’s job.
Second, if Sutter is axed and Stevens isn’t promoted, there’s a good chance it’s because GM Dean Lombardi has also been fired. While it’s hard to argue with two Stanley Cup wins in the last six years, the Kings’ success was purchased by mortgaging the future, dealing draft picks and prospects for players who could help the team win “now.” The bill is coming due. The firing of both Sutter and Lombardi would throw the organization into chaos in the near-term.
Finally, the one element missing from Ruff’s Hall-of-Fame-worthy coaching pedigree is a Stanley Cup. The Kings are sinking under the weight of multiple untradable contracts and a trade-ravaged prospect pool. They’re now more cautionary tale than contender, and there’s no quick fix. Even if the Kings offered him the job, Ruff would almost assuredly pass.
Vegas, Lindy, Vegas!
The expansion Vegas Golden Knights are searching for the first head coach in franchise history. GM George McPhee has reportedly interviewed Jack Capuano and Gerard Gallant for the job, but he hasn’t hired anyone. Could he be waiting to talk to Ruff?
A few weeks ago, I opined on the subject for THW scribe Larry Fisher’s excellent Facing Off column. In a nutshell, McPhee would be a fool not to take a run at the Stars’ coach. What sets Ruff apart from the other candidates is his resume: Ruff launched his coaching career as an assistant under the legendary Roger Neilson, during the Florida Panthers’ inaugural season.
No other candidate can claim the unique experience of coaching an expansion team in a non-traditional market. While Capuano, Gallant, et al, may understand in the abstract the “blank slate” that comes with a brand-new team, Ruff has lived it.
The Golden Knights’ coaching job represents a one-of-a-kind opportunity, one which must appeal to Ruff on a certain level. If the top priority for the 57-year-old bench boss is to hoist the Cup, though, one destination makes more sense than any other.
Back to the Beginning
Recent reports out of Florida indicate Panthers GM Tom Rowe’s tenure as interim head coach will end with the 2016-17 season. Like the Stars, the Cats suffered through a terribly disappointing campaign, falling from first in the Atlantic Division last year to seventh heading into the season’s final weekend.
Unlike Ruff’s current club, the Panthers already have the pieces in place for a quick rebound: solid goaltending, a mobile, puck-moving defense corps and a bevy of extremely talented young forwards. To reach – or even surpass – last season’s 103-point franchise peak, the Cats seem only to lack the right coach.
Lindy Ruff is one of the few nhl re-treads i think makes sense for Florida. Offensive style. Klingberg is kinda like Yandle or Ekblad.
— Point to Point ? (@PTPHockey) April 5, 2017
Ruff remembers his time with the Panthers vividly; one month ago, when THW asked the coach about his Florida years, he highlighted the 1995-96 run to the Stanley Cup Final, when the “rain” of rats on the ice drove Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Tom Barrasso to take cover in his net. Ruff called the enthusiasm of those Florida fans “contagious” and spoke highly of the way they energized Miami Arena.
Twenty-one years later, Ruff and the Panthers are still searching for a Stanley Cup win. To win, the Panthers need an experienced coach and Ruff needs a team without serious structural flaws. They might just be a perfect match.