Thursday, February 21, 2013

No longer-lucky Lindy

In hindsight, this seems simple to figure out.

Darcy Regier received some of his first lessons in the administrative portions of the hockey business for the New York Islanders. That team had a rather simple formula.

General manager Bill Torrey made Al Arbour his coach in 1973. The Islanders were still one of the worst teams in the league, but made considerable strides in Arbour's first season. At some point shortly into Arbour's tenure, Torrey must have decided that Arbour was a good coach and worth keeping.

So Arbour stayed. And stayed. And stayed. They had some disappointments in the late 1970's that no doubt had many wondering if Arbour was the man to put the Islanders over the hump. Torrey wasn't one of them. The team was rewarded when the Islanders won four straight Stanley Cups. Arbour stayed on the job until 1994. They never regained a spot of the top. Still, New York at least made the playoffs in all but three of those seasons.

When Regier arrived in Buffalo in 1997, his coaching situation was unsettled. Ted Nolan's contract was up, and Regier had no idea as a general manager if he could work with his coach. He offered Nolan a one-year contract. When it was turned down, Regier was free to look for a coach. He wanted someone for the long term. After a search, Lindy Ruff turned out to be that coach.

The Sabres reached the semifinals in 1998 and the Stanley Cup finals in 1999. Yes, Dominik Hasek had something to do with that, but so did the coach. If that didn't convince Regier that he had his coach, then coming within two minutes of another trip to the conference finals (losing on a freak bounce) put the GM over the top. Darcy had his man, someone that he felt would do as good a job as possible under almost any set of circumstances.

When the Sabres had talent, they won. Buffalo probably should have won the Stanley Cup in 2006; a rash of injuries to defensemen ended its hopes. It could have in 2007, a President's Trophy season. When the team had terrible financial reversals, it didn't make the playoffs. When the team cut back on scouting costs some years ago, it probably had an effect on the caliber of draft choices that should be ready to contribute today. There are few miracle workers in coaching over the long term; the good ones make sure teams play up to their potential. Ruff wasn't perfect - there were a lot of complaints over the years on communication issues - but it's tough to know exactly what was going on behind the scenes there.

This year's team has turned out to be a mess. Some young players haven't developed as quickly as expected, and free agent signings haven't worked out for whatever reason. A roster move or two, even of the cosmetic nature, was never made.

There was an expectation of much better days once Terry Pegula took over as owner, and people (fans, players, members of the organizations, etc.) have become frustrated. Sabres fans tend to look for scapegoats when things go badly - ask Phil Housley, Dave Andreychuk, Derek Roy, etc. - and there was no obvious player to blame this season. The remaining choices were Ruff and Regier, and Regier's departure probably meant a full housecleaning over the summer by a replacement. Ruff's firing was the logical step for now.

But that didn't mean it was easy. I'd bet Wednesday was the toughest day of Regier's professional career. I'd also be interested in finding how just how the decision was made, because clearly Regier had his man as coach and didn't think firing him was an answer for most of the season. Perhaps the front office and ownership all thought that a dramatic move was needed to keep the fan base interested, and this was the one that qualified. It no doubt hurt on a personal level too, because Regier has said that one of the best parts of the job was working with good people like Ruff.

In the meantime, it was easy to notice the end of Jerry Sullivan's column in The Buffalo News today. When Regier was doing a 1998 search for a coach, Scotty Bowman told him that Ruff was Arbour with a sense of humor. Maybe Regier is thinking to himself that he let his good friend down, and that the Sabres just fired someone who eventually will go down as one of the all-time great coaches.

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