BUFFALO, N.Y. – Lindy Ruff is out as coach in Buffalo, meaning the slow-starting, inconsistent and sometimes lethargic Sabres have now become Ron Rolston’s mess to clean up.
Rolston was promoted from the Sabres’ minor-league affiliate, AHL Rochester, to finish out the season as Buffalo’s interim head coach Wednesday.
The move was made hours after Ruff was fired amid growing criticism for the team’s early season struggles.
And it came less than a week after Ruff had defiantly said he wasn’t done trying to “clean up this mess.”
The turnaround never came for Ruff and the Sabres (6-10-1), who are in the midst of a 4-10-1 slump following a 2-1 home loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday.
It was a game in which the Sabres were booed several times for their turnover-filled and inconsistent effort.
“I think the last game was quite honestly a tipping point. And it was evident to me that we were searching for answers to too many questions,” general manger Darcy Regier said. “I think we were making some strides, but in the end, for every two steps forward, it was one step back, and sometimes not that.”
Ruff’s dismissal ends his 16-season tenure in Buffalo, during which he became the franchise’s winningest coach (571-432-162) and the NHL’s longest active-serving coach with one team.
Among North America’s four major pro sports, Ruff’s tenure was second only behind Gregg Popovich, who’s been coach of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs since 1996.
In the NHL alone, there had been 170 coaching changes since Ruff was hired on July 21, 1997.
“I’m disappointed for myself. I’m disappointed for Lindy. And when I see the players, I’m disappointed for them, too.” Regier said. “We should all be disappointed. As far as anger, we have too much work to do.”
The decision to fire Ruff came shortly after he oversaw a 90-minute practice and was preparing to travel with the team for Thursday’s game at Toronto.
Regier went to Ruff’s home to inform the coach of the decision. He then allowed Ruff to visit with players as they boarded a bus to travel to Toronto.
Rolston is in his second season with the Rochester Americans. He was scheduled to arrive in Buffalo on Wednesday evening and then join Regier in travelling to Toronto for his first meeting with Sabres players.
Regier said he’ll use the remainder of the season to determine whether Rolston deserves taking over the job on a full-time basis.
Before taking over in Rochester, Rolston spent seven seasons as coach of USA Hockey’s National Team development program. During that time, he became the first coach to lead the U.S. Under-18 team to win three gold medals (2005, 2009, 2011).
Rolston is also familiar with numerous Sabres, including centre Cody Hodgson and forward Marcus Foligno. He spent the first half of this season coaching both, who played in Rochester during the NHL lockout.
Rolston went 36-26-10-4 last season in leading Rochester to the playoffs. This season, the Americans (27-18-2-1) are in second in the North Division and sixth in the Western Conference.
“His teams play with structure, discipline. They have a work ethic,” Regier said, of Rolston. “He has them playing very good hockey, so I think you’ll see some of those traits.”
Regier said Rolston will have input on the status of the Sabres current assistant coaches.
The news of Ruff’s firing came as a surprise only because Sabres management, including team president Ted Black, had spent much of the past week voicing support of Ruff.
Team owner Terry Pegula was also regarded as a big fan of Ruff.
Pegula, however, was running out of options in his bid to turn the Sabres into a Stanley Cup contender, an objective he made clear upon purchasing the team two years ago. Ruff’s firing comes nearly two years to the day Pegula formally took over as the Sabres owner on Feb. 22, 2011.
“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 in a statement released by the team. “His qualities have made this decision very difficult. I personally want Lindy to know that he can consider me a friend always.”
Under Ruff, the Sabres made the playoffs in each of his first four seasons and eight times overall. That included a surprising run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1999, when Buffalo was eliminated by Dallas in six games.
The Sabres, however, haven’t been the same since reaching the Eastern Conference finals — losing both times — in both 2006 and ’07. Buffalo has missed the playoffs in three of the past five seasons.
Last season, the Sabres were one of the NHL’s biggest busts in missing the playoffs with a high-priced roster. The previous off-season, Pegula committed nearly $140 million in salary to add talent and re-sign players.
The high expectations coupled with the team’s slow start in a lockout-shortened 48-game season were both factors in Ruff’s dismissal.
Regier acknowledged that Ruff was having difficulty identifying the reasons behind the Sabres struggles. At no point, Regier said, did he feel players had tuned out their coach.
“Communication has never been better, so there were huge strides he had done in that regard,” Regier said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t translate to the ice.”
Ruff’s 571 wins rank second in the NHL with one team, trailing only Al Arbour, who had 740 wins with the New York Islanders.
Ruff’s ties to Buffalo go back to his days as a player. Selected in the second round of the 1979 draft by the Sabres, Ruff made the team later that year. In November 1986, he replaced star Gilbert Perreault as the Sabres captain.