Should the Sabres consider a reunion with fired Devils coach Lindy Ruff?

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Over the weekend, Buffalo Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams told The Athletic he envisions Don Granato coaching the Sabres next season.

On Monday, the New Jersey Devils fired coach Lindy Ruff, who spent a decade with the Sabres as a player and more than 14 seasons as the team’s head coach. Ruff’s availability doesn’t change Adams’ stance on Granato. Granato’s two-year contract extension kicks in next season, and Adams seemed convicted in his belief in the Sabres’ coach when talking about him on Saturday.

But the appeal of Ruff extends beyond the head-coaching gig. Ruff is hockey royalty in Buffalo, both because of what he did as a player and the success he had as a coach. And he’s continued to have success at multiple coaching stops since the Sabres fired him in 2013. He was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award last season after leading the Devils to the most regular season wins in franchise history. New Jersey won a playoff series and extended his contract this fall. Ruff’s lineup management wasn’t perfect in the playoffs, and the Devils took a step back this season, too. They also had key injuries early in the season and the team’s goalies had a sub .900 save percentage in his time as head coach. It’s not as if Ruff has lost his ability to coach.

Ruff’s still only 64 years old and has plenty left to give, whether he’s coaching or not. Maybe he’s ready to step away from the whistle and into a front-office role. Ruff would be an ideal fit as an advisor if he’s open to it. Back when he was coaching the Sabres, Ruff hired Adams as an assistant coach. That was Adams’ first job in pro hockey after his playing days ended. He should have every reason to trust Ruff and value his input. He could be a resource for Adams and also one for Granato, who is now the sixth-longest-tenured coach in the NHL and the longest-tenured coach who has not made the postseason.

Lindy Ruff hired Kevyn Adams as an assistant coach. (Jana Chytilova / Freestyle Photography / Getty Images)

It’s understandable that some might bristle at the idea of trying to turn back the clock and make a hire for the sake of nostalgia. Just because someone is familiar doesn’t make them worth hiring. But the Sabres aren’t in a position as a franchise to be sitting idle, either. After missing the playoffs by a point last season, the Sabres are 10 points out of the final wild-card spot. Adams is in his fourth full season in his job, and Granato is in his third. The playoff drought is going to extend to 13 seasons. Why not add another voice and set of eyes to bring an outsider’s look at the situation and give input on the next step for a team that should have playoff aspirations next year?

Ruff still lives in Western New York in the offseason. He came to the public memorial the franchise held for Rick Jeanneret over the summer. He never lost his connection to this region or the franchise. His combination of hockey experience and passion for the Sabres is tough to match. The Sabres could use the good PR, too. Ruff’s departure was a painful moment for some in the fan base. And the team hasn’t made the playoffs since he left. The arena hasn’t been full very often this season, and season tickets will be even harder to sell heading into next season after such lackluster on-ice results. Hiring Ruff in any capacity would be a popular move with a big segment of the fan base and the alumni.

This time last year, Tim Graham and I interviewed 19 of Ruff’s former teammates, coaches and assistants to piece together stories of Ruff’s time in hockey. His toughness and knack for pranks made for some legendary tales. But what Greg Brown said stuck with me. Brown is the head coach at Boston College. He played with Ruff in Rochester and coached with him from 2018-2020 when both were assistants for the New York Rangers.

“He has such a passion for the game, so in his mind, he was still right in the thick of it and he treated every day that way,” Brown said. “He had no trouble assimilating to being an assistant coach and filling that role, whereas maybe a lot of guys who have been head coaches for so long couldn’t take that transition.

“He doesn’t step on anyone’s toes, but he says things when they need to be said.”

He also added this about Ruff’s ability to make an impact across multiple generations: “He understands the modern athlete as well as anyone.”

What better qualities could the Sabres ask for in a potential advisor or executive?

On Tuesday, Devils president of hockey operations and general manager Tom Fitzgerald had a press conference to explain the decision to fire Ruff. He was emphatic that Ruff’s guidance was crucial to developing the younger talent on the roster and noted “A good man lost his job because of an underperforming team.” Devils star Jack Hughes later credited a lot of his development to Ruff. Fitzgerald also noted a need for accountability and said “That doesn’t always mean taking a kid and sitting his ass on the bench.” Some viewed that as a jab at Ruff’s disciplined approach. But maybe some of Ruff’s tactics in regards to holding players accountable would be a welcome addition in Buffalo, where a locker room of young players is growing accustomed to losing. Adams has lamented the lack of consistent competitiveness from the Sabres this season, so why not bring in one of the toughest and most competitive players in franchise history?

You could argue Ruff’s mere presence in the building might be perceived as a threat to Granato and that could be awkward. Ruff would give Adams an easy option for an interim coach if Granato gets the Sabres off to another slow start next season. The Sabres’ results this season haven’t given anyone the right to feel comfortable heading into next season. Granato has now coached the seventh most games in NHL history without making the playoffs.  The standard should be higher, and it always was under Ruff.

But Ruff could make an impact on this team without ever coaching another game. He would bring the credibility to help people all over the building. When the Sabres fired Ruff, Terry Pegula released a statement saying that Ruff “can consider me a friend always.” Pegula should call his old friend and see if he can lend his expertise to get this franchise back to where it belongs.

(Top photo: Josh Lavallee / NHLI via Getty Images)

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