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Hitchcock Turns Blues Around, Now It's Ruff's Turn
December 27, 2011 - Matt Spielman
In early November with his team struggling, a general manager decided a shake-up was in order.
The team's No. 1 goaltender was struggling and the backup was playing well. Also, several of the team's top offensive players were all slumping at the same time.
This story may sound familiar to Sabres fans — every part of it except the general manager taking action.
This is actually the path the St. Louis Blues have taken thus far this season. On Nov. 6, Ken Hitchcock replaced Davis Payne as head coach with the team sitting at 6-7-0 on the year. Jarsoslav Halak, deemed the team's No. 1 goaltender ever since being acquired from the Montreal Canadiens prior to last season, was having a dreadful start to the season. Halak was 1-5 with a 3.58 goals against average and a .843 save percentage for the month of October. Luckly for the Blues, backup Brian Elliott carried the ship winning 10 of his first 11 starts, including three shutouts.
Since Hitchcock's arrival, three of the Blues' top forwards have begun scoring at a more regular pace. David Backes has seven goals and 10 assists, Alexander Steen has six goals and eight assists and T.J. Oshie has eight goals and seven assists — all since the coaching change was made.
Buffalo's Darcy Regier should take note. Ryan Miller has likewise been dreadful at times this year and merely average the rest of the time. It's best when a goalie's stats are about the same in games that he wins or loses, but that hasn't been the case with Miller this year. In his nine wins this year, Miller has a 1.98 GAA and a .933 save percentage, very good numbers that show why many feel he is a top-flight goaltender in the NHL. But Miller just hasn't been there night in and night out like the Sabres need him. In eight losses, Miller has a 4.11 GAA and a .879 save percentage.
Lindy Ruff needs to figure out what is wrong with his franchise goaltender, his pricey defense corps, or both. How the 15-year head coach handled his team's goaltending situation in Pittsburgh more than a week ago was embarassing. But this year, goaltending is just one of many problems. The penalty kill, while ranked 10th in the league, has been much worse than that lately, killing off just 75.6 percent of infractions in December. The same can be said for the power play, which looks a lot worse to the naked eye than its 18.9 percent success rate would show. At times Buffalo can't even set up with all five guys in the zone and multiple times this season, five to be exact, the opposing team has been more dangerous than the Sabres when Buffalo has the extra man on the ice. On the road this season, the Sabres have converted just six of 42 power-play opportunities.
What is equally bothersome about this year's squad has been the lack of contributions from the team's best players. Drew Stafford, signed to a four-year, $16 million contract this past offseason has just six goals and 18 points in 34 games after scoring 31 goals in 62 games a year ago. Derek Roy, off to nearly a point-a-game pace a year ago before being hit with a devastating leg injury, has just eight goals and 23 points in 35 games this season. Ville Leino, signed to a six-year, $27 million contract in the offseason, has just three goals and 10 points while he sits on the injured reserve with a lower-body injury. The Sabres didn't expect Leino to score 40 goals when he came over from the Flyers, but 20 goals and 50 or 60 points would have been nice. Christian Ehrhoff, the club's other big free-agent acquisition, scored 14 goals and 50 points for the Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks last season, but thus far this season has just two goals and 16 points while going minus-11 for the Sabres.
Owner Terry Pegula has given Regier the money and tools to make the team better. Regier can hire the coaches and scouts he wants to find the talent he needs. Ruff was allowed to hire whatever assistant coaches he wanted. Kevyn Adams and Teppo Numminen were added to the staff this summer and so far, it has the Sabres sitting in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference. Injuries can only be used as an excuse for so long.
Game after game Ruff can be seen on the bench asking Thomas Vanek and captain Jason Pominville for more, but how much more can you ask from those two guys. Vanek is up to 17 goals on the year while Pominville has 38 points in 35 games and the two have been playing alongside rookies for a large majority of the season. Stafford, Roy and Tyler Ennis need to do more up front. Ehrhoff and Jordan Leopold need to add more from the back end. When the Sabres do get healthier, they need contributions from Nathan Gerbe, Brad Boyes, Leino and Tyler Myers. The players need to put the puck in the net, but the coach needs to get them skating their hardest every shift, finishing their checks and playing defense if they lose the puck.
And if the players aren't doing their jobs, the general manager needs to find a coach who can get the players to perform.
As evidenced already this season in St. Louis, a new coach can be the shake-up a team needs.
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Lindy Ruff and the Sabres need a prolonged winning streak to get back in the Northeast Division battle. AP photo