Lindy Ruff was fired by the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday, per a team press release (via Sabres.com), after spending 14-plus years as the team's head coach, but he isn't the only person to blame for the franchise's failure to meet expectations over the last few seasons.
Ruff was the longest-tenured head coach in the NHL, and the Sabres made eight playoff appearances, including three trips to the Eastern Conference finals during his tenure.
However, the team has been unable to get past the first round of the playoffs in each of the last five seasons, and it missed the postseason entirely three times in that span. Those failures, combined with a horrible 6-10-1 start to the 2013 season, were too much for Ruff to survive.
Who's most to blame for the Sabres' underachieving play? Let's find out.
A coach is only as successful as his players. Unfortunately for Ruff, many of his top players suffered injuries or underperformed over the last five seasons, which played a major part in the team's lack of playoff success.
Here are some of the notable ones:
- Tyler Myers: The talented 23-year-old defenseman signed a seven-year, $38.5 million deal in 2011, one year after winning the Calder Trophy. His scoring output has declined at least 11 points in each of the last two seasons, and in 2013, he's on pace for a career-low 9.6 points (0.2 Pts/G). Myers is also a minus-seven and has been a healthy scratch multiple times for his poor play at both ends.
- Ville Leino: As the team's major forward signing during the summer of 2011, Leino was expected to be a 25-plus-goal scorer when he agreed to a six-year, $27 million deal. Instead, Leino scored just 25 points (down from 53 the previous year) during the 2011-12 season and has not played in 2013 because of injury. Expect him to be bought out in the summer.
- Robyn Regehr: The veteran defenseman has not played well at both ends of the ice since joining the Sabres for the 2011-12 season. After scoring just five points in 76 games last year, it was clear that he's one of the most overpaid defenseman in the league with a $4 million salary. This season has been equally bad for Regehr because he has just one point in 10 games.
When a team has an elite goaltender like Ryan Miller, missing the playoffs is unacceptable.
One of Buffalo's best teams since the 2004-05 lockout was the 2009-10 squad. It faced the rival Boston Bruins in the first round and was upset, 4-2. Boston was able to shut down many of Buffalo's best players throughout the series, and Miller, who won the Vezina Trophy that season, also failed to play at a high level in that series.
The head coach has to share some responsibility for the team's lack of playoff success, but it's up to the players to step up and succeed in high-pressure situations.
Now that Ruff has been fired, the Sabres' next move has to be finding a new general manager because Darcy Regier has done a terrible job managing the team's roster over the last seven years (his tenure as GM began in 1997).
To his credit, he's made some good trades in recent seasons. The Cody Hodgson trade with the Vancouver Canucks has worked out well, getting a first-round pick from the Nashville Predators for third-line center Paul Gaustad was a brilliant move, and acquiring the No. 12 pick in the 2008 draft (Tyler Myers) from the L.A. Kings in exchange for the No. 13 pick and a future third-round pick was also impressive.
However, Regier's free-agent decisions since Terry Pegula took over as team owner in 2011 and increased the team's budget have been awful.
The Sabres have six players with salary-cap hits of $4 million or more next season when the cap ceiling will drop to $64.3 million. Regier also faces the difficult challenge of filling out his roster with quality players for next season when the team has $45 million committed to just 14 players.
When a GM has tons of money to spend in free agency and doesn't make any significant signings that result in star players being added to the roster, it's time for the team to make a change.
Let's recap some of the awful free-agent signings that Regier has made during his tenure as Sabres GM.
|Ville Leino ||Six years, $27 million||Arguably the worst NHL signing of the last three seasons. Leino has 25 points in 71 games for the Sabres, and has battled injuries, too.
|Christian Ehrhoff ||10 years, $40 million ||After one great season, the Sabres committed to a one-dimensional D-man in Ehrhoff for a decade. He has started the 2013 season well, but Ehrhoff isn't someone you give a 10-year deal to. He has scored more than 45 points in a season just once.
|Tyler Myers ||Seven years, $38.5 million||Since winning the 2010 Calder Trophy, Myers' career has gone downhill. He has 26 points in his last 70 games (2011-12 and 2013 combined). He also has been the most disappointing player in the NHL this season, but still has six years and $29 million left on his contract.
|Cody McCormick ||Three years, $3.6 million||The Sabres didn't commit a lot of salary to McCormick, but he has failed to add the combination of toughness and depth scoring that Buffalo expected from him. He was placed on waivers Wednesday (via TSN's Bob McKenzie).
Regier's drafting has also been unimpressive. He has failed to draft any star players with his first- and second-round picks since the 2004-05 lockout. Some of his notable first-round failures include Marek Zagrapan (2005) and Dennis Persson (2006).
In fact, Regier hasn't selected an All-Star player since he chose Thomas Vanek fifth overall in the 2003 draft.
This tweet from Nick Cotsonika of Yahoo! Sports helps explain Reiger's lack of success recently:
Talked to someone in the league about the problem with the Sabres. Response: "Talent."— Nick Cotsonika (@cotsonika) February 20, 2013
Regier's lackluster history of free-agent signings and his poor drafting record are two major reasons why Ruff didn't have a team good enough to advance past the first round for five straight seasons.
He must be fired immediately and replaced by someone who will make smarter roster decisions. Former Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke would be a good candidate for the Sabres' GM job if Regier is fired at any point in the near future.
Lindy Ruff was fortunate to last as long as he did in Buffalo without much playoff success in the last half-decade.
Since the 1999-00 season, the Sabres have made six playoff appearances and advanced to at least the second round three times. They were able to reach the Eastern Conference finals in 2005-06 and 2006-07, but weren't able to take the final step as a team and get to the Stanley Cup final.
When your team has failed to win in the playoffs for over a decade with the same coach and different players, the coach has to take a large portion of the blame.
Ruff needed a strong 2013 season to prove to owner Terry Pegula that he was the right man to lead the team into the future. Unfortunately for Ruff, his team has failed to improve in a major way from last season's struggles.
|Sabres||Goals For||Goals Against||Power Play||Penalty Kill|
Ruff's messages and tactics certainly weren't helping the team improve this season. The Sabres needed to find a new voice who could bring some much-needed energy to the team behind the bench. That's why firing Ruff was the correct decision.
The Buffalo Sabres have a strong owner in Terry Pegula who bought the team in February 2011. He has given Regier plenty of money to spend on high-priced free agents, and his dedication to winning a championship is admirable.
"So what about the future? Starting today, the Buffalo Sabres' reason for existence will be to win the Stanley Cup." -- Pegula, Feb. 22, '11— Nick Cotsonika (@cotsonika) February 20, 2013
"I am a Lindy Ruff fan, and I have been for a while. ... Lindy ain't goin' nowhere." -- Pegula, Feb. 22, '11 #thingschange— Nick Cotsonika (@cotsonika) February 20, 2013
Pegula's loyalty to Ruff, who has played a huge role in the Sabres' success over the last 15 years, was admirable. But that same loyalty might have prevented him from firing Ruff before this season, which would have been the smart move because firing coaches in-season isn't ideal.
The next challenge for Pegula is to find an experienced head coach who will be able to get the most out of a veteran team that currently lacks the necessary amount of toughness, determination and talent to win a Stanley Cup.
Pegula doesn't deserve much blame in this situation. He has only owned the team for about two years and has given his front office the resources needed to be successful.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs. All salary information courtesy of Capgeek.