By Sean Hartnett
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Lindy Ruff is officially part of Alain Vigneault’s coaching staff, taking on the assistant role focused on defense and penalty killing vacated by the organizational reassignment of former assistant Jeff Beukeboom.
The first conclusion that fans have jumped to is this idea that Ruff’s hiring was forced on Vigneault and that his presence will somehow accelerate AV’s exit.
Let’s be clear: this big-name addition to the coaching staff isn’t about putting pressure on Vigneault; it’s about the Rangers building the strongest support staff possible.
During the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Ruff ran Canada’s defense under head coach Mike Babcock. With blue liners Drew Doughty, Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, P.K. Subban, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Alex Pietrangelo, Dan Hamhuis, and Jay Bouwmeester at their disposal, the Canadians captured the gold medal.
Canada put on a defensive clinic throughout the tournament. Their stout penalty killing allowed them to shut down the United States’ power play in a 1-0 semifinal victory. In the gold medal game, Canada controlled the puck with expertise and won the lion’s share of offensive zone time, keeping Sweden pinned deep in an eventual 3-0 victory.
Doughty and Weber each collected six points in six tournament games. The former was chosen to the all-tournament team on defense alongside Sweden’s Erik Karlsson.
Ruff’s new challenge with the Rangers will be to get the most out of a talented group of mobile blue liners that includes Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei, and Brendan Smith and has been bolstered by the addition of 56-point defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.
Now that lumbering blue liner Dan Girardi has joined the Tampa Bay Lightning and Kevin Klein has retired after recurring back injuries hammered his effectiveness, the Rangers will enter the 2017-18 season with a faster group of defensemen who can move the puck with efficiency.
Need proof of Ruff’s ability to cooperate? We all remember the heartbreaking way that Ruff and his 1999 Buffalo Sabres lost the Stanley Cup Final to Ken Hitchcock’s Dallas Stars on a controversial triple-overtime goal in Game 6. Brett Hull scored the series winner by using his skate to control the puck in the crease and fired the puck past Dominik Hasek.
At the time, most fans were unaware that the league had circulated a private memo to teams earlier in the season that clarified that a skate could be in the crease if the player was in control of the puck. Sabres fans felt the Stanley Cup was robbed of them by a group of bandits from Dallas. “No goal, no goal” became the rallying cry.
The city of Buffalo fumed. At an end-of-season celebration, Ruff spoke to a large crowd of Sabres fans and left the podium with the following message:
“I’m going to leave you with two words,” Ruff said. “Be the final two words for this summer – NO GOAL.”
The tense relationship between Ruff and Hitchcock became heated during the opening round of the 2006 playoffs, when the former was still in charge of the Sabres and the latter was guiding the Philadelphia Flyers. Ruff called the Flyers “idiots” after Philly gooned it up late in Game 2. Buffalo jumped out to a 5-0 first-period lead, eventually recording an 8-2 blowout victory.
“Tell Lindy to (expletive) off,” Hitchcock fired back.
At Sochi, the pair of sparring coaches were forced to get along. Ruff not only had to share the Canada bench with Hitchcock, the pair of assistants were Odd Couple roommates for two-plus weeks in a cramped dorm room with twin beds separated by two feet.
“There were philosophical arguments and I learned a lot,” Ruff told the Dallas News. “I learned actually at the end to like him.”
Flash forward to present day. Ruff again will serve as an assistant, just like he did in Sochi and as he did in his coaching infancy with the 1993-94 expansion Florida Panthers, with whom he served under former Rangers head coach Roger Neilson.
Babcock and the Canadians benefited greatly from Ruff’s dual role coaching defense and the penalty kill. Now, Vigneault and the Rangers will have Ruff occupying the same duties. Ruff currently stands fourth in NHL history with 1,493 regular season games coached and his 736 regular season wins rank fifth all-time.
Who wouldn’t want that kind of experience on the bench? Vigneault can only benefit from having Ruff as a sounding board and taking hold of important situations.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey