We have debated it over and over. We've taken thousands of phone calls and deleted hundreds of comments on it. And yet the clichés about Buffalo Sabres' head coach Lindy Ruff's “system” will not die.
If you've listened to the station for an hour at any given time over the last, say, three years (probably longer), you've heard someone suggest that Ruff employs a “defensive system that ruins offensively talented players.”
Is it tiring to hear over and over? Yes. But are the “Lindy's System” folks correct?
There's several different ways to look at it. For now, let's focus on the player usage aspect and the “Lindy ruins everyone” claim.
NHL coaches' systems ask players to to either a) start on both sides of the ice or b) separate players into specific offensive or defensive roles. Ruff is in the first camp, but does some specifying.
For example, Patrick Kaleta is a high-quality shutdown forward. Ruff started Kaleta in the defensive zone on 41.9 percent of faceoffs in which he was on the ice. Luke Adam, a poor defensive player, started 57.7 percent of the time. Tyler Ennis – another highly talented offensive player, started 57.5 percent.
The total difference between the highest and lowest zone starts in the offensive zone between Adam and Kaleta was 15.8 percent.
How does that compare to other teams? (players with more than 10 minutes/game and more than 30 games played)
Ranked from highest to lowest in specialization:
1 -Vancouver – 66.4%
2 - Tampa Bay – 37.6%
3 - NY Rangers – 34.8%
4 - Chicago – 33.8%
5 - Colorado – 33.1%
6 - Carolina – 32.8%
7 - Winnipeg – 32.0%
8 - Nashville – 26.1%
9 - Montreal – 23.0%
10 - Minnesota – 22.3%
11 - Pittsburgh – 21.7%
12 - Phoenix – 21.3%
13 - Florida – 20.6%
14 - Philadelphia – 20.4%
15 - Edmonton – 19.3%
16 - St. Louis – 19.1%
17 - Columbus – 18.0%
18 - Toronto – 18.0%
19 - Buffalo – 15.8%
20 - Boston – 15.5%
21 - NY Isles – 15.4%
22 - San Jose – 14.9%
23 - Washington – 13.5%
24 - Ottawa – 14.7%
25 – LA Kings 13.9%
26 - New Jersey – 11.9%
27 - Calgary – 11.1%
28 - Dallas – 10.5%
29 - Anaheim – 9.2%
30 - Detroit – 7.6%
As you can see, two of the league's best teams are on opposite sides of the spectrum in Vancouver and Detroit. Buffalo is in between the terrible Leafs and successful Boston Bruins. So, it's obvious that when it comes to specialization there's no blanket right or wrong way. However, consider the rosters of the two extremes: the Canucks had two of the league's most talented offensive players in the Sedins, whereas as Red Wings had a group of two-way such as Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg.
Either the roster dictates the system in terms of specialization or the general manager acquires players who fit the specified roles.
How does this pertain to Lindy's system? His ranks 19th in specialization of zone starts. That means that more often than not, if you play for the Buffalo Sabres, you will be started in both ends of the ice.
Does this aspect of the system limit production? Well, Detroit's top scorer Zetterberg started in the O-zone 54.5 percent of the time, Buffalo's, Jason Pominville 54 percent. But both those players are excellent in playing two ways.
Now take a player like Ville Leino, who started in the O-zone 62.3 percent of the time for the Flyers in 2010-11, then 54.5 percent under Ruff – about average for forwards in his top three lines. Leino's 5-on-5 production dropped from 2.21 points/60 minutes to 1.34 points/60 minutes.
Two things here: A) The zone start number does not say that Ruff's “system” was to blame for Leino not scoring. It says Leino and GM Darcy Regier were. Leino had not played well in a two-way system before to any success (see: his time in Detroit – 55 games, 16 points). Leino should not have been a target for the Sabres considering he was used successfully in a one-way role with the Flyers.
B) Could you blame Ruff for not adjusting his system to his players? Maybe. But here's the problem: if Ruff was going to split up his players, giving 65-70 percent of O-zone starts to a certain group, would Leino be in that group? Not over Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Drew Stafford, Tyler Ennis or Cody Hodgson. Keep in mind: there are only so many offensive zone starts to go around.
There's another side to the coin, though. It turns out Christian Ehrhoff flourished when playing both sides of the ice 5-on-5. Two years ago, when starting 61.5 percent of the time in the O-zone, he scored 0.82 points/60 minutes at even strength. Last year with the Sabres he scored 0.97 points/60 at 5-on-5 and had better puck possession numbers relative to his Quality of Competition while starting in the O-zone only 52.8 percent.
So you have two examples of players new to the “system” who were acquired in the last year by Darcy Regier. One struggled, one stepped up. Same “system.”
The question the Sabres should be asking themselves as we head into free agency is about how to pinpoint which players will play to par or better under a two-way heavy system. Would you have targeted Ehrhoff as one of those players last year? Maybe not, but it worked out very well. It's not always easily predictable.
The Sabres can, however, look at player usage as one of the factors when considering a signing or trade candidate. Was the player used both ways or just offensively? Did he face tough competition? How good were his linemates? All these factors make suggestions about whether players will succeed or fail with the Buffalo Sabres, under Lindy Ruff's system.
Now – about that “conservative, defensive system” myth.
The stats say it's pretty much the opposite. Since the lockout, Ruff's teams have ranked consistently toward the bottom of the league in shots against. Since Ryan Miller became the full-time starter, Ruff has relied on his goaltender to handle a hefty workload.
Take a look at the Sabres' NHL rank in shots against per game
If it's a conservative, defensive system, why would the Sabres allow so many shots against?
Now look at where they rank in shots for per game:
So in the last five years, the Sabres have consistently ranked higher in the NHL at shots per game than at allowing shots per game. If that's the case, how can Ruff run a conservative, defensive system?
Some players do well and some players struggle under Ruff's system. The players who succeed, like Jason Pominville, have two-way talent. It appears the system isn't going to change, so the roster has to. Running three purely offensive lines and asking several one-way players like Leino to work in both ends is asking for either failure or a long adjustment period (which may be the case with Leino.) The challenge is whether the Sabres can find those players and put together a 2012-13 roster that fits the “system.”