On Thursday night, Sabres fans will experience something for the first time in more than 21 years. They'll see how their team responds to an in season coaching change.
You have to go back to December 11,1991 to find the last time the Sabres fired a coach during a season. Rick Dudley was let go with the team mired in an eight game winless streak and with a 9-15-4 record. Then General Manager Gerry Meehan made the move and announced John Muckler, who was the Director of Hockey Operations, would take over behind the bench. There was no magic turnaround as the Sabres went 22-22-8 the rest of the season.
Clearly, current General Manager Darcy Regier and the Sabres brass are hoping this firing will have a different impact and keep the Sabres from missing out on the playoffs for the fifth time in the last seven seasons.
I was listening to Schopp and Bulldog when they announced the news of the change, which had been tweeted by the Sabres. My first reaction was "wow" even though many of you were probably not surprised. I didn't think the team would fire Ruff during the season and I expected Regier to make player moves before even considering the removal of the man he hired in July of 1997.
I'm never happy to see anyone lose their job but this was a move the Sabres had to make. Quite simply, it was time. In fact, it was probably past the time.
Watching the game with Winnipeg on Tuesday and then listening to what Ruff had to say after the 2-1 loss, for the first time I felt he had run out of answers. Not once during his weekly Tuesday segment with Jeremy White and me did I feel that way but he sounded different after the loss to the Jets. He sounded resigned to the fact he wouldn't be able to fix the problems.
Ruff has always had a defiant side to him and was resolute last season when we would ask him about whether he could win with that team and turn the season around. He would bristle at the idea of giving up and would take it personally when asked if he thought he could be fired.
Yet that defiant side was nowhere to be found in his post game press conference Tuesday night when he was asked if he realized the fans hate this team. I thought his reaction to that question was very telling.
It was almost like that game was Ruff's last stand. He finally benched defenseman Jordan Leopold for the first time in his Sabres career, even though it should have happened weeks ago. Ruff moved a struggling Drew Stafford all the way down to the fourth line and played him alongside Cody McCormick and John Scott. He bumped up Pat Kaleta, who has yet to score this season to the second line with Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno. He changed back later in the game.
Nathan Gerbe got some shifts on the top line in place of Thomas Vanek. Foligno, who was taken off the power play completely in the loss to Pittsburgh, was back on the power play and with the top unit. But when all was said and done, an uninspired Sabres team ended up losing for the 10th time in regulation in 17 games.
In hindsight, you can make the case the Sabres looked exactly like the Washington Capitals did last season when they lost at First Niagara Center in what turned out to be the last game for Bruce Boudreau.
I don't know if anyone will ever find out the truth but my guess is Regier had to be convinced to make this move. Either Terry Pegula realized the fan base was fed up and his franchise was suffering or perhaps someone persuaded Pegula that it was time to release the man who, when Pegula bought the team two years ago, said "ain't going nowhere."
I will say this, I do have a renewed sense of energy to watch this team. I'm eagerly anticipating the game in Toronto to see if the Sabres look like a different group of players. Over the last two weeks its been increasingly difficult to watch this team play and see the same defensive breakdowns, bad passes, and lack of physical play.
I'm sure there are players who are very happy to see Ruff leave but I'm sure there are guys who enjoyed playing for him. Either way, I expect a different voice leading the way will create a more inspired hockey team. After all, the blame can no longer be placed at the feet of the head coach so its up to the players to now perform.