Editor's Note: Every once in a while, a fanpost is just too good to not be on the front page. This is one of those posts.
With the season going the way it is, there's naturally been a lot of talk about Lindy Ruff. Everyone seems to think they have a good understanding of the coach and the system he implements. No matter the media outlet it seems every post or comment thread eventually has a claim about the coach. Discussions about Lindy have become the NHL's version of Godwin's law. I thought I'd take the time to critically examine his statistical record - and suffice to say, since he took over the Buffalo club in the summer of 1997, there's plenty of it.
I originally wrote this piece for my buddy's blog (Tonight's Healthy Scratches; check it out) but with the WJC and Winter Classic, it wasn't going to get published within the coming weeks so I got the okay to post it on here on DBtB.
Things to keep in mind:
Before we get to the actual analysis, I wanted to first introduce two caveats. The first is that we don't know just how much influence any coach has on his team. We know it's non-zero and we know it's not complete. I'd estimate it to be around 25-30% of the "influence pie" with player-talent being around 60-70% and any leftover portion consisting of various intangibles like the leadership of the team Captain, fan support, referees, ice quality, arena amenities, etc. It's just an educated guess, but one based off of studies about baseball managers and their impact on W/L records. These studies show that even the best managers are only worth a handful of wins (bad managers are more harmful than good managers are beneficial, but even then the impact isn't very big; maybe 5-7 games). Since it's safe to say that a coach in hockey has more impact on what happens on the ice than a manager does on the field, their impact increases accordingly.
The second caveat is that this analysis is results-oriented. It focuses on the end product of Ruff-coached teams instead of their process. It is possible that there were years where they ended up not producing well, but for the most part were doing all the right things and were just unlucky. There could also be years were they did end up producing well but weren't really deserving of their success. The simple, yet powerful chart above outlines this more clearly. However, this is not to say that results-oriented analysis is useless. Luck tends to even out over time and since our sample size is quite large, it shouldn't be too big of an issue.
(Click to enlarge)
1. On a year-to-year basis, Ruff-coached teams fluctuate pretty wildly. This makes sense since the personnel differs from year-to-year. However, on aggregate, Ruff-coached teams seem to be in the top half of the league in both offense and defense (I say “seem” because the league rank average here is a rough average – meaning I took the yearly ranks and averaged them).
2. We can definitively say that the performance of any one particular aspect of a Ruff-coached team relative to the league does not correlate very well with the team’s success. There are years when the offense ranked highly, but the team suffered (2007/08) and there were years when the defense ranked highly but the team's success was not reflective (1998/99) and vice versa. The league rank of GoalsFor/Game and GoalsAgainst/Game have a positive, but weak correlation with where the team finished in the Conference standings. In the graphs below we can see this more clearly; the points on the graphs don't fit neatly on the trend lines, but the trend lines do have positive gradients.
(Click to enlarge)
3. Ruff has the reputation of being a “defense-first” coach when in reality, he started out that way, but has since evolved into an offensive-oriented coach. You can see this when you separate the data around the lockout. Previous to the lockout, Ruff-coached teams reached the top-ten in GoalsFor/Game only once in seven years and had a League Rank Average of 17.56. After the lockout they were among the top-ten in the category five out of six years and had a League Rank Average of 6.67.
Similarly, before the lockout Ruff-coached teams made the top-ten in GoalsAgainst/Game five out of seven years and had a League Rank Average of 8.43. After the lockout his teams were among the top-ten in the category only two out of six years and had a League Rank Average of 13.17. It's not as stark a contrast as the offense, but is still a clear delineation.
This contrast makes sense since in his early years the personnel required he preach a defense-first philosophy (Hasek, Peca, Satan, McKee, and no one else worth mentioning) and in the post-lockout years the personnel allowed for an offensive-oriented philosophy (Drury, Briere, Vanek, Roy, Campbell, Miller, etc.). That this is not widely known is no surprise. The main-stream media loves to repeat the "Sabres are offensively challenged" meme. Unfortunately, it looks like they are doing a good job of convincing people. Since the Sabres are advertised as an offensively-challenged team, people assume the corollary; they must be a defensive-oriented team and Ruff must be the same defense-first coach he was when he first got the job back in the Hasek era.
4. The last and arguably most important thing we can definitively say about Ruff is his teams make the playoffs more often than not. He has seen payoff action nine times in thirteen seasons as head coach; good for a 69.23 rate. Ruff-coached teams have lost in the Cup Final once (1998/99), the Conference Finals three times (1997/98, 2005/06, and 2006/07), and the Conference Semifinals once (2000/02). Ruff-lead teams have made it out of the first round 5 out of 9 times; good for a 55.56 rate. With the Sabres' history of rosters short on talent, payroll, or both, this is most impressive. Yes, he's never won the big prize, but this seems to suggest that Ruff gets the most out of the talent he has and that's all anyone can ever really ask from a head coach.