Lindy Ruff’s brief tenure as a Rangers defenseman was hardly memorable, his legs by then almost gone.
But the way Ruff thought of the game made enough of an impression on then-Rangers coach Roger Neilson to start Ruff on a long coaching career.
When Neilson was fired by the Rangers in 1992-93, he landed on his feet – of course – as the head coach of the expansion Florid Panthers the following season. He brought along his pupil, Ruff, as an assistant coach.
The rest is a big slice of history as Ruff set off on a head-coaching career. Only three head coaches – Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour and Joel Quenneville – have coached more NHL games than Ruff (1,493) and only four – Bowman, Arbour, Quenneville and Ken Hitchcock have won more than Ruff (736).
Ruff also could or should have won a Stanley Cup with Buffalo in 1999, but Dallas’ Brett Hull scored a Cup-winning goal against Ruff’s Sabres with a foot in the crease, an illegal play that disallowed such goals all of that season.
On Monday it became official that Ruff, 57, fired within hours of the end of the regular season by Dallas, would join Alain Vigneault’s staff as an assistant coach. Ruff is expected to handle the defensive and penalty-killing chores that Ulf Samuelsson did in 2015-16 and Jeff Beukeboom did in ’16-17. Beukeboom will be reassigned within the Rangers organization.
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) July 10, 2017
As such, Ruff will be in charge of a somewhat re-designed defensive group, minus Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein, plus Kevin Shattenkirk and possibly one or two other newcomers from among Anthony DeAngelo, Neal Pionk, Alexei Bereglazov and Sean Day.
And before the rhetoric begins – well, it has already begun in some stations – Vigneault was 100-percent behind the hiring of Ruff, who, incidentally, was interested in the Rangers’ head-coaching job in the summer of 2013 when they hired Vigneault.
Ruff, who had spent 15 seasons as Buffalo’s head coach, was then hired by Dallas, where he spent the last four seasons, with another ex-Rangers defenseman, James Patrick, following him as an assistant from Buffalo.
The season before, 2015-16, Ruff’s Stars were 50-23-9 and he was named a finalist for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year. Last season went downhill fast, starting with the Dallas goalies. Apparently, though Ruff was fired and replaced by Hitchcock (who was Dallas’ coach in that Hull game). It wasn’t all his fault.
Dallas General Manager Jim Nill went out and got a new No. 1 goalie (Ben Bishop), bought out goalie Antti Niemi, and went shopping for defenseman Marc Methot and free agents Alex Radulov and Martin Hanzal, among others.
Ruff was a Buffalo stalwart on defense, playing 608 games and scoring double-digit goals for five straight seasons (including 20 in just 54 games in ’85-86), where he was a teammate of Rangers assistant coach Jim Schoenfeld and Rangers’ MSG analyst Dave Maloney.
In March of 1989, in Phil Esposito’s 43rd and final trade as Rangers General Manager, he acquired Ruff for a fifth-round pick in 1990, which turned out to be Richard Smelhik.
Ruff played 83 games for the Rangers and was bought out as part of the purge of the summer of 1991 – when Neil Smith cleared out Kelly Kisio, Brian Mullen, Bob Froese and others to start a re-tool with Adam Graves, then Mark Messier and Buekeboom.