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Rangers’ Hiring of Ruff Shows the NHL’s Problem with Cronyism

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Buffalo Sabres v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Len Redkoles/Getty Images

In a move that has been in the works for over a month, the Rangers removed Jeff Beukeboom from defense and penalty kill coaching duties and hired Lindy Ruff in his place. The New York Post’s Larry Brooks spoke to Vigneault about the decision. In the process, he did a wonderful job of exposing a detailed example of one of the major problems in hockey; cronyism.

“When Gorts and I decided to make a change with our defensive coach, Arnie suggested that we should consider Lindy.

“My first thought was, here’s a guy with more games and wins than I have (1,493-1,134; 736-614) and if I were fired, I wouldn’t consider being an assistant, I’d just stay home and wait for another offer [as head coach]. That’s what I told Arnie,” Vigneault said. “But he told me, ‘No, you should call him. I think [Lindy] would be interested.

“Arnie has a great network.”

Vigneault did some homework with a couple more friends. He spoke with Dallas GM Jim Nill and Toronto consultant Jacques Lemaire, a confidante since they worked together for the Canadiens two decades ago. Both encouraged Vigneault to pursue it.

Arniel’s “great network” was the catalyst for Ruff’s hiring. What exactly is this network, though? How did we get to the point where Vigneault, Arniel, and Ruff are now all coaching the same team? Let’s look at a timeline of events that explains this “network.”

1986-1989: Scott Arniel and Lindy Ruff are teammates in Buffalo.

1998: Jacques Lemaire is hired as a consultant by Montreal, where Alain Vigneault is Head Coach. He stays for two seasons and builds a lasting acquaintanceship with Vigneault.

2003: Ruff, now Head Coach of Buffalo, hires Arniel to be his assistant.

2006: Vigneault, previously Head Coach of the Canucks’ AHL affiliate Manitoba Moose, is promoted to Canucks Head Coach. To replace Vigneault, Scott Arniel leaves Buffalo to take the job in Manitoba. Arniel and Vigneault work together for the Canucks’ organization for four seasons.

2010: Ruff and Lemaire are assistant coaches for Team Canada at the Olympics.

2013: Vigneault is named Head Coach of the Rangers. He hires Arniel as his assistant.

2017: Arniel strongly vouches for Ruff to be hired as the Rangers’ defensive assistant. In researching Ruff and evaluating his merits, Vigneault consulted Ruff’s former general manager of four years, and Lemaire, who is Vigneault’s “confidant.”

Networking is good. We’ve all done it, and we’ve all benefited from it. Whether it’s something small like the name of a good restaurant or something major like a connection for a job. What we have here, though, is way beyond that. This is an echo chamber.

If it hasn’t been beaten to death yet, then let’s give it another go. The Rangers’ defense has been cataclysmically bad the last three seasons. Roster construction was mediocre. Player usage was horrible. Tactics were bad. In addition, the penalty kill has been bad; 17th in the NHL. This coaching staff has had a number of strengths the last few years, but this is not one of them. I understand that coaching is an incredibly complicated job, and so coaches want to surround themselves with people they trust.

But again, what coaching staff has been doing the last few years on defense has not worked. This summer could have been a great opportunity for the coaching staff to do some soul searching. They’re clearly missing something, fine. The game changes and everybody can learn and improve. They could have cast a wide net, learning different perspectives from European coaches, junior hockey coaches, and data specialists. Unfamiliar people outside their school of thought who might have ideas that they haven’t considered.

Instead, the Rangers zeroed in on someone convenient and familiar. Someone in-network. To be fair, we don’t know what other ideas were floated and people were talked to. But it’s easy to infer that there wasn’t much consideration of other options. Instead of a far-reaching search of diverse backgrounds and ideas, they immediately resorted to continuing a circle of mutual back-patting. There are very few degrees of separation between the people who are tasked with coaching the Rangers.

Again, networking can be a great tool. If Ruff is qualified for the job then the ends justify the means. So let’s look at Ruff’s portfolio as a defensive coach.

Over the last four seasons, the Stars ranked 22rd in CA/60 (shot-attempts-against-per-60-minutes). In fact, per research done by reader David Lefcort, Ruff’s teams have never finished higher than 14th in an individual season over the last decade. The PK doesn’t fare much better; Dallas had the fourth-worst PK in the NHL over Ruff’s tenure in Dallas. As a head coach, he has won exactly one playoff series in the last 10 seasons. In fairness, his PK numbers in Buffalo were a lot better. Also, for many years the Buffalo teams he coached were completely bereft of talent. On the other hand, we don’t know how much he contributed to that demise.

The Rangers’ defense is currently shaping up to be the best Ruff has coached in a long time; maybe ever. Maybe he just needs the right fit. We also don’t know the minutiae of what Ruff’s plans consist of, so it’s hard to judge him on that before a game has been played.

But here is what we do know. The Rangers determined that the most qualified person to coach the defense just happened to the man who gave Arniel his very first NHL coaching job. Arniel himself is with the Rangers because he was Vigneault’s close acquaintance. Ruff’s teams have been miserable defensively for a while now. Vigneault, who himself has badly managed the team’s defense the last few years, discussed tactics with Ruff and liked what he heard. Also, Ruff spent a few seasons as a defensive assistant for the Panthers over two decades ago. Voila, Ruff is hired.

The common justification for this hiring is going to center around the fact that Ruff has been in the game for a long time and is very respected. That’s only more fodder for the problem at hand. The NHL has a complete lack of diversity within the coaching ranks. Ruff is a good coach because The Establishment says he’s a good coach. Ruff reported to one GM virtually his entire time in Buffalo; Darcy Regier. Once Regier was fired, Ruff soon after departed. Nonetheless, that stamp of approval from one General Manager was enough to make him name brand. Quite simply, once a coach manages to get his foot in the door and stay long enough, hiring him however many times over becomes self-justifying.

The Rangers have largely dealt with the personnel issues on defense that have hampered them. We’ll have to wait and see if Ruff is the man who can fix some of the tactical ones. No doubt, there have to be some ways he sees the game differently than how the Rangers have the last few years. Ruff could very well be the man who gets the job done. We’ll see. Nonetheless, the way about which the Rangers found their new defensive coach in no way inspires confidence.