Following the Rangers’ hiring of Lindy Ruff as the defensive assistant in July of 2017, we offered up a scathing analysis of the decision. To summarize the argument, it was evident that Ruff’s hiring was more about his relationship with others on the Rangers’ coaching staff rather than the result of a blind, intensive search for the best candidate. Furthermore, his credentials were severely lacking. Ruff’s teams in Dallas were consistently below average (to put it mildly) in most defensive metrics. They bled shot attempts. The penalty kill was atrocious. It’s probably not a coincidence that Dallas has dramatically improved in those areas over the last two seasons since Ruff’s departure.
Even still, some benefit of the doubt was offered.
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.
Ruff has since been a part of 157 regular season games with the Rangers, and so judgment is now more than fair. Here is how the Rangers have fared in various defensive statistics under Ruff’s guidance.
That is just about as bad as it can get. The best that can be said here is that the penalty kill has been only “very bad” rather than “horrible.” On the whole, one could argue quite convincingly that the Rangers have been the worst defensive team in the NHL over the last two seasons.
What’s more, it’s difficult to find examples of improvement on an individual level. Tony DeAngelo is finally reaching his potential, though he’s always been a special case. Nonetheless, let’s give Ruff full credit for Deangelo’s success if only for the sake of argument.
That’s one success amongst many more failures. Brady Skjei and Kevin Shattenkirk have declined tremendously in the last two seasons, while Brendan Smith seemingly forgot how to play hockey out of nowhere. Ryan McDonagh and Nick Holden declined under Ruff but have both improved since departing the team. The once-promising Neal Pionk has been, statistically speaking, one of the worst defensemen in the NHL since his promotion. Though Marc Staal has struggled for years now, he has gotten notably worse the last two seasons.
This is not all Ruff’s fault. He could not help injuries to Shattenkirk and McDonagh. Age is certainly playing a part with Staal’s decline. Maybe Neal Pionk is simply not an NHL defenseman regardless of who is coaching. Quinn is in charge, and so he takes some blame. As does a management group who has put together this porous group of defensemen. And, of course, the players themselves must be held accountable for their play.
It is absolutely Ruff’s fault that Marc Staal and Neal Pionk have remained together on the team’s top PK unit despite being arguably the worst PK pairing in the league this season. It’s definitely on him that Freddie Claesson is 7th among the team’s defensemen in time-on-ice even though he’s been the team’s second-best defenseman this season. It’s his fault that Adam McQuaid received a prominent role on the defense above more deserving players. And while we lack definitive proof needed to actively blame him for the poor performances of Skjei, Smith, and Pionk, it’s clear that he lacks answers for how to reverse those trends. The team’s overall numbers are ghastly, and yet they are not atypical from Ruff’s prior results as a coach.
The best argument for keeping Ruff was that he was an incredibly experienced NHL Head Coach who could offer some perspective to rookie David Quinn as he tackled such an overwhelming job for the first time. Now that it’s been an entire season, Quinn and his staff should understand the nature of the beast. If the team still feels it needs that veteran presence, then the team wouldn’t have a hard time finding another experienced assistant. One who can also offer something of substance in terms of tactics and player development.
The most generous analysis is that Ruff does not hold the solutions to the Rangers’ problems. Almost all of the team’s defensemen have underachieved relative to expectations, and on the whole the Rangers have been a horrendous defensive team since Ruff’s arrival. Make no mistake, the problems extend well beyond Ruff’s reach, but all benefit of the doubt has dissipated. With so many young defensemen at critical junctures of their careers and more on the way in the next few years, it behooves the Rangers to make a change and find someone better suited to coach a modern NHL defense.