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Ruff gets more than he bargained for

Over the years, I've become fond of Sabres coach Lindy Ruff. Granted, some of it is purely selfish. Ruff is one of the most savvy coaches I've dealt with in sports. He's smart and candid, a master at delivering the right quote for a situation. Ruff also measures his words carefully, and he rarely says anything that hasn't been thought out ahead of time.

That's why it was so shocking to hear Ruff's comment Saturday, at the end of a brutal week that saw the Sabres lose Daniel Briere and Chris Drury to free agency and grudgingly match Edmonton's seven-year, $50 million offer sheet for Thomas Vanek.

Asked if he would have been so quick to sign that new three-year contract if he'd known what was coming, Ruff said, "Hindsight is 20-20, but it's something that I'd rather not even comment on."

Surely, Ruff knew he would get that question. He had nearly a week to prepare himself. He could have given the easy, diplomatic answer and said he signed his deal because he loves the team and the city and there's no place he'd rather be, regardless of the roster.

Ruff did say some of the right things. He said the Sabres had overcome adversity before and would do so again. But he couldn't lie. He could not say that, given the recent chain of events, he wouldn't have at least considered another NHL coaching job.

Beneath that no comment, Ruff had to be seething. What coach wouldn't be angry after losing his two co-captains and seeing a gifted but immature star handed the contract of a lifetime? Two months ago, Ruff had a team that was the favorite to win the Stanley Cup. Now it's being described as "good enough on paper" to make the playoffs.

Oh, and Ruff can't have been thrilled to hear his general manager, Darcy Regier, blurt out that the team won't be as competitive next season.

So you couldn't blame Ruff for wondering if it might have been wiser to test the waters, like Drury and Briere. He's one of the best in the sport, a terrific playoff coach who has reached the conference finals four times in nine seasons.

Ottawa hired John Paddock after elevating Bryan Murray to GM. Paddock has a losing record as a coach. He hasn't been a head man in 13 years. I suspect the Senators would have approached Ruff if he had been available.

The Sabres were fortunate to keep Ruff. Free agency has ripped a huge hole in the team. At least they have a coach who knows how to make the most of bad circumstances. Ruff is good with young players. He's a teacher who knows defense. But Drury made everyone else in that dressing room accountable, and he made Ruff a better coach.

"That'll be tough to replace," Ruff said Tuesday. "It'll be tough to replace [Drury's] preparation, his knowledge. He's had to work hard at the game to become the player he is. There's a lot of value in Chris being able to lend that to other players."

Vanek, for one. Ruff has struggled to make Vanek an accountable, two-way player. He made great strides last year. But even after Vanek scored 43 goals, Ruff was slow to lavish praise on him. Ruff was quick to remind us that Vanek was still learning, still maturing.

Ruff struggled to reach Vanek when the kid was making $900,000 a year. Regier said the Sabres would have to help Vanek "manage" his new contract. But it's Ruff who deals with Vanek every day. He's the one who has to maintain a delicate balance in his dressing room and now has one player (Vanek) making more than twice as much as anyone else.

Ruff agreed with Regier that it's up to management to help Vanek deal with heightened expectations. If the coach doesn't sound happy, maybe it's because his job just got two times harder.


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