Lindy Ruff, the new coach of the Buffalo Sabres, knows the next few months will be difficult.
He has to restore order and soothe feelings in the locker room, install his system, and get his new team ready to defend its Northeast Division championship -- all by the start of the regular season in early October. That's a good-sized list, but Ruff knows head coaching jobs usually open for a reason.
"I thought it was an uncomfortable situation, but I don't know if there's a comfortable situation to get into in the NHL as a head coach," he said. "There have been 12 or 13 coaches that have been replaced (in the past year). I don't believe there is an easy job, and I don't expect it to be easy."
Ruff was officially named to the post on Monday. He will succeed Ted Nolan, whose contract was not renewed at the end of June.
Nolan was the NHL's coach of the year last season, and was popular with fans and most of the players. Initially, Ruff's biggest problem with both groups will be that he is not named Ted Nolan. The new coach hopes everyone can turn that page quickly.
"What happened in the past, it's tough for me to comment," Ruff said. "What Ted did was special, and I respect that. I'm going on from there. It's a new era for me."
Ruff's first -- and perhaps most important -- task is to heal the divisions in the locker room. While several players were loyal supporters of Nolan, a few others were not. Dominik Hasek was the most vocal dissenter, but backup goalie Andrei Trefilov and winger Michal Grosek both complained about lack of playing time. Ruff will need to do some delicate fence-mending.
"I think there's a lot of players I have to get to and talk to," he said. "Once you put your jersey on and get to training camp, you get 22 guys in a room and you explain the task at hand and how much dedication it will take, then a lot of that (internal turmoil) goes away. Internally, the players sort out a lot of that stuff on their own. They get emotional about a lot of stuff, but a lot of that will go away. Part of my job is to talk about it, and get it out in the open, and go forward from there."
When, or if, those problems are straightened out, Ruff will turn his attention to the on-ice product. He has been an assistant with the Florida Panthers for the past four years. That team has been closely associated with the neutral-zone trap, a style of play that often has been criticized for causing dull games.
"I believe that's a misconception," Ruff said. "We seldom used the neutral-zone trap the last two years. The first two years we solely used the neutral-
zone trap. You'll never hear me use the word trap.
"The system that we're going to employ is a very hard forechecking style. The trap is just a way of playing when the other team is breaking out of its zone. We're going to use a 1-2-2, and a lot of times it will be a 2-1-2."
Ruff repeated something that has been said by several Sabre coaches the past few years: Buffalo must play better in its own end.
"I don't think there's a top team in this league that doesn't play a top caliber of defense in its own zone," he said. "We have to cut the goals-against down, reduce the shots (against) by a certain number for each game.
"My feelings were that the Sabres played a pretty tough one-on-one coverage in their own zone. That puts a lot of onus on players to play one-on-one battles. If you have to do that against an Eric Lindros or John LeClair (both of Philadelphia), they are going to beat you 50 percent of the time. They're that good. Going to a zone defense and collapsing wingers a lot more will keep the other teams on the outside and eliminate chances. A little different system in our own zone should lead us to be more successful."
While making those technical adjustments, he hopes his new team can play with the same intensity it displayed on most nights last season. Ruff noticed it when he prepared the Panthers to face the Sabres.
"The one thing that stood out was the emotion factor," he said. "They care for each other. I think you saw that in some of the brawling. They went to war. Players who weren't very big or who weren't known for getting involved jumped into a lot of fracases -- Holzinger, Peca, guys like that. They got involved to help another player. That's something you notice as a coach."
It adds up to a big job, and Ruff doesn't have much time to accomplish all his goals. That's why he's eager to begin.
"I want to get to Buffalo as quick as I can," he said. "I want to get the family moved here. I want to get my kids in school. I want to get (assistant) coaches in place, which I want to get done as quickly as possible. . . . Then I'll sit down with Darcy (Regier, Sabres general manager) and Larry Carriere (assistant to Regier), and find what this team needs and where we are going.
"Obviously we need to get a pulse for the team. I've got to get behind the bench and get a feel for all of the players. There's a lot to do, but I wish it (the season) was starting tomorrow."