In every job, employees have to be accountable for the quality of their work. If someone does not do a good job, the employer or the supervisor has every right to demand more from that worker.
Hockey is no different, except players have the luxury of job security in the form of guaranteed contracts. Gone are the days an organization can trade or demote someone to the minors as a form of motivation. That can make life hard for a coach, who must come up with creative ways to keep players inspired.
Sometimes the only recourse is attacking a player's pride, a risky game because the coach could lose the rest of the team. But it's equally dangerous if the coach does nothing, because that could cost the team a playoff spot. It also creates jealousy in the locker room if the coach is hard on one player and lets another get off scot-free.
Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff has played that game well this season and, so far, the Sabres have given an honest effort on most nights. That's why the once-bankrupt hockey club, which now has a bankroll, finished November with 11 wins, compared to four a year ago at the same point. Last season, the Sabres didn't win their 11th game until Jan. 10, 2003.
Of course, the addition of talented and spunky forwards Chris Drury (four goals, 13 assists, 17 points) and Daniel Briere (seven goals, 19 points) are among the reasons the Sabres entered December at 11-11-2-1. The suddenly consistent play of J.P Dumont (eight goals, 19 points) and the solid play of veteran defenseman Alexei Zhitnik (one goal, eight assists) also are a reason for the team's solid start. But Ruff, the man behind the bench, is doing his best coaching job since the 1999 playoffs -- when the Sabres reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Sabres have been hovering around .500 ever since a 4-2 West Coast swing followed a 1-2 start. Being around .500 is fine and dandy, but that may not be enough for the Sabres to end the two-year playoff drought that has consumed the organization since future Hall of Fame goalie Dominik Hasek orchestrated his trade to Detroit. Ruff knows that, which is why he got upset early during practice on Thanksgiving Day at HSBC Arena.
Players weren't paying attention to detail during the opening drill of the workout that followed a 5-2 win over the Washington Capitals. He immediately made his feelings known that they had no right to act like they had won the Stanley Cup because it's just November, and all they did was win a game against a team that still hasn't compiled a winning streak of two.
The Sabres practiced a little better, but also didn't pay too much attention to detail early in their game Friday against the Florida Panthers, when Ruff said they "looked like turkeys." But they showed some uncharacteristic resolve, rallying from a three-goal deficit for a 4-3 win before 15,776 HSBC Arena fans. That marked the first time the Sabres won back-to-back games in a month, or since closing the aforementioned West Coast trip with wins over Western Conference contenders Los Angeles, Anaheim and Colorado.
"You have to accept responsibility for the role you're given," said veteran defenseman James Patrick. "If you want to be a high-paid player in this league, it brings responsibility with it. ... I don't know if enough guys stepped up and said, 'Yeah, for us to make that next step into the playoffs, I've got to be better.' I don't think that happened enough. That brought in a few changes and that's something that I think Lindy and (general manager) Darcy (Regier) have demanded this year."
Just ask Jay McKee, Miroslav Satan, the defense corps and the goalies.
Ruff benched veteran defenseman Jay McKee for two games. McKee, who now is sidelined indefinitely with a knee injury, was miffed that Ruff benched him while toting a stat line of zero point and a minus-5 rating. When McKee finally returned to the lineup for a 2-1 win at Ottawa on Nov. 16, he played his best game in two seasons.
"I think players get into a comfort zone where they need a kick in the ass every now and then," said Ruff, who chose to stay in Buffalo rather than vie for one of many coaching vacancies last spring. "I mean, I like Jay. ... For our team, being OK isn't good enough."
Accountability is why Ruff and Regier have publicly demanded more from Satan, the team's highest-paid player. Satan, who recently snapped an 11-game skid without a goal, has a mere seven goals (or a little more than $700,000 per goal). The Sabres need him to produce offense in order to be successful. If he can't do that, he at least has to play better on defense -- which he hasn't, as indicated by his minus-9 rating. Then there is his series of bad passes, which produced scoring chances for the opposition.
"I think he can be better," Ruff said. "I still expect more out of him. If we get more, we will be a more effective team."
Accountability is the reason Zhitnik is the only defenseman out of the eight on the roster to play all of the Sabres' 25 games. Accountability also is the reason the Sabres are receiving better goaltending from Martin Biron (6-6-2, 2.71 goals against average and .903 save percentage) and Mika Noronen (5-4, 1.98 GAA, .922 save pct.), who has the talent to be a star goalie if he shows up mentally prepared for each practice and game.
Noronen wasn't prepared Friday, which is why Ruff pulled him after yielding two goals on seven shots.
"I've explained that my patience for bad goals going in (is thin)," Ruff said. "I've already told the guys it's nothing personal, but get ready for the hook if things aren't going well."
Noronen and Biron each have been pulled twice this season.
"You want to be a No. 1 goalie, you want to play a lot of minutes on defense, you want to be an elite forward in this league -- responsibility comes with it," Patrick said. "You need to step up to the plate. You need to work hard. You have to be prepared every day. There are no excuses. I think he's used that approach with us a little more. But I think he's taught. He's given us a system that we can have success with. He's corrected our mistakes, so it all lies with us."
And most of the players who have been around for the post-Hasek era have rebounded nicely through a quarter of the season. Dumont, who could have been convicted of stealing money for past lollygagging transgressions, is playing with the consistency and drive worthy of an alternate captain. Center Curtis Brown is playing sound two-way hockey and winger Maxim Afinogenov is finally showing signs that he's recovered from the concussion he suffered during the summer of 2002.
And then there's the new addition, Drury.
Drury is the best off-season pickup by the organization since former general manager John Muckler acquired little-known forward Michael Peca, a draft pick (McKee) and defenseman Mike Wilson for Alexander Mogilny in 1995. The only difference in the two deals is that Drury had a reputation for being a winner, as indicated by the NCAA championship, Stanley Cup ring and Little League World Series baseball crown on his resume. Drury has excellent on-ice and off-ice habits.
He demands the same from his teammates because he likes to win.
"To me, to look back on the whole quarter, I think there's a lot more stability," Patrick said. "I think we're a better team this year than we were last year. I think Chris Drury's brought some skill level, some intensity and work ethic. I think Danny Briere being here for the whole year makes us better offensively. Saying that, we feel we should be much better than we are right now. I don't think there's any satisfaction."
Can this team do better?
Ruff simply replied, "Yeah."
But now, the players are willing to work as hard at being successful as their coach.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||December 2 2003|