If there was an award for greatest coaching comeback of the year I would nominate Lindy Ruff for that honor right now. After a flaccid 2014/15 season where the Dallas Stars finished tenth in the Western Conference and were two points above the last place Colorado Avalanche, today the Dallas Stars have gone nova; leading the pack in the Western Conference with the greatest start ever in their entire franchise history.
Dallas is second only to Montreal in the President’s Trophy stakes. They are in the top five in overall offense, power-play offense, and short-handed offense. Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin are the Stars Dynamic Duo on offense, accounting for 1/3 of the goals scored for Dallas. Seguin and blue-liner John Klingberg are playmakers extraordinaire while center Cody Eakin capitalizes on scoring chances in penalty-killing situations.
Another helpful addition has been goalie Antti Niemi. Last season Dallas lacked reserve strength between the pipes. Kari Lehtonen was denied adequate back-up support. This season Niemi’s presence has brought badly needed depth in the nets. Antti Niemi has always been a solid goalie in the past and has Stanley Cup championship experience. Lindy Ruff has judiciously platooned Lehtonen and Niemi with great effect thus far.
Amazingly, Dallas continues to thrive despite having the 19th best defense and the 22nd best penalty-killing unit in the NHL. Like the Billy the Kid in days of old, the Stars win by fusillade. Nine of their 12 victories have been by two goals or more. Only one of their victories has been by shutout.
Dallas is executing perfectly on offense but for how long? Teams can steal victories through pure defense and goal-tending but a team that lives solely on its offense can experience real troubles when they can no longer execute properly against a well-manned defense. Dallas has shown promise but what is the sustainability of this present winning streak?
And there is the nature of Lindy Ruff’s coaching career as well? Although he presently ranks in the top fifty (to know specifically where he ranks please buy my newly released book Bench Bosses: the NHL’s Coaching Elite—sorry hockey fans I couldn’t resist the naked plug). His coaching career has been a series of peaks and valleys; bursts of promise followed by fallow periods where if his teams do not suffer losing seasons they still fail to make the playoffs; in other words seasons of stagnation in the eyes of my rating system. Lindy Ruff has experienced more than his share. It was that inconsistency that cost him his job with Buffalo. After a wonderful debut in Dallas in 2013/14 he still was unable to coax the Stars into the playoffs last season.
Can Lindy Ruff break this vicious cycle which has dogged him since 2001/02? Can he maintain the high ground without the sudden descents which has caused him to stagnate in terms of his coaching value? Those are the challenges which confront him as a coach.
The same goes for the Stars. As a team they have not won a divisional title since 2005/06; they not reached the conference finals since 2007/08 and they have not reached the Stanley Cup finals since 1999/00; and they have not won a Cup since 1998/99. That’s a long, long time of waiting for a team’s Stanley Cup dreams to come true.