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Analysis

Comparing Current and Former Lindy Ruff Sabres Players

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Lindy Ruff Buffalo Sabres Tim Connolly Tage Thompson

Experience and accountability are two keywords associated with Lindy Ruff’s coaching career that he’ll bring to the current Buffalo Sabres roster. Ruff has handled players of all talent levels, ages, and roles in his fifteen seasons behind the Buffalo bench and eight more as head coach for the Dallas Stars and New Jersey Devils. The current team is the league’s youngest, with the returning players averaging just over 24 years of age.

Must Read: Lindy Ruff Named Next Sabres Head Coach

With some questioning how Ruff handled New Jersey Devils’ top prospect Alex Holtz this past season, there’s some uneasiness surrounding how he’ll mesh with such a relatively young group. Let’s dig into the archives by comparing each returning Sabres player to players at similar points in their career from Ruff’s past.

Tage Thompson

Comparison: Tim Connolly

A highly-skilled center who plays in all situations like Tage Thompson draws only three Sabres in Ruff’s coaching career that could be considered comps. Cody Hodgson was prevalent in the late stages of Ruff with the organization but lacked the puck handling and transition play that Thompson does. Derek Roy was missing the size. That leaves perhaps one of the most skilled forwards in Sabres history, Tim Connolly.

Connolly was never quite the top-line center that Thompson has been the past three seasons. His puck skills – stick handling, passing, and shooting – are eerily similar to Thompson’s, he just had other centers ahead of him pushing him down the depth chart. These centers included Daniel Briere, Chris Drury, and Derek Roy.

When Connolly was going, Ruff was unafraid to lean on him heavily in all situations. His inability to stay healthy was the only thing holding him out of a consistent top-line role.

In his age-26 season, Connolly registered 40 points in 48 games. That would be three points higher than Thompson’s total this past season had he played the same amount of games. Connolly upped that total to 47 points in 48 games the following season.

He also averaged nearly four minutes on powerplay per game and over two minutes of penalty kill usage. That’s over a minute each higher than Thompson’s 2023-2024 averages on special teams.

Thompson should be a full-go under Ruff.

Rasmus Dahlin

Comparison: Brian Campbell

Lindy Ruff never had a generational defenseman in his previous stint with the Sabres, but Brian Campbell is the closest in talent offensively to Rasmus Dahlin. Campbell had 43 points in 65 games in his final season in Buffalo, which is a pace that would put him at five fewer points than Dahlin.

Ruff had the luxury of using Campbell in a second-pairing role with the Sabres, as Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder provided a reliable top pair. He won’t have the same luxury with Dahlin’s usage, as the Swede commands top minutes with his play.

If there are any concerns about Ruff leaning on his young defenseman, remember that the coach had no reservations about using a 19-year-old rookie Tyler Myers as his team’s top defenseman back in 2009-2010.

Zach Benson

Comparison: Clarke MacArthur

Ruff last coached the Sabres in 2012-2013 – over a decade ago. What Benson accomplished in his first season was rare, but 18-year-olds making an immediate impact were even rarer back then.

Clarke MacArthur was an all-situations winger as a young player stepping into the league and might provide a little foreshadowing into how Benson might be used next season. MacArthur averaged about the same minutes per game as Benson, being used as a complementary middle-six winger. He evolved into bigger scoring roles later in his career with Toronto and Ottawa, to no fault of Ruff’s.

Benson’s trajectory might include a higher ceiling than MacArthur’s, but his hard-working, defensively responsible style of play should earn the trust of the new coaching staff rather quickly. Similar style players like Jochen Hecht, Jason Pominville, and Daniel Paille had no trouble earning big even-strength minutes under Ruff’s watch.

Jeff Skinner

Comparison: Drew Stafford

Jeff Skinner is much older than Drew Stafford was when Ruff was the coach but in terms of even-strength and powerplay usage, Stafford’s deployment is probably what we can expect with Skinner. Can the new coaching staff reunite the Skinner, Thompson, and Alex Tuch trio to try to rekindle the magic they once had? Of course, but with the emergence of JJ Peterka, Skinner is more likely to be relied on for secondary scoring.

Stafford was a very streaky and frustrating player at times, which led to some benching and lineup tinkering from Ruff. He’ll hold Skinner accountable, which might mean ups and downs for the team’s top-paid forward. This marriage dynamic will be an interesting one to watch.

Dylan Cozens

Comparison: Cody Hodgson

The “Lindy Ruff isn’t good with young players” narrative has already been debunked with some other comparisons, but Cody Hodgson is another example of the contrary. The Sabres traded for the former 10th overall pick after he hadn’t quite panned out in Vancouver, and Ruff instantly inserted him into the top six. Hodgson responded with a 26-goal, 58-point, full-season pace in Ruff’s final season in Buffalo. That was Hodgson’s age-22 season.

Derek Roy was on a 54-point full-season pace in his age-22 season, followed by a 69-point pace at age 23.

Dylan Cozens steps in as the favorite to assume a similar role to those two as a 23-year-old. His upward trajectory dipped this past season under Don Granato, so perhaps Lindy Ruff can bring out some more untapped offensive potential the former seventh-overall pick is expected to have. His 31 goals and 68 points in 2022-2023 suggest he’s not far from achieving a point-per-game season.

Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Devon Levi

Comparison: Martin Biron and Ryan Miller

The rotation of the goaltenders is likely to become a storyline in 2024-2025, with Lindy Ruff as the ultimate decision-maker in his reacquired role. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen was outstanding last season, ranking among the league’s best in goals saved above expected. Devon Levi’s season was inconsistent, as he seemed to be the incumbent starter at the beginning of the season, lost his job, and is now finishing strong on a playoff run with the AHL Rochester Americans.

So will Ruff lean on Luukkonen? What if Levi impresses in camp?

Look no further than in the post-lockout 2005-2006 NHL season as a blueprint for how the winningest coach in Sabres history handled a similar situation.

You may have forgotten how good Martin Biron was in the two seasons before the lockout. He was north of 50 games played in both seasons, posting .908 and .913 save percentages. He averaged just above 2.5 goals against per game, albeit in an era where goal-scoring was down.

Ryan Miller was the hotshot collegiate prospect who struggled in limited NHL time but excelled with a strong Amerks team in the 2004-2005 lockout year.

Biron started 2005-2006 as Buffalo’s starting netminder, but Miller superseded him mid-season and earned 48 starts to Biron’s 31. A similar situation could arise for the Sabres in 2024-2025, with Levi as the younger hotshot prospect and Luukkonen proving he can handle the starting role.

One thing’s for sure – Ruff will be glad to have a potential dynamic duo in net after losing his job in New Jersey in part to a lack of quality goaltending.

The Forwards

Let’s look over the rest of the roster in a more generic light to save redundancy. JJ Peterka and Jack Quinn are developing into dynamic two-way wingers akin to Jason Pominville with Ruff. Pominville thrived in his early seasons with Buffalo, posting 68 points in his first full season with the club. The Sabres will need Peterka and Quinn to continue to find a new level to round out the forward group.

Ruff and Alex Tuch feel like a match made in heaven. Tuch has some of the power forward attributes that Thomas Vanek possessed in his career, without any defensive responsibility concern. Vanek was benched in crucial games and situations early in his career for inconsistent effort, which will not be a problem with Tuch.

Similarly, Jordan Greenway brings the physicality and defensive play that Ruff cherishes. Players like Paul Gaustad and Mike Grier were prototypes for a role Greenway could be in for.

The Defensemen

Owen Power and Bowen Byram possess draft pedigrees that previous Sabres defensemen under Ruff did not have. Tyler Myers was closest and burst onto the scene, earning the coach’s trust almost immediately. In New Jersey, Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec were highly-drafted defensemen who played pivotal roles under Ruff as rookies, both out of necessity and merit.

Mattias Samuelsson could join the list of big defensive-defensemen that thrived under Ruff’s tutelage. Jay McKee was a physical, consistent, defensive player for the Sabres. Richard Smehlik was also a big, physical defender who handled shutdown minutes for the Sabres of old.

With Connor Clifton’s role clearly defined, Henri Jokiharju’s usage could be the most in flux. If Ruff can bring prime Dmitry Kalinin-type numbers out of Jokiharju, he can be a quality four or five defenseman for the team.

The Prospects

Then there are the forward prospects. Matthew Savoie, Isak Rosen, Jiri Kulich, and Noah Ostlund are all recent first-round draft selections on the cusp of being NHL-ready. There will be some turnover in the Sabres’ bottom six. This means there will be competition among the young prospects for everyday lineup spots.

A slew of NHL-ready prospects coming up together is nothing new to Lindy Ruff. After playing together in Rochester during the lockout, Vanek, Pominville, Roy, Gaustad, and Paille came up together for the 2005-2006 season. All five were key contributors to a roster with an already-defined core. A few seasons later, they became the key components of the team’s new core.

Don’t let the wild narrative that he can’t manage a young roster fool you. Lindy Ruff has gotten some of the best seasons out of young players throughout his previous Sabres tenure.