System Science

Brad Boyes spoke to a Canadian reporter on Sunday, then signed a 1-year deal with the New York Islanders. He is no longer the problem of the Buffalo Sabres.

His departure caused an odd disturbance though, breaking through the silences of an early July twitter feed for a fanbase looking for anything at all to happen. Before Derek Roy searched for his finest cowboy hat and packed his bags for Dallas, fans spent a few hours wondering just what Boyes meant by the following response:

CBCSports.ca: There were reports late this past season that there wasn’t a strong relationship between you and longtime Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff, that he had misused you and didn’t play to your strengths such as giving you regular playing time. What qualities do you look for in a coach?

Boyes: Coming from coaches and having success with coaches that were yellers and screamers and hard on you, that’s fine, as long as you get a pat on the back when you do something well. I want to play for a coach that I respect a lot and that’ll go a long way in the way that I play.

That starts by communicating with off-ice stuff, saying hi, asking how the family is. Those things go a long way. I’m just looking for a coach that will do that to begin with. Once you get the personal side, then it’s the hockey stuff, with the coach communicating what he likes or doesn’t like about your play.

I don’t need someone telling me every game, every minute or every shift if I’ve done something good or bad, but every once in a while it’s nice to hear some communication either way to know you’re part of the team and feel important.

I’ll take what I can from last year but I’m looking at next year to really getting back to having fun and playing on a team that wants me there and I want to be a part of.

The interview itself was pretty innocuous, really. He wants to play for a coach that he respects and that respects him. He wants to have fun playing hockey again, something that probably did not happen when he was struggling with the Sabres. He wants to feel lines of communication between employer and employee. All of this seems reasonable.

No one comes away from that quote and wonders how much Boyes respects Islanders coach Jack Capuano. In fact, I had to go look up who that guy is just now. I had no idea. The point is, Boyes is not leaving Buffalo to excel under Al Arbour or something. He’s a player looking for a second chance in the NHL, and he’s getting a million-dollar tryout on Long Island. Good for him.

What lingers with fans is what Boyes’ words mean about Sabres coach Lindy Ruff. Suffice to say, they did not mesh well with one another. Boyes didn’t get the feedback he felt necessary to perform. He could not read Ruff, and Ruff took little interest in Boyes as a person. Some coaches are like that. People communicate in different ways. Life goes on.

Those that want to disparage Boyes’ thoughts about what a coach should be to his players are free to do so. I’ve seen plenty of those in the “suck it up and play” camp. Boyes wasn’t exactly asking Ruff to attend his daughter’s dance recital because, well, those are just the worst. He wanted to know what was going on in his head and only heard it when he goofed up. Or not at all. That works for some people, but definitely not all of them.

The larger issue at hand here is that some players just play better under a certain kind of coach. Ruff wasn’t the right coach for Brad Boyes. Both sides made that pretty clear. To speculate further about what other players think of Ruff is silly — they won’t be talking to a reporter about it anytime soon — but it is interesting to consider.

The truth is we really don’t know a whole lot about Lindy Ruff. Not anything that matters, at least. Fans can tell you about his demeanor behind the bench or during postgame press conferences. They know he turns his back to the ice during some shootouts and can postulate on how he stores all those neckties in his home.

After that, we don’t really know that much about him at all. We don’t know what he’s like day in, day out. We will never know what it’s like to work for him. To disappoint or impress or anger him. All of this is hearsay at best. Wild speculation at worst.

The popular term for his coaching in Buffalo is The System, but trying to evaluate that system is a process riddled with unknowns. Hockey is a sport full of variables. It’s part of its charm, but it does mean that numbers aren’t as iron-clad as we’d like them to be sometimes.

What worries me about this Sabres team, a team clearly shuffling its makeup this summer, is how Lindy Ruff will use the assets he is being given. Both Ruff and Darcy Regier are staying put in Buffalo for now, and so this is a system we have to accept. Regier is assembling a team very different than one we’ve seen in blue and gold since the last work stoppage. If Ruff is ready to coach a team like that, Sabres fans have reason to be optimistic.

Brad Boyes, however, is a cautionary tale. He is another in a long line of deadline acquisitions that, one way or another, didn’t fit. Dainius Zubrus didn’t give the Sabres the scoring boost they needed in the postseason. Steve Bernier was quickly jettisoned to Vancouver. Dominic Moore was injured and provided little in his time as a rental player. Raffi Torres never scored a goal and was a healthy scratch in the postseason.

Despite the philosophical shift seen in Boyes acquisition, he belongs on this list as well. None of those players worked out for the Sabres for a variety of reasons. All have gone on to play elsewhere. Some have had decent enough success. The fun thing to say if you’re frustrated with Lindy Ruff’s tenure in Buffalo is that he “ruins” players. That’s not true, but there are some players that don’t find success with him behind the bench. It’s true of every coach.

The real problem is when the general manager and head coach are not on the same page, and the GM continues to bring his bench boss players that don’t work out. If Raffi Torres is out of shape and useless to a guy like Ruff, something about Regier’s evaluation process has to change. These two are a unit. A dynamic duo, even. There’s a problem when their pistons are not firing in sequence with one another.

The good news is that the Sabres are out of the business of trading for rental players and swapping second round picks. Cody Hodgson was a player the team coveted and pulled the trigger for, trading real assets for a guy who could be the future of the franchise. They are moving assets at an accelerated rate, and their fiscal mobility should be invaluable when it comes to assembling the team they want to see on the ice, not just the one they can afford and will keep fans happy.

If Ruff and Regier share the same vision, there shouldn’t be any issue here. Publicly their marriage is strong, and hopefully it’s the same behind closed doors. Then Brad Boyes is merely a misfire, the last of a brief string of players that didn’t cure what ails this team. The next few years should help us determine if there’s any reason to call a doctor just yet.