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February 22, 2013
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The NHL’s Best Coach. Period.

Scott Taylor
Senior Writer, Fantrax

An Era ended in Buffalo this week. That’s era with a capital E.

This week, Lindy Ruff lost his job as head coach of the Buffalo Sabres. Some insiders might have feigned surprise, but really, nobody was shocked by the news.

The Sabres had not been very good. The team was 6-10-1, 4-10-1 in their last 15, were dead last in the East and had just lost 2-1 at home to a Winnipeg Jets team that isn’t very good.

"I think the last game was quite honestly a tipping point. And it was evident to me that we were searching for answers to too many questions," said Sabres GM Darcy Regier. "I think we were making some strides, but in the end, for every two steps forward, it was one step back, and sometimes not that."

The surprise, of course, was that Ruff had been the head coach of the Sabres for so darn long. He was in his 15th season with the Sabres and won the Jack Adams Award as NHL Coach of the Year in 2005-06. With a 571-432-162 record, Ruff was the winningest coach in franchise history.

Ruff was named coach of the Sabres on July 21, 1997, and since then, the NHL reported that there have been 170 coaching changes around the league.

With Ruff’s departure, the longest serving coach in the NHL is now Barry Trotz of the Nashville Predators. He was hired two weeks after Ruff and remains the only coach in the history of the Predators franchise. That’s right, the only coach in the Preds history.

And get this: Year one and year out, he’s also the best coach in the game. Think about it?

No matter who is on his roster, no matter who’s in his lineup every night, Dauphin Manitoba’s greatest gift to the National Hockey League always seems to find a way to win. Year after year, the man who has coached more games from the beginning of a team’s NHL existence than any other man in league history, has made the talent-starved Nashville Predators a consistent playoff contender.

In fact, Trotz is the only coach – in any sport -- to lead his team to the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons, averaging nearly 45 wins and 99 points per season. And on a couple of those occasions, he started the year with an ECHL lineup.

Look at Trotz’s Preds right now. Way back in September, long before this lockout-shortened 2013 season began, experts had already left this team for dead. With a self-imposed payroll budget that ranks near the bottom of the league, the Predators go to war every night with names like Yip, Blum and Josi.

Meanwhile, the players have to ignore the fact that this franchise could be re-located on any given day without notice. It’s a shaky franchise, without a lot of money that ices a team of virtual NHL no-names every night.

Don’t believe me? The Preds top line reads like the top line on an NHL oldtimers team: Martin Erat, 32, David Legwand, 33, Paul Gaustad, 31. How about a roster that includes Patric Hornqvist, Craig Smith, Nick Spaling, Brian McGrattan, Rich Clune, Matt Hasichuk and Colin Wilson. These guys aren’t even household names in their own households, except for maybe Wilson, the gifted offensive player who still hasn’t yet lived up to all the hype.

On defense, Trotz trots out Kevin Klein, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Jonathan Blum. The goalies are Chris Mason and Pekka Rinne.

“Yeah, but come on,” Trotz demanded. “Rinne is one of the best goalie in hockey and we have Scott Hannan and Shea Weber and they might be two of the better defensemen in the game. Erat’s a good player, so is Hornqvist and Mike Fisher and so is (David) Legwand.”

OK, coach, that’s six. And, by the way, Fisher’s biggest claim to fame is that he’s married to Carrie Underwood.

For years, the Predators have boasted an American Hockey League lineup and yet made the playoffs on a regular basis. Last year’s team went 48-26-8 for 104 points and finished fourth in the West. This is a team in a non-traditional market that has trouble drawing fans and in recent years has looked like a franchise that might be sold to an owner who wanted to re-locate the club to Minsk. Or Quebec City.

Remember, not too long ago the Predators lost a co-owner, Bootsie Del Biaggio, to an eight-year jail sentence for fraud. This franchise has been a mess and financially, it’s still a mess. According to Forbes Magazine, the Predators are the 25th most valuable team in the NHL (worth an estimated $163 million) and the owners have been forced to pump $60 million of their own money into the franchise just to pay the bills.

But through it all, the head coach from Dauphin, has always had faith that his team won’t quit and every year, he comes to camp believing, deep in his heart, that his annual collection of would-bes, never-weres and has-beens would be resilient enough to overcome all the off-ice distractions and play like true professionals.

“Resilient. That’s our identity,” said Trotz, an old University of Manitoba assistant coach who became his boss, David Poile’s favorite back when he coached the now-defunct Baltimore Skipjacks. “We’re kind of a hockey version of Major League, the old baseball movie with all the misfits and cast-offs.

“My approach to the season is always pretty simple. I never say, ‘Let’s go out and win 10 straight.’ I look at a season in segments of threes. Just win two-of-three, pick up a point whenever we can and just try to chip away at the schedule. Every year, I think resilient is the best word to use to describe us.”

Nobody knows resiliency or winning better than Barry Trotz. He is only the second coach in NHL history to spend each of the first 10 seasons as a team’s head coach joining the New York Rangers’ Hall of Famer, Lester Patrick (13 seasons,1926-39). He entered 2009-10 season with the eighth-most victories (364) and games coached (820) with a single franchise. He’s coached the national team at the world championship and earlier in his career he won a Calder Cup championship in Portland, Maine. 

This year, the Preds came out as they often do: 2-1-2 after the first five games. Now, the Preds are 8-4-5, second to Chicago in the Central Division and fourth in the Western Conference (with the third highest point total).

“We work hard and if you look around, this is a hard-working league,” Trotz said. “If you work hard, you’ll be rewarded.

“And it’s important to win early in a season. This is the time of year when you can ambush the really talented teams. If you start winning now and get an identity, learn what kind of team you have, you’ll pick up some early season wins that nobody can take away from you in March and April when things get really tough.

“It’s a long season. When you have a team like we do, you have to pick up the wins when they come and not waste your chances.”

That’s good advice coming from a guy who came out of Dauphin to become the NHL’s best coach. Period.

Scott is an author, broadcaster and journalist who travels extensively for Fantrax.

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