Lindy Ruff was let go Wednesday by the Buffalo Sabres, as the team's poor start has them threatening to miss the playoffs for the fourth time in the last six seasons.
The Sabres then promoted Ron Rolston from the AHL's Rochester Americans as the interim coach.
General manager Darcy Regier said discussions to remove Ruff of his duties began earlier Wednesday. He then went to Ruff's home to inform the coach of the decision. Ruff was allowed to visit with players as they boarded a bus to travel to Toronto for a game on Thursday night.
Buffalo hired Ruff in 1997 after he had served as an assistant with Florida. Including his time as a Sabres player in the 1980s, Ruff has been associated with the club for about 25 years.
Among North America's four major pro sports, Ruff's tenure was second only behind Gregg Popovich, who's been coach of the NBA's San Antonio Spurs since 1996.
After winning their first two games in January, Buffalo has plummeted down the East standings. A home loss Tuesday to the Winnipeg Jets dropped the club to 6-10-1. In the NHL alone, there had been 170 coaching changes since Ruff was hired on July 21, 1997.
Ruff said after the uninspired effort against the Jets that the team would have to review every aspect of its play.
"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," Regier said during a news conference. "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."
Rolston, who will guide the Sabres for the rest of the season, was in his second season as coach of Americans, Buffalo's minor-league affiliate. Rolston was set to arrive in Buffalo on Wednesday evening, and then join Regier in travelling to Toronto for his first meeting with the players. Regier said he'll use the remainder of the season to determine whether Rolston deserves taking over the job on a full-time basis.
Rolston familiar with Buffalo players
Prior to his time with the Americans, Rolston was coach of Team USA's National Team development program for seven seasons, leading three Under-18 teams to gold medals (2005, 2009, 2011). Rolston also spent time with centre Cody Hodgson and forward Marcus Foligno in the first half of this season in Rochester during the NHL lockout.
Rolston went 36-26-10-4 last season in leading Rochester to the playoffs. The Americans (27-18-2-1) are in second in the North Division and sixth in the Western Conference this season.
"His teams play with structure, discipline. They have a work ethic," Regier said, of Rolston. "He has them playing very good hockey, so I think you'll see some of those traits."
The Sabres have featured a top-heavy offence this season, with Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis accounting for the bulk of their scoring. Drew Stafford, who scored 51 over the previous two seasons, has just one goal, while veteran Jochen Hecht has yet to find the back of the net.
Top goalie Ryan Miller has been inconsistent, while once again, Ruff has been unable to get any extra points from the backup netminder. It has been a common theme in recent years, with Jhonas Enroth following Patrick Lalime and Joceyln Thibault in that regard.
Sabres' poor start
The poor start follows a 2011-12 campaign in which the Sabres couldn't make the playoffs despite a strong second half. Despite some high-priced signings of homegrown players like Vanek and Tyler Myers, as well as free agents Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino, the Sabres missed the playoffs for the third time in five seasons.
Myers, who earns $12 million US this season (at a $5.5 million cap hit), has been a healthy scratch on two ocassions earlier this month and has a minus-7 rating in 15 games.
"I'm disappointed for myself. I'm disappointed for Lindy. And when I see the players, I'm disappointed for them, too." Regier said. "We should all be disappointed. As far as anger, we have too much work to do."
Ruff succeeded Ted Nolan as coach in 1997.
Ruff led the Sabres to the Stanley Cup final in 1999, where they lost to Dallas in six games. Buffalo reached the Eastern Conference final stage on four occasions overall, but not since 2007.
He compiled a 571-432-162 record overall with the Sabres.
"The hockey world knows how I and the entire Buffalo Sabres organization feel about Lindy Ruff not only as a coach but also as a person," Sabres owner Terry Pegula said in a statement released by the team. "His qualities have made this decision very difficult. I personally want Lindy to know that he can consider me a friend always."
Ruff also coached Canada at the world championship in 2009, where they won a silver medal, and was part of Mike Babcock's staff for the gold medal team in Vancouver at the 2010 Olympics.
The move on Wednesday leaves Barry Trotz of Nashville as the NHL coach with the longest tenure at his current club.