Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Alanah McGinley on 04/08/08 at 05:01 PM ET
Today, the NHL hosted a teleconference call for the media to ask questions of Buffalo Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff and Columbus Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock.
Here is the transcript of that Q&A.
Q. The emphasis has been in the west all year now. Now the popular belief is whoever comes out of the west is going to be the Stanley Cup champion. Do you have that sense, as well?
KEN HITCHCOCK: No, I don’t. I think one of the problems is when you have so many good teams that what’s left of your team at the end of the three series that you have to play in sometimes isn’t much. I think a lot of it depends on the damage that gets done in some of these series.
I think when you look at the competitiveness of the teams and the closeness of really almost all eight teams in the playoffs, you know, I think health is going to be a major issue on whoever comes out from this series because it has the makings, especially in these early rounds, of some really long series here.
Q. And Lindy, last year it seemed your team and Ottawa were certainly the top two in the east. Seems like this year it’s really a wide open race. Do you think that’s true?
LINDY RUFF: I think that is true. Any team that got in the top eight out here really had a shot at it. I think that there’s a lot of great series. If you go to the Washington-Philly series, you’ve got some great youth, great speed in the series; Jersey and the Rangers I would expect to be a lot tighter; both teams keep it pretty close for the most part.
Ottawa is beat up. I think they’re kind of playing the underdog role. They’re not healthy. They still could be dangerous maybe if their goaltending came around. But I really believe that Montreal has had a great year and they’ve got a great young goaltender, and if he holds up, they’re going to be extremely tough.
Q. Lindy, I just wanted to ask you a quite hypothetical question here. If you could choose a team from all eight Eastern Conference playoff teams, if there was an open draft, I would assume Brodeur would be your goaltender. Maybe that’s a wrong assumption, but I would assume that. Who would be your second choice as a goaltender and why?
LINDY RUFF: My second choice would be Carey Price, and the reason why is just—he won a championship last year in Hamilton. He has shown tremendous composure already through the regular season. He’s just a great young talent, and I think if you’re going to build a team, you’ll build it around a goaltender.
Q. What’s been your impression, Lindy, of Marc-Andre Fleury. I know you guys saw a lot of Ty Conklin this year, but how about Fleury going into the playoffs?
LINDY RUFF: I didn’t get to see a lot of him. I saw a couple games that he played. I thought he played very well. Last year seemed to be an up-and-down year for him, and the playoffs were definitely a test. I think this is his chance to grow and improve. He’s ready to dominate in a pressure-filled situation. I think he has proven with his play down the stretch here that he’s the guy that they need to rise to the occasion.
Q. I’m looking at a bit of a different angle with both of you being on the conference call. You’re both established veteran coaches, and two years ago, you both had a very lucid exchange here in Buffalo after a Sabres win. Have you patched things up? And I guess that’s my humorous question. But how difficult is it to be on the outside looking in?
LINDY RUFF: I think a lot of that is heat of the battle, and I don’t really feel there was anything to patch up. It was a heated series, and sometimes those things happen. I’ll let Ken answer for himself, where he’s at.
KEN HITCHCOCK: In the heat of battle, those things get said, and they become anecdotes of the series. But we both are from the right province in Canada, so we remain good friends.
Q. And to follow up, just how difficult is it to have two very successful coaches who have had a lot of success in the playoffs be on the outside looking in at this point?
LINDY RUFF: It’s very difficult in our case as a team to come from where we’ve came from the past couple years to be on the outside looking in, and as a coach this is the best time of the year. It’s the best time of the year to be involved, the most intense time. It’s the time you want to be there, so it’s tough to look in from the outside.
KEN HITCHCOCK: Yeah, I agree with Lindy there. It’s a really empty feeling right now. I think for both of us it’s been a little while since we’ve had to go through this coaching, and it’s a really empty feeling and it’s—I don’t want to say it’s a sickening feeling, but it’s a feeling like you don’t ever want to go through this again. You know, you’re here saying goodbye to players rather than preparing for an opponent.
I think both of us probably still find ourselves and we still think we should be playing, and I think the reality is when those games start tomorrow night and we’re sitting watching on TV it’s going to be something that hits us both pretty hard.
Q. I just want to ask Hitch, how difficult is it for a team like the Ducks who won last year to go into the playoffs this year when it’s almost a different champion every year now and the expectation level is still there and they’re the defending Stanley Cup champs?
KEN HITCHCOCK: I think it’s really hard. You know, the first series to me for an established team is by far the hardest because I think there’s a part of you that knows how difficult it is and how high the hill is to climb. I think the electricity from the other side is that nothing would feel better, and they feel if they knock off the defending champions that they’ve got a great road to getting to the Cup.
I find some of the most emotional series was the year that we played after winning in ‘99. We played in 2000, the series was unbelievable, the first two series were unbelievable.
I feel like it’s going to be really a challenge for Anaheim to get their level up to where they need to because they are the target and they’re going to be the target from now on, and I think they’re going to get Dallas’ best game every night.
Q. Lindy, is Washington the team of destiny, or does it matter how you finish at the end of the season going into the playoffs?
LINDY RUFF: I think it does matter. I think they’re going into the playoffs on a real nice roll. They have a lot of things going for them. They’ve tightened things up defensively. They’ve got a superstar that can win them games. They brought in another veteran goaltender that obviously has proven playoff experience along with Kolzig, and they have got good size, good mobility, and yeah, I don’t think it’s luck that they went down the stretch. They beat some good teams down the stretch, and that record was very impressive. I think they’re going to be as tough as anybody in the Eastern Conference.
Q. There’s a lot of thought that it’s a one-man team against a Philadelphia team that can score more goals and spread it around. Is that the case, Lindy?
LINDY RUFF: I don’t believe so. I think he is obviously the biggest part of that team, but I think there’s more there. I think their defense is a little bit underrated. I think they’ve got a guy like Green who’s very dangerous, up with the play all the time. He’s almost playing 30 minutes a game and has good offensive flair to his game. But I think there’s more to that team than just Ovechkin. He’s the guy that makes it run, and there’s some guys in behind him that fit real nicely.
Q. Thanks for doing this today. Question for both. Playoff coaching compared to coaching in the regular season, when you’re game-planning for you might see three to four teams in one week, now it’s focusing on one team and breaking them down, strengths, weaknesses. Talk about the challenge of coaching and game-planning in the regular season compared to coaching and game-planning in the playoffs.
KEN HITCHCOCK: For me the biggest challenge, the thing I’ve learned over time, is to not put pressure on your team. There’s so much pressure on the players individually, your team collectively, that I think you’re constantly trying to take the pressure off your team because they feel the momentum from the other side, they feel the stress of the media, the stress of the responsibility from their own ownership or even just from themselves. And I think one of the areas that you really have to be aware of and be concerned about is that you’re not adding more pressure to an already high-pressure situation.
Q. Lindy, does it become easier in the playoffs just because you have one team to focus on?
LINDY RUFF: I think from that standpoint, no playoff series is easy, but it is easier when you’re only focusing on one team and one group of players. But I would like to echo along the same lines as Ken, that it’s something that you have to—each playoff series and each game you have to embrace, try to take some of that pressure away from the players and try to get them to rally around and enjoy and embrace the idea that you’re not going to get many of these chances.
A guy like Nieminen when he came here had never won a playoff series, and to see him win a playoff series with us was—after the number of years he played, you just get that feeling of how special it is, how tough it is when you can play that long.
I’m along the lines of Ken. It’s more about embracing it and enjoying it, knowing how difficult it’s going to be. They’re getting pummeled from all angles, and if you’re the favorite in the series, the pressure is even greater.
Q. Hitch, we heard Lindy talk about teams that may upset. Is there a team in either division that really scares you, one that you think may cause a lot of problems in the first round and beyond?
KEN HITCHCOCK: Well, I would have bet going in that the way San Jose was playing, they’re winning all the close games, I guess I’m curious now to see—they’ve lost a couple games in a row, and I know you’re able to write that off, but with the series being back-to-back games to open up against Calgary, it’s going to be interesting because momentum is going to be everything.
I don’t know if they’ve lost any momentum going in. You wouldn’t think so. But momentum is a huge factor leading into the playoffs, no matter what anybody says.
And then having back-to-back games, I think it’s a real advantage for the visiting team. I’m curious to see that series now, mostly on San Jose’s part.
I think the team that’s going to be surprising for me is Minnesota. I think they play gritty and they play off the rush, they can cycle the puck and they look like a team maturing into a playoff-ready team now.
Q. And a quick follow-up, can I get your reaction to the opening roster for Team Canada announced today, and in fact there’s a couple of your guys on it but there doesn’t seem to be many from the eliminated Canadian teams.
KEN HITCHCOCK: You know, it’s the first wave of guys. There’s some easy choices and some tough choices, and I think that a lot of the players who had background on the previous world championship team were highly thought of, so I think management wanted those guys back. But I think we’ve got a nice blend to start with, and then we’ve got some nice match-ups in the playoffs to look at because we’ve got some real opportunities to add some quality players. It doesn’t really matter which team wins or loses, we’re going to hopefully be able to add some quality players to this list.
Q. I was just wondering, I know we talked a little bit about Washington, but either of you guys can answer this. What do you think it’s going to take for Washington? Are they worn out now? They had such a climb to get into the post-season. Now that they’re taking a breath, do you think maybe they lose some of that intensity?
LINDY RUFF: Well, from my standpoint, I think they’re going into the playoffs on a roll. I think every team had a grind going down the stretch, maybe didn’t face the pressure to trying to win every night to get in, but I think you’re going to have an excited group of guys going into the playoffs looking for an opportunity to do something special. I’m on line with Ken that you want to go into the playoffs on a good run and you want to go in on a positive note. They really are.
I don’t think that grind is going to satisfy any of them. I think that it could be even fuel for the fire for them.
KEN HITCHCOCK: I think the one thing Washington has going for them is they play four lines. They’ve played four lines deep into games, and you see the line with Brashear coming out there. They’re still playing five minutes left in the game, and I think they play their bench, they play their roster long, and they really believe that their size and tenacity is going to wear you out.
I think that series is going to be determined by whoever can get the darned puck out of their zone because both teams forecheck like crazy and I think the defensemen on both teams, there’s going to be huge ebbs and flows in that series because both teams get after each other so hard. I think it’s going to be a big challenge for both teams’ defense to see who can just get it outside the blue line.
Q. You guys can take this in whatever order you want, but can you as veteran coaches gain anything from watching these games from the sideline that will help you out, help your teams out next year?
LINDY RUFF: I can answer that first. No.
KEN HITCHCOCK: I think I would echo that, too. You don’t learn anything from the outside.
LINDY RUFF: It’s not enjoyable at all. It’s painful to watch. It’s a good thing there’s a few things on HBO because we’ll be flipping over there sometimes.
Q. Hitch, one other question for you. You added Pat Burns to your team for the World Championships. Pat hasn’t been in the league for a while, he’s had some health issues. Why would you add him to this team, and can you talk about your relationship with him a little bit?
KEN HITCHCOCK: Pat and I have known each other since ‘86. We coached against each other in the Memorial Cup in Portland. I just think he’s a good coach, and when the word got out that he wanted to give it a go again, I think there’s an obligation for all of us in the coaching fraternity to give our brethren an opportunity to come back in.
I think that Pat is a guy that has brought a lot to the game. I know he brings a lot to each team, and he’s had a lot of experience internationally, and I think he can really help us. I think this is a great opportunity for him to start getting his feet wet, getting back into the coaching mindset so he can be an active participant again.
I just think he’s got a great mind for the game, and selfishly I get a lot of strength from Pat. He’s a good coach and a good guy.
LINDY RUFF: I’d just like to add it’s a real classy move on Ken’s part. I think Pat was and is a hell of a coach, and it’s great to see him back.
Q. Kind of basing it off of the question earlier about Anaheim, what’s the single most important reason why teams haven’t been able to repeat, whether it’s reason or reasons?
LINDY RUFF: I find it’s the target that you wear and you have to wear it for a long time. When you just—it’s not one team, it’s not one area, it’s just the cumulative effect of getting every team, every player’s best game night in, night out, night in, night out, and it’s really wearing on you, and it’s really hard to continually go deep into the playoffs because it’s such a price—our sport, the price to pay to win is so high, much higher than any of the other three sports to do it because you’ve got to do it for such a long period of time, that it’s really physically and mentally wearing on players.
And then when you get the other team’s best game, which I just know there’s no better feeling than knocking off a defending champion, it’s a special group that can get back there again.
Q. Coach Ruff, this question is for you. We talked a little bit about the east and you broke it down a little earlier in the conversation, but looking out west, one of the favorites if not the favorite, is the San Jose Sharks and the roll that they are on. A few players that you know very well, particularly Brian Campbell, Mike Grier, Curtis Brown, you’ve had close relationships with Campbell most recently and Mike Grier. Do you even allow yourself to have a rooting interest in seeing the Sharks do well for those guys?
LINDY RUFF: I think you always tend to keep an eye on players that have left, curious to see how they’re doing. San Jose has got some top quality personnel, and all three of those players—in Grier and Brown they’ve got two real good defensive two-way players that can play really good in their own end, can add offense when needed. But both know how to play in pressure situations. Mike Grier was great for us here in Buffalo and was a big part of the run.
I’ll definitely be watching. I think you keep an eye. There’s a good number of players around that you’ll keep an eye on, and I will be keeping an eye on them.
Q. And how long do you let yourself decompress after this particularly long grueling two weeks of the season? How long do you take to decompress after the season?
LINDY RUFF: Well, I think what happens, as Ken has mentioned, is you kind of have a sick feeling. Playoffs are going to start tomorrow night, and it’ll be a situation where in my case I will watch a little bit and there’s a good chance that I might just turn it off and walk out of the house, will have had enough of it after a period or so. It is almost a feeling of sickness that you didn’t get your team to that place you wanted to be.
And being on the outside is not a place you want to repeat; it’s not a place you want to be. I’ll say it like I said before; it’s the most enjoyable time of the year for a coach. You’ve gone through an 82-game grind and have got them to the place you want to get them to have a shot at trying to win it.
Q. Gentlemen, I wonder if I can get you to pick out who you think is going to come out of the east and who you think is going to come out of the west and the reason why. I know it’s tough, but if you can handicap.
KEN HITCHCOCK: I would say Buffalo-Columbus (laughter). I’m not going there because that gets played over and over, and I’ve learned my lesson there. All I know is that I just feel it would not be a shock for me if in the second round that you saw a lot of five, six, seven and eights playing. It would not shock me on either side here.
LINDY RUFF: I’m right there next to Hitch, that I wouldn’t be shocked with anybody coming out of either conference. If somebody is going to come, they’d better head straight to Vegas and pick them.
Q. How much do you think the NHL is going to have to guard against sort of the top players being targeted for injury by the opposition? Is that going to be an issue do you think?
LINDY RUFF: It’s always a possibility when the playoffs start that you’re going to try to be the most physical on the other team’s premier players. That’s all part of the game. As Ken mentioned, getting through the first series is usually a war. It’s a battle. The first series will usually go deep. I’ve always found it’s been the toughest and usually the most physical, and then you see how you come out of that, and usually you’re not as physically able as you were starting the playoffs.
I just find that it’s extremely tough even to get through that first one.
KEN HITCHCOCK: I agree with Lindy there. I think the price to win and the price you have to pay to win is at its absolute highest in the first round. I think that especially your top players, they get tested every night, every shift, and that’s the way it’s going to be. And then it just becomes survival of the fittest as you move on. But everybody is energized in the first round and everybody is going after it, and your best players are going to have to be your best players, and they’re going to have to live with being a target.
I think a lot of players, especially good players, make or break their reputations in the first round.
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