James Patrick admits the 2013 season, one where he began the campaign working alongside Lindy Ruff in Buffalo and ended it working with Ron Rolston, who was brought in to coach the Sabres after Ruff had been fired after some 16 seasons behind the bench, was a bit weird.
However, Patrick, 50, who was recently hired by the Dallas Stars to again serve as an assistant for Ruff, who was hired as the Stars new head coach back on June 20, realizes that coaching changes, no matter how they happen, are a fact of life in the NHL. He first learned that lesson as a player and again during his time as a coach, which began in 2006 when Ruff gave the former NHL defenseman a spot on his bench.
“I’ve played for coaches who have been fired and there are times it didn’t feel right. A lot of times, it felt awkward. I’d experienced those things and it’s really a big shock to the team. It was really a big shock to the coaching staff [in Buffalo],” he said.
Patrick told the story of how Ruff walked onto the team bus and announced to his players as well as his staff that he’d indeed been relieved of his duties after a long run behind the Buffalo bench. In short, it was an announcement none of them saw coming.
“I know we weren’t playing well and we had a real bad loss, but you thought that there’d be a little more time or thought a different move would have been made. So, Lindy really caught us off guard when he walked on the bus and announced it to the team and the coaches,” Patrick said. “None of us had an inkling. Obviously, it was heartbreaking at that time. That’s what happens.”
However, that being said he is definitely glad to have another chance to work alongside Ruff and come to a completely new environment in Dallas. He admits that with the Stars being in the West and the Sabres skating in the East, he hasn’t seen much of his new club firsthand, which is why he will spend much of his early time with his new employer learning all he can through video and by meeting players once they report for preseason in just a few weeks.
“I’m really very excited about the team, the young team and obviously working with Lindy in a different set of challenges in a different environment, different city. I’m super excited to be working with him again, but real excited about the challenge,” Patrick said. “Really looking forward to getting to know the guys on the team, heard a lot of real good things about the character and attitude of the players. Just starting to get back into the hockey mode and think about getting to know the players, getting to know what they need and looking at areas you can try to make them better.”
Being a former NHL blueliner, it isn’t surprising to hear him say that working with the defensemen was one of his responsibilities under Ruff in Buffalo, something which will again be the case in Dallas.
Patrick also oversaw the Sabres’ penalty kill another area of his expertise from his eight years of being an NHL assistant and besides handling those responsibilities, another aspect of working alongside Ruff again that he will continue to enjoy is the fact that he solicits a great deal of input from his coaching staff on almost everything, from line combinations to defensive pairings and minor details of both the power play and penalty kill. Of course, Ruff has the final say on everything but having that voice is definitely a big reason why he and Patrick have worked so well together since 2006.
Patrick also offered his initial assessment of the current group of defensemen the Stars possess, one that includes mostly holdovers from last season except for newcomer Sergei Gonchar, who is expected to pair with fellow veteran Stephane Robidas. Dallas also traded youngster Philip Larsen to Edmonton in early June, a deal that netted the Stars ex-Oilers centerman Shawn Horcoff, but other than that, it’s the same familiar group of d-men over the past few years.
“Well firstly, I think they have real good mobility. For the most part, they’ve got good feet. They all skate really well, which I think is so important in the game today. You do need different pieces but you can’t have five or six real, big, physical guys that aren’t that mobile because I think the way the game is played now your defensemen have to be able to play at both ends of the ice,” Patrick said.
He then singled out several current Stars defensemen individually and described what he thinks each of them will bring to the club in the coming season.
“I think Gonchar’s really going to add to the power play and puck moving. I know Brenden Dillon is a young player who had a really good season last year. You’re hoping he can really build off of it and keep progressing,” Patrick said.
He added: “I think [Trevor] Daley and Robidas are real experienced guys. Even [Alex] Goligoski, he’s been around and now he’s not considered real young anymore. I don’t know their total game. I’ve been watching video. Until you’re really on the ice with them, you start to learn a lot more.”
And while it’s a bit early for him to make an assessment as to just how improved Dallas can become at the blueline next season, he did offer one area where he expects to see considerable improvement compared to the past few seasons.
“I know team defense is an area that we need to improve. It’s something that we’ve talked about and it’s certainly an area that we’ll pay a lot of attention to coming into the season,” Patrick said.