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The New Jersey Devils have been without a full-time head coach, *and* a general manager, for more than half a year.
They’ve finally plugged both holes. Today an announcement should be forthcoming that will result in Lindy Ruff being named the new bench boss. Meanwhile Tom Fitzgerald’s interim GM tag will be removed.
Hiring Ruff is the headliner – and a much more controversial decision – so I’m going to focus on that (there will be ample time to comment on both).
Let’s dive in.
• I don’t like this hire. I think Ruff is a coach whose reputation as a coach outweighs his current ability as a coach. He hasn’t accomplished much – as the head man or assistant – in more than a decade, which I guess makes him a good fit for the organization he’s joining.
Taking a chance on Ruff in a thin market is one thing. Doing so with a loaded crop of quality coaches is another.
Gerard Gallant has been one of the NHL’s best over the last five years. He gets results and his teams are entertaining. No dice. Bruce Boudreau is one of the all-time greats in terms of getting regular season results. Playoff success hasn’t always followed but, generally speaking, his teams have dominated and been out-done by a hot goaltender and unsustainably low percentages as much as anything. No dice. Peter Laviolette, for all his faults, hasn’t coached a non-playoff team (over 82 games) since 2007-08 with Carolina. No dice.
The Devils didn’t pay – or were unable to use a couple 1st overall picks, and a ton of cap space, as selling points – for any of the big names with undeniably strong results. They didn’t get a progressive new mind that can grow with the team.
Instead, they hired somebody who has won *more* than 41 games, generally the bare minimum to make the playoffs, once over his last six seasons as head coach. Oh, and that somebody has made it beyond the 1st round once since 2006-07 with the Buffalo Sabres. Not great.
• My main concern with Ruff is the defensive track record of his teams, especially of late. When he was the head coach in Dallas they were almost shockingly bad defensively. Regardless of the opponent, you pretty much knew they were getting into a 5-4, track meet style game.
Things were no better in New York with the Rangers. They didn’t have a ton in terms of stout defense-first personnel but they featured Brady Skjei, Jacob Trouba, Adam Fox, and Kevin Shattenkirk, among others, over the years and couldn’t play a lick of defense in any of them.
I have no problem with turning offensive weapons loose and trying to attack – in fact, I’m for it – but it can’t come with complete disregard for defense.
The Devils, for example, have some exciting offensive players on the team but they’re not going to have much success abandoning defense and trading chances with Washington or Pittsburgh. They're toast unless Mackenzie Blackwood stands on his head every time. We saw that first-hand with Alain Nasreddine this past season.
• The Devils as an organization really seem to value Nasreddine. The players like him as well. I think that’ll lead to him sticking around as an assistant. Should that be the case, I hope Ruff – whose teams are consistently horrible on the PK – simply gets out of the way and allows Nasreddine to run it. The latter may have had issues at even-strength in 2019-20 but the Devils have ranged from very good-to-elite on the PK each year with Nas in charge. He can coach that gamestate. Ruff can’t.
• I’ve received a lot of questions asking for the positives of the Ruff hire. There are a few that stick out for me. He’ll give his stars, and best offensive players, plenty of ice time. That ice comes with the freedom to be creative and take chances when they see fit. I do really like that because players like Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt and Nikita Gusev aren’t nearly as useful with leashes on. Ruff’s style also generally leads to entertaining hockey; good news considering we’ve mostly suffered through boring losses for 10 years.
• While I don’t think hiring Ruff is going to be an unmitigated disaster, I don’t love the decision. I think there were better coaches available in the established grouping. If the Devils were going to take a risk on somebody without a successful track record in the NHL (of late, anyway) I’d rather they give the nod to some newer, younger blood with fresh perspectives. I just think the Devils caught themselves in the middle here, not choosing the best option for a win-now approach nor a developmental approach.
It’s possible Ruff has some new ideas he hasn’t been able to fully implement since he last served as a HC in 2016-17. Maybe that’ll help lead to a successful tenure in New Jersey. One could only hope.
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