Kevin Weekes of the NHL Network dropped a massive report of news earlier this evening on Twitter. He is reporting that the New Jersey Devils will take the interim tag off of Tom Fitzgerald, which makes him the general manager of the Devils, and hire Lindy Ruff as head coach.
While the team has not made a formal announcement as of this writing, Darren Dreger of TSN has confirmed Weekes’ report. This means Ray Shero and John Hynes will be formally succeeded by Fitzgerald and Ruff. (July 9 Update: Devils make it official with two separate releases for Ruff and Fitzgerald; press conference is later today.)
To put it politely, I am very disappointed by this news.
On its own, naming Fitzgerald as the full-time general manager is not a bad decision after all. He was an assistant GM under Ray Shero for years. He was in interviews for a GM role with other teams; most recently with Minnesota. As Corey Masisak detailed in The Athletic ($), Fitzgerald telling Mark Dennehy of the Binghamton Devils that they do not need to play like New Jersey helped them a lot with their turnaround in 2019-20 prior to the pandemic. Fitzgerald managed the team through the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline, arguably swinging a better deal for Blake Coleman than what Shero did for Taylor Hall months earlier. Getting a 2021 second for an old Andy Greene was also a nifty move. Sure, the returns for Wayne Simmonds and Sami Vatanen were not as impressive, but what would one expect for a bottom-six winger and a then-injured defenseman from a very bad New Jersey Devils team? (Janne Kuokkanen may yet prove me wrong about the Vatanen deal and I hope he does.) If you felt that he has done enough to warrant being the GM of the Devils, then I would say your feeling was reasonable.
However, that it took this long for this decision to be made is concerning of itself. This decision to make him the official GM of the team could have been made back in March or April. That it took about four months suggests that ownership were considering other options. It is one thing to do your due diligence, but it does not look promising that they ended up going with their original option after plenty of time passed for due diligence. It suggests more that they ending up choosing with someone they knew instead of someone they really wanted. You cannot create your own GM candidates; but I keep going back to the notion that if ownership was fine with Fitzgerald being the GM, then they could have just removed the interim tag much earlier. I questioned way back in April whether Fitzgerald was really in the running for his own job. Now we can say he was. Still, could this have not been done weeks ago so this way he would have been the legitimate GM during his own coaching interviews that he was running? This is not so much on Fitzgerald as it is on ownership and upper management.
This leads me to the where the disappointment really ferments. Back in April, it was reported by Pierre LeBrun that the Devils were interviewing head coaches and then-interim GM Fitzgerald was running them. Names began to surface. The initial report began with Gerard Gallant. Then it was revealed that John Stevens and Peter Laviolette were also involved in interviews. Rickard Gronberg was contacted, which may have helped him get re-signed with ZSC Lions, so he was not an actual candidate. It was also confirmed that Alain Nasreddine, the interim head coach that was behind the bench after John Hynes was fired, was also under consideration. In June, a sixth name was revealed: Lindy Ruff. This name did not move me back in June and I am not thrilled by it now. I do not care so much that he is a “re-tread;” John Hynes was not and the Devils were in the lottery in four out of five seasons under him. I care much more about the lack of positive impact that he has had as a coach, both head and assistant. Mike wrote up a post about Ruff back in June when his name was brought up and his conclusion says a lot:
So Ruff is a completely out-of-left-field candidate, but he is not necessarily an incapable head coach. I think the Devils could do better but they could also probably do worse. If a coach can be Just a Guy, Lindy Ruff might be that Guy. With today’s reporting, he now looks like a Guy who has a shot at being the Devils’ next coach.
I do not disagree with Mike. As Dan and I discussed on Garden State of Hockey, my preference was for Gallant, followed by Laviolette. I did not want to have anything to do with Ruff. Mike also referenced a visualization Dr. Micah Blake McCurdy put together about Ruff that CJ shared. It is meant to isolate a coach’s impact on the team. I do not know how accurate it is, but it does not make me think Ruff is a particularly effective coach or would solve the issues the Devils have:
Lindy Ruff may as well not be there. It could be worse. "Being there" is bad for some coaches. pic.twitter.com/wZSAGhpT4L— CJ Turtoro (@CJTDevil) June 23, 2020
The optimist may point out how Ruff’s coaching does not provide an adverse impact at 5-on-5. However, the Devils under Hynes were rather bad in 5-on-5 hockey and the visualization also shows that Ruff’s coaching does not provide a beneficial impact. This is ultimately my problem with this hire. I do not see the evidence that Ruff is going to make the team better at what I think they need to be better at to be competitive once again.
If the Devils need to get better at one thing to go from being lottery picks to playoff hopefuls, then it is their performance in the run of play in 5-on-5. The Devils may not need to be as dominant as, say, Vegas or Carolina, to do that but they need to tip the ice in their favor a lot more often. From that, you will witness improved defense and offense; a better game of hockey; and a team that is not asking Mackenzie Blackwood to bail them out over and over to have a chance at a result most nights. The visualization may not be the be-all, end-all point to show whether a coach is good or not. However, this one casts a lot of doubt on Ruff being the guy to turn things around at 5-on-5 after five seasons of getting beaten in the run of play overall.
That said, Ruff has had some success at 5-on-5 with past teams. Alex Chauvancy at The Hockey Writers explained how Ruff’s teams have played a fast-paced style. As the Devils have plenty of quick players and have drafted mostly in-line with being “fast, attacking, and supportive,” this could justify a Ruff fit. However, Chauvancy also provided an argument against Ruff. His most recent job was with Our Hated Rivals as an assistant coach. It was expected to be in control of the defense and the penalty kill. Both of those have went awry under his tenure. As much as it has not kept Anthony DeAngelo or Adam Fox from success in some respects, it is a reason why the team was well on the outside of the 16-team playoff picture in 2019-20. It was an area that needed improvement and after three seasons, it was clear Ruff was not providing it. Now that guy is going to be in charge of a Devils team that has been porous defensively. We can hope he hires assistants to take control of those areas because if he does it himself, I expect more disappointment.
It also does not help at all that fans of Our Hated Rivals are happy that Ruff is gone. Generally, when your favorite team hires an assistant from another team, you would hope their fans are not happy about it. If they are celebrating, then it adds to the idea that maybe your favorite team made a bad decision.
This circles back to Fitzgerald. If Fitzgerald was the one who interviewed Ruff and Ruff was the candidate that Fitzgerald wanted, then this was a bad move by Fitzgerald. It is not known whether Gallant or Laviolette would have wanted to work under Fitzgerald or how those interviews would have gone. Gallant would have been a far better fit given his success in Vegas and, as Chauvancy noted, his teams also played with speed. It is also not known whether other options would have been available if Fitzgerald was the GM and not the interim GM at the time of those interviews. Still, for Fitzgerald’s first move as GM, this was an underwhelming one. Ruff was not particularly successful as an assistant in New York given his job and Ruff’s impact in 5-on-5 was not a positive one when he was a head coach. Why would Fitzgerald decide that he should be the boss behind the bench given information that the public can figure out? If this was his first act as GM - which is plausible, he could have been told he was the GM before hand to make the decision - then it was not a good decision.
What makes me scratch my head is what the Devils and Fitzgerald see in Ruff. They have plenty of smart people in the organization. Dan MacKinnon is currently an assistant GM, Kate Madigan is currently the Director of Pro Scouting Operations, and Tyler Dellow and Matt Cane are still in the organization. These four are adept in analytics and thinking beyond the traditional game of hockey. They are pretty bright people as I understand it. They had to have some say in this decision or some advisement to Fitzgerald or whoever made this call for Ruff. I do not know if I would be more worried if they were not involved or if they were and agreed to the decision. I am hoping there is something I am missing about Ruff.
I will add this one caveat: I hope I am wrong about how I feel about both. I hope it turns out that Lindy Ruff is a far better fit than I expected and the Devils play much better under him than they have under Hynes over the last three seasons. This has happened with coaches before. For example: Few had expected a lot of John Tortorella in Columbus after his time in Manhattan and Vancouver, but as it turned out, he was (and is) the perfect fit for that squad. I hope it turns out that Fitzgerald’s decision works out and he continues to make more decisions that work out. At the end of the day, I want a better New Jersey Devils team. To use a term Weekes once told me, I want this team to play meaningful games in March and April again. I will happily be wrong about being disappointed by today’s news if that happens. I am concerned I will not be wrong and Fitzgerald and Ruff will disappoint in their roles.
In summary: Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh.
That is my take on Kevin Weekes’ report. I anticipate an official announcement in coming days. Tom Fitzgerald is expected to be the GM and Lindy Ruff is expected to be the head coach. What is your reaction to both? Do you think they are the right choices for the organization? What do you expect out of either of them going forward? Most of all, do you expect the Devils to be better now than they were back in March? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about today’s news in the comments. Thank you for reading.