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Can the New Coaching Staff Fix the Devils’ Defense?

The Devils had lots of problems last season, but among the biggest was a constantly leaky defense. Can we expect the new Lindy Ruff-led coaching regime to fix what ails the Devils in their own end? In short, the Devils may have a more competitive team in 2020-21, but it’s unlikely to be due to a masterful defensive system.

Dallas Stars v New Jersey Devils Photo by Jim McIsaac/NHLI via Getty Images

We’re talking coaching this week here at All About the Jersey and one of the main concerns when it comes to coaching in the NHL is the impact of a coach’s defensive systems on the performance of a team. The Devils are a team whose defensive results have ranged somewhere between “serviceable” and “terrible” over the past several years, depending on the metric that you use. When your defense ranges from serviceable to terrible and is coupled with an offense that ranges from serviceable to terrible (but mostly terrible), people get fired. This bit of complex hockey theory bared itself out last season, when the coach (and general manager) of a Devils team that could neither score nor prevent goals both ended up jobless about a month apart.

After an unsuccessful stint with Alain Nasreddine as interim head coach over the second half of 2019-20, the Devils decided to go in a different direction at head coach. A handful of big names, including Gerard Gallant and Peter Laviolette, dominated the early discussion but after a lengthy search (and a rumored failed contract negotiation with Laviolette), the Devils landed on a name that few had been talking about until he was reported to have interviewed with the team. Yes, the Devils went with Lindy Ruff as their new bench boss and will look to him to start turning around an organization that has one playoff victory since the first Obama Administration. Ruff comes into the fold with a long head coaching track record (with mixed results) and a recent, decidedly unsuccessful stint as the assistant coach in charge of defense for the New York Rangers.

Given that he was put in charge of the Rangers defense for the past few years, the first instinct was for people to classify Ruff as a defensive coach. But is that what we should expect from Ruff? And despite his failures on a Rangers team that entered a rebuild just as he arrived, could he have more success turning the tide as a head coach rather than an assistant? Well...

Over the tenure of former head coach John Hynes, the Devils were a team that ostensibly had a defensive mindset, though Hynes also encouraged some heavy forechecking and occasionally successful (mostly in 2017-18) counterpunching offense that fit into the initial declaration of being a “fast, attacking, and supportive” team from the start of the Hynes/Shero era. But overall, the offense remained poor and the defense, which started out as decent before Hynes’ arrival, slowly deteriorated (admittedly in part due to goaltending) until the Devils wrapped up his tenure with back-to-back finishes in the Metropolitan Division basement.

Ruff and his staff will be taking over a team that finished last season 29th in goals against, 26th in expected goals against, and 30th in shot attempts against. Couple that with an offense that was also completely anemic and you get [gestures broadly at the Devils disastrous 2019-20 season]. Part of the Devils’ issues are clearly due to personnel, as they have a team that doesn’t have many positions you’d consider particularly strong, and an especially thin and short-on-talent blue line. As John got into with his analysis of Alain Nasreddine (more on him in a bit) on Monday, sometimes it’s hard to separate the personnel issues from a poor system, though. Everyone has their own theories on that front but coaching can clearly make a world of difference for a roster and we need look no further than the team over on Long Island for clear evidence to that effect: the Doug Weight-coached 2017-18 Islanders finished 31st in goals against while the Barry Trotz-coached 2018-19 Islanders finished 1st(!) in goals against. They literally went from worst to first in terms of defensive results. So again, could we expect some kind of coaching change bump for New Jersey?

We know Ruff didn’t have things go so well while he was an assistant in Manhattan, but what about his days as a head coach? Let’s take a look at his career results in GF and GA as a head coach in Buffalo and Dallas:

Ruff GF and GA season ranks as HC

Two trends immediately pop out here. First, Ruff has coached a number of really good offensive teams and very few truly bad ones. Second, Ruff has not coached very many good defensive teams that didn’t include prime Dominik Hasek, and coached some truly dreadful defensive teams in Dallas. Looking at raw GF and GA numbers is a very high level view of things and can be influenced heavily year-to-year by things like goaltending and shooting luck, but it at least allows us to identify trends. Ruff can clearly coach a high-powered offensive team and has coached five top-five offenses in the salary cap era, but on the defensive side, the results are considerably more questionable, particularly in Dallas, where he led one of the premier run ‘n’ gun outfits in the NHL (for both better and worse).

Looking at the trends for teams before his arrival/after his departure, there are another couple things to note. In Buffalo, the defense — or, more accurately, Hasek, for the most part — was mostly doing its thing before Ruff took over. Conversely, in Dallas, where Ken Hitchcock took over after Ruff left, he took a previously brutal defense up to the top-ten. Jim Montgomery and now Rick Bowness have continued that trend and elevated that defense in subsequent years, and now the lockdown low-event Stars have clawed their way to the Cup Final.

It’s worth noting that the Stars went from one of the league’s most electrifying offenses under Ruff to boring-as-sin under his predecessors, so trade-offs were made to get to their current defensive heights (and personnel arrivals like Ben Bishop and rising star Miro Heiskanen have also certainly had a major impact). It still doesn’t say a lot for Ruff’s defensive system, though, that the league’s worst defense became the league’s best in his absence, even if the offense more-or-less switched places. If you’re looking for Ruff to work a Barry Trotz-ian miracle with the defensive group in New Jersey, it may not be a great idea to hold your breath in anticipation.

Digging a little bit deeper into the defensive acumen of Ruff’s teams, we can filter out some of the goaltender-generated noise by looking at expected goals. We can only go back to the start of the analytics era (2007-08) for this stat, but it should give us a look at Ruffs teams when accounting for when he had Ryan Miller in his prime to help in Buffalo and when he had the abysmal Kari Lehtonen/Antti Niemi tandem in Dallas. Ruff’s 5v5 xGF/xGA ranks are below.

Ruff 5v5 xGF and xGA as HC
via Natural Stat Trick

The verdict? Well on the defensive side I think you would classify this as mostly the same. The defenses were mostly mediocre in his last years in Buffalo, and the top-five GA finish in 2009-10 was powered by Ryan Miller’s Vezina season. In Dallas, we see that Ruff may have been hurt slightly in a couple instances by his goaltending, but he was running a bottom-10 defensive outfit at even-strength, regardless. Dallas did, however, finish top-five in xGF every year of his stay, there, for what it’s worth.

Beyond Ruff, there is the rest of the incoming staff to consider when projecting what type of team the Devils will be. The issue for Devils fans? Well, the guy tasked with coaching the defense will be the same one from the previous regime whose leaders just got ousted. Alain Nasreddine has done an admirable-enough job coaching the penalty kill for the Devils over the past 5 years, as John explored in Monday’s post, which is good. As John also dug into on Monday, though, he also headed up a defensive unit that declined through his years behind the bench with John Hynes, so that trend feels unlikely to reverse itself on his account, especially considering the recent track record of the guy who will be his boss.

So, in short, should we expect a Devils defensive renaissance under Lindy Ruff and co. in 2020-21? In a word, I think the answer would have to be “no.” If the Devils are hoping for better defensive results than the lousy numbers they put up last year, they’re going to have to hope for some help, personnel-wise, and a much improved goaltending situation behind Mackenzie Blackwood and his yet-to-be-determined backup. If there is a silver lining to take out of the conclusion that Ruff is unlikely to improve the defense, it’s that he at least seems to have a decent shot at picking up the offense in it’s place and making this team at least watchable again.