This season, Lindy Ruff will be taking the helm of the New Jersey Devils for the first time. Earlier in the week, CJ discussed what it would take from the team in order for it to be said that the coaching staff is successful. Today, I wanted to perhaps provide some context for that and really dive into the history of the team and how it has done under first year coaches. Have the Devils been successful in that first season when new coaches have taken over? Or have there been struggles?
Now, for those of you who remember, Lou Lamoriello was very liberal with replacing head coaches, and did so at random times both during the season and the offseason. Therefore, it is somewhat difficult to accurately judge this, as some coaches started in November, others started in March, so I have to make some editorial decisions about who to look at and what seasons to add in here. So, the following chart might not seem entirely complete to some of you who know the history of the team very well, but I made some stipulations for myself. I only added coaches that were starting with the team for the first time. This takes out the later stints of those who were hired back at later dates, like Larry Robinson or Jacques Lemaire. Also, unless the coach was there for most of the season, I did not include their initial, partial season. So for example, for the aforementioned Larry Robinson, I have his 2000-2001 season here, although he did go 4-4 the year prior before taking the team to a Stanley Cup. That might seem a little ridiculous of course, but how could I just put his 4-4 regular season record on there and use it? However, in 1989, John Cunniff started 14 games into the season and coached the rest of the way. I felt that was long enough of a time to include here.
So, below you will find a chart of Devils coaches and how they did in their first full or mostly full year with the team. The Devils website names Ruff as the 19th head coach in team history, but below you will find 14 coaches. Most of the following information comes from Hockey Reference. If there is a star next to the season, it is because the coach started the year prior, but did not coach enough games in the regular season for me to consider adding, so I picked the first full season instead.
So, as you might expect, the performance of first year coaches in team history depends a lot on when they took over the team. Those coaches who took over in the infancy of this franchise, for example, have some pretty awful first year records. The Devils were stuck in 5th place in the Patrick Division apparently, and they couldn’t get out of it until the late ‘80s. John Cunniff would help to change that in the 89-90 season, getting a second place finish in the Patrick Division en route to a playoff berth, the first new coach to make the playoffs in their first season in Devils history. Jacques Lemaire would be the first new coach in team history to win a playoff series in his first season as head coach, taking the Devils all the way to game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, a game and series any Devils fan knows about and/or remembers personally. Of course, he would lead the team to the franchise’s first Cup a year later.
Following Lemaire, new coaching hires for the next decade plus would all be successful in their first seasons with the team. From Robbie Ftorek in 98-99 through Brent Sutter in 07-08, they all started with winning records and playoff berths. And of course, Larry Robinson got a Stanley Cup right after being hired, and took the team back to the Finals in his first full season as head coach, and right after him, Pat Burns would also lead the team to a Cup victory in his first season.
Then, there was a slight interlude there with John MacLean coaching for a half season, poorly, getting canned, and the Devils nearly making a run back into playoff contention, but it was too little too late. However, that set the stage for Peter DeBoer, in his first season with the team, getting the Devils to game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Sadly, it would be the only playoff berth under his tenure. John Hynes would not start out nearly as well in 2015, barely getting above NHL 500 and missing the playoffs.
Overall, Devils head coaches in their first full (or mostly full) regular seasons with the team have a record of 511-419-128, a .549 win percentage. For this purpose, I’ve just combined ties and overtimes from Robinson and Burns, when ties and overtime losses were separate categories. This is obviously a very good record overall. Any long time coach with this record would most likely not be upset. It helps that the Devils were a competitive team for two decades straight, but they did have numerous coaches during that time span, and if you put stock in coaching staffs having effects on their team, then it was at least partially their doing that the team was so good for so long.
And so, that has led us to today, a chance for Lindy Ruff to see what he can do with his 3rd head coaching stint of his career. The good news for him, perhaps, is that Lou Lamoriello is not the GM of the team anymore, and thus his job is perhaps a little more stable than it would have been if he had been hired a decade or two ago. Hynes got 4 and a half seasons with the team, despite only having one playoff berth, something that would have never happened under Lamoriello.
Ruff himself has been successful as a first time coach in a new organization. The first year he took over for Buffalo in 1997-98, he went 36-29-17 with the team, finishing 3rd in the Northeast Division and getting to the Eastern Conference Finals, losing in 6 games there to Washington. His first season in Dallas, in 2013-14, the team went 40-31-11, finishing 5th in the Central Division and gaining a playoff berth, losing in the first round to Anaheim.
Combined therefore, with past Devils coaches generally performing well in their first season with the team, and with Ruff having a history of doing well in his first season with a new team, the outlook is actually pretty decent. Of course, I think we would all agree, of Ruff’s three head coaching positions, this will be his toughest job yet. Dallas had a good team in 2013-14, led by 22 year old Tyler Seguin and 24 year old Jamie Benn, along with quality goaltending from Kari Lehtonen, who posted a .919 save percentage that year. And Buffalo in the late 90s was a legitimate Cup contender, having won the Northeast the year prior to his arrival. Those teams were led by The Dominator, Dominik Hasek, who gave that team a chance no matter who was in front of him.
Now, that isn’t to say that this Devils team is terrible. There is some real talent here, including a growing core of Nico Hischier, Kyle Palmieri, Jack Hughes, Mackenzie Blackwood, and more. Three first round picks this year, plus a developing Ty Smith, all equate to a young squad with loads of potential. But it is also a shallow team, one without tons of experience. History, both Devils history and Ruff’s own history, says that this team can be successful with a new coach. The roster has the foundations for a quality team. Color me a little skeptical that he will be able to match his first season records from his previous stints, or that he will be able to match many of the records of first year coaches the Devils had. However, given the low bar of expectations that this team has heading into next year, history says that there should be a decent chance that Ruff exceeds those. And that, certainly, is good news.