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New Jersey Devils 2021 Season Preview Part 6: The Coaching and Management

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The Devils have had their first big shakeup in the post-Lamoriello era. Here, we look at the new and old faces and what they bring to the team.

New Jersey Devils Headshots Photo by Andrew Maclean/NHLI via Getty Images

To be honest, writing up the “Coaching and Management” section is normally a bit of a drag for writers like me who favor the analytical side of things. Most seasons see only one or two assistants changes hands and there’s often not much data to go off when it comes to assessing value because so much boils down to whether the team made the admin look good or vice versa.

This year is different for one big reason: Lindy Ruff. Given the significance of the add and the breadth of his resume, I’m going to dedicate about half of this piece to learning Ruff’s history. Then the rest of the piece will be business as usual so you can see who else is working behind the scenes to make the on-ice product what it is.

Lindy Ruff

Head Coach: Lindy Ruff

Years with Devils: First Season

NHL Head Coaching Record(W-L-T-OTL): 736-554-78-125 (56.1 PTS%) and 66-54 (55%) in the playoffs.

Lindy Ruff has had a long coaching career in the NHL consisting of 4 seasons as assistant coach with the Panthers followed by a 19-year stretch as a head coach (14 with Buffalo, 5 with Dallas) and another 3 as an assistant with the Rangers. That all adds up to Ruff being a coach in the NHL every season for the last 27 years.

As you might guess with a resume that long, there is plenty good and plenty bad to point to in his career. You could mention his career points percentage of 56 which has been consistent for his time in Buffalo, Dallas, and his postseason, or the Jack Adams trophy in his case, or the sheer size of his career. But you could also point out the fact that, in 20 seasons, he’s only reached the Cup final once and only made the postseason 4 of his last 10 years as Head Coach and 4 of his last 13 overall. I think the smartest way to let you make your call on him is to give a quick run-through of his career. I’ll try to paint the picture of the teams that he inherited, and what became of them under his watch. But before he was a coach, he was a player...

In a 12-year playing career that saw him play games both at left wing and defence, Ruff gained a reputation for his grit which earned him a captaincy for 3 years in Buffalo. In total he played 691 games, scored 300 points, and logged 1266 penalty minutes. After one final season in the IHL with the San Diego Gulls, Ruff became a coach and was immediately hired by the expansion Florida Panthers. He would help bring the new team to a Cup appearance in just their 3rd year, carried by world renowned superstars like Robert Svelha and Scott Mellanby. Yes, that was sarcastic.

This success likely helped him gain his first head coaching job with the team he had captained as a player, the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres team he took over was fresh off a 92-point year in which they made the playoffs for the 9th time in 10 seasons. This most recent stretch of success had been propelled almost entirely by, debatably, the best goaltender of all time, Dominik Hasek. The Dominator won the Vezina 3 of the 4 years before Ruff, and again in 3 of the 4 years with Ruff. The best skaters were probably defenders Alexei Zhitnik and Richard Smehlik (though, a young Michael Peca would rise in the next few seasons). The Sabres were offensively average this entire time, but defensively elite, thanks to their all-world netminder. As any hockey fan knows, once your in the playoffs, a goalie is often enough to get you deep — and that’s precisely what Hasek did in Ruff’s 2nd year when the Sabres became Eastern Conference champs. However, they went from the best defensive team in the NHL to an average one when Hasek left in 2001 and would miss the playoffs that season and the next two. After 3 consecutive last place finishes in the division, Ruff could’ve easily been on his last legs in the season after the lockout, but two things happened. One: For the first time in his career, he found an offense as rookies Tomas Vanek and Jason Pominville joined an ascendant Maxim Afinigenov and captains, Chris Drury and Danny Briere. Two: He got a goalie again. Rookie, Ryan Miller, came 8th in Calder voting in a busy year that featured rookies like Ovechkin, Crosby, and Lundvist.

Armed with a suddenly deep crop of forwards and a young star goalie, Ruff coached the Sabres to a 52-win season as the 5th ranked offense and 10th-ranked defense and received the Jack Adams trophy in exchange for his efforts. While Miller would be dominant for a little longer, the team struggled to put all the pieces together in any one season to make a real run at the Cup. The best offensive season that capitalized on Vanek, Roy, and Pominville’s primes was the one season Miller decided to take off of being an elite goalie. And as they reached their 30s, the next wave of prospects never materialized and the Sabres franchise entered freefall, claiming Ruff as it’s victim (whether or not it was deserved).

Lindy would latch on in Dallas with a team who had not made the playoffs in 6 years. The only big pieces he’d inherit were a 23-year-old Jamie Benn and 27-year-olds Alex Goligoski and Loui Eriksson. The latter would be moved, though as part of the much-maligned deal in which Boston sent 21-year-old, former 2nd overall pick, Tyler Seguin, to Dallas. Seguin and Benn would form the core that persists in Dallas to this day, outliving even Ruff.

With the Stars, Ruff peaked in his 3rd season wherein Benn and Seguin were joined by veteran Jason Spezza, and Goligoski got help from youngster John Klingberg. In a departure from his Buffalo struggles, Ruff coached Dallas to the highest-scoring offense in the league and finished 2nd in the President’s Trophy race to the Capitals. Despite a 2nd round loss to the Blues thanks too poor goaltending from Kari Lehtonen, spirits were high heading into his 4th year with the team, but a substantial regression ended up costing him his job instead.

This time he could only find work as an assistant coach with the Rangers where he was focused on the defense and penalty kill. In his 3 years, the Rangers are the worst 5v5 defense in the NHL in terms of xGA and the worst PK in terms of xG differential . You might think that that’s due to the infamous MSG scorer bias, but 1) that’s fallen in recent years, and 2) the Rangers are 2nd worst in shot rate allowed and 8th in goal rate allowed, so there’s no picture to be painted that looks good, only slightly less bad.

In that time, the Rangers defenders also generally regressed. Some, like Marc Staal, were to be expected. Others, like Brady Skjei looked had previously looked very encouraging. And some were rather notorious whiffs, like Kevin Shattenkirk. While veteran defenders had seen better days than they did under Ruff, new young players like Ryan Lindgren, Tony DeAngelo, and especially Adam Fox, showed fairly well and a part of the reason for NY optimism (along with draft luck).

And now, Ruff is a Devil.

That’s his history as I see it. Ruff inherited a successful team and Dominik Hasek and did well until Hasek left. Then the Sabres did well again in Miller’s prime. Interspersed between those goalie-propelled stretches of success were some manufactured offensive competence during a period of time where he really had no stars on the roster outside the crease. Then in Dallas he inherited Benn and was gifted Seguin, but did succeed in making them into a dominant force and parlaying that into playoff births. If you think it’s a given that you’ll see team-level success with 1st round talent, ask Edmonton (or us, for that matter). And lastly, if he were in NY a few more seasons the young blueline might have made him look better, but as he left it, his legacy there was among the worst in the league.

Make of that history what you will. Personally, I see Ruff as a coach that has succeeded when he had the tools. I know some may think this is a chicken-egg situation, but how was Hasek without Ruff? How have Seguin and Benn been since he left? Ruff is a league-average coach — he has a career 92-point pace and has made the playoffs 9/19 seasons. Ruff succeeds only when he has the tools. However, the good thing is that it doesn’t seem to matter much what sort of tools you give him. He brought Buffalo over the 100-point threshold with goaltending and depth, and he brought Dallas over it with superstar forwards. This tells me that, even if he’s not the kind of coach that can make something out of nothing, is the the kind of coach that will mold his style to his roster. And since the lack of that very attribute is something that many criticized in his predecessor, John Hynes, it’s certainly possible that Ruff will be a welcome change in Newark. Perhaps all this talk in training camp of a new, up-tempo style is designed to take advantage of our transition experts like Hischier and Hughes and maximize the talents of our puck-moving, defensively-deficient blueline. It will certainly be different. Will it be better? One can only hope.

Assistant Coaches

Alain Nasreddine

Years with Devils: 6

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Coaching Responsibilities: Defense and Penalty Kill

Alain Nasreddine is the lone assistant coach holdover from the Hynes era. Presumably, management likes him, as they gave him a chance as interim head coach to right the ship after Hynes left. It turns out they just like him in his current role more. John wrote at length about the pros and cons of keeping Nas in the Fall. The biggest competing aspects here are the fact that the Devils 5v5 defense has been terrible during his tenure, but their penalty kill has been elite. I’m not sure how his responsibilities were distributed between those two components of his job, but it’s a clear win one / lose one situation. Although, some may be inclined to be a bit forgiving on the loss considering the total dearth of talent on the blueline during his time in NJ.

Mark Recchi

Years with Devils:

Coaching Responsibilities: Offense and Power Play

Mark Recchi inherits the Rick Kowalsky position of manning the offense and powerplay. Kowlasky leaves the bar to clear fairly low. Kowalsky was given, what should have been an all-NHL PP1 unit, and, instead, finished bottom-10 in goal differential per hour with the man-advantage. Some could be blamed on crazy-low PDO for stars like Hall, but at certain point the responsibility goes to the top.

During the 3 years Mark Recchi was an assistant coach in Pittsburgh, the Penguins were #3 in the NHL (behind only Tampa Bay and Boston) in goals per hour on the powerplay, and were top 5 in both goals and expected goals scored at even-strength. It’s going to be hard to judge if that is an accomplishment given ... yanno ... but it’s definitely not bad. We’ll see if he can do with Hughes & Co. what he did with the stars in Pitt/

Chris Taylor

Years with Devils: 2

Coaching Responsibilities: Player Support and Development

There’s always an offensive, defensive, and goaltending coach and then there’s normally one other guy. I’m calling it the “Player Support and Development” coach here because that was the title that Mike Grier. For the Devils this year, that guy is Chris Taylor. Taylor has bopped around the AHL mostly with the Rochester Americans (largely successfully) as an assistant, and played for Ruff in Buffalo. This will be his first extended stint at the NHL-level.

Dave Rogalski

Years with Devils: First

Coaching Responsibilities: Goaltending Coach

Taking over for the Roland Melanson, who was sometimes referred to as a “goalie guru”, is Dave Rogalski. Rogalski earned this job primarily due to his work in St. Louis in grooming Jordan Binnington. Binnington was a former 3rd round pick who had not started an NHL game as of the 2017-18 playoffs. He got the start in game 1 of the postseason against the Jets, and never looked back — tending net in all 16 of the wins the Blues would need to win the Cup. He’s been their starting goaltender since and has been above-average-to-good the entire time.

The hope is that he’ll be able to work that magic again with Blackwood and whoever the hell we get to replace Corey Crawford.

For more on these last two coaches, see John’s writeup here.

Management

General Manager: Tom Fitzgerald

Years with Devils: 6 (first 5 as AGM)

Fitzgerald was AGM under Ray Shero and so his resume will look a lot like Ray’s did. Shero was excellent at “winning the deal”. Palmieri, Hall, Subban, and Johansson, were all acquisitions that were lauded for their value. But the “vision” for the team never came together as the only playoff appearance came on the back of a fortuitous pair of goaltending streaks from an Fitzy has seemingly continued the trend, landing bargain buys in Ryan Murray, Andreas Johnsson, and (until recently) Corey Crawford in the offseason to add to the haul he pulled in as interim with big-win trades for the now-returned Sami Vatanen (Claesson, Kuokkanen, Daws) and Blake Coleman (Foote, Mukhamadullin). It remains to be seen if his vision for the team will come to fruition, unlike his predecessor’s.

Paul Castron

Years with Devils: 5(ish)

Role: Director of Amateur Scouting

Paul Castron took over a much-maligned scouting department previously run by David Conte in 2015. For a full review of Castron’s time in NJ, I suggest Mike’s writeup here. According to a quick analysis I did using data from hockey-reference, the Devils’ value over expectation of draft picks during this time is worth about -6 standings points which is 16th in the NHL or league-median.

In the 2016 draft, they seem to have swung and missed on their first could selections, but grabbed Jesper Bratt late as well as the pieces to acquire Subban (Davies) and Johnsson (Anderson). We can only hope that, as the prospects from the 2017-2020 drafts mature, there will be some hidden gems in the next few crops as well. Because as of now, the only players that seem to be NHLs are the two 1st overall picks.

Matt Cane and Tyler Dellow

Years with Devils: 2

Role: Director and VP of Analytics

Cane and Dellow were both mainstays in the public analytics community. Dellow ran a site called mc79hockey.com which was part of what prompted Edmonton to retain his services in one of the biggest hires of the Summer of Analytics. Cane, meanwhile, ran a site called Puck++, but also wrote for several other sites. He created the weighted shots metric which still holds up predictively with the more “sophisticated” xG metrics of modern times, generated the first public hockey contract prediction model, and also handled more episodic questions like “when should teams use 4 forwards” and “do zone starts matter”?

Since their hires, the two do not often use their megaphone and so it’s difficult to say precisely what their impact has been or assess there performance. But people like me who believe in evidence-based analytical decision-making are happy they are on board.

Owners/Managing Partners: Josh Harris/David Blitzer (Harris & Blitzer Sports Entertainment, HBSE)

Years owning team: 8

The ownership is the only consistent thing about the team over the past 8 years. John had a very good post last summer on how they had handled themselves as of that point, and it’s worth re-reading because, as of 2019, the Devils management instilled the 2nd most confidence in the NHL. A lot of the relevant aspects of that have since evaporated, but the owners remain.

Last year, in this section, Mike listed the 3 things you want from ownership — 1) the ability to hire the right people to run the organization, 2) the willingness to spend money on the product, and 3) the ability to not meddle and micromanage the team to its detriment — for which they received a grade of “check, check, and check”.

I think at this point, pretty much any number between 0 and 3 of those checks could be removed.

Do they have the ability to hire the right people? Well they’re arguably 0-for-1 on both the GM and HC positions so that doesn’t instill confidence. That said, Cane and Dellow were key additions that will really pay dividends moving forward as the tracking data filters into the teams, and the current GM is appears like a continuation of many of the principles of his predecessor. So perhaps #1 is a push.

On #2 they certainly have the money and we owe them a debt of gratitude for shoring up the franchises finances. And it’s also good to see them use their wealth to champion causes such as pledging $20M fight systemic racism in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and donating six-figure sums on multiple occasions to assist in COVID relief. You can find a handfull of other high-profile donations from the philanthropic duo as well. However they aren’t total strangers to stories of stinginess either. They announced pay cuts to Prudential Center employees in the early days of COVID and then reversed that decision within a day. It’s also been reported that they have an internal cap for this season, which might partially explain a fairly absurd delay on the Jesper Bratt signing (w hich ended up being a textbook RFA bridge deal) that will likely cost him multiple NHL games.

And on the third point, it’s rather difficult to say that they aren’t micromanagers at this point. The way the transition of the 2019 regime to the 2020 one was handled was certainly not traditional, and many would argue was a trainwreck. They allowed Ray Shero to GM just long enough to fire the coach and trade their MVP. Then, they allowed the interim GM to sit in on coaching candidates (including the interim head coach), while simultaneously interviewing to keep his own position. If you want a rundown on as much of the inner-workings as we are publicly aware of, check out Corey Masisak’s appearance on the PDOcast, where he mentions that HBSE prefers hearing from everyone in the room (many believe this specifically includes Cane and Dellow) whereas Shero style was more hierarchical and less distributed. You can think this is good or bad, but it’s certainly not “hands off”. They are not simply hiring talent and letting them work, they have a philosophy, and they will dismiss those that do not adhere to it.

All-in-all, HBSE is still an obvious improvement over what was there previously, and it’s too early to say they are running the team poorly. But, they have certainly developed a more distinct identity over the past year both from a PR standpoint and a Hockey Operations one. As with every other member of this summary, whether or not this identity will work out is an open question that only time will tell.