Lots of things changed for the Devils this offseason, but one area where things very much did not change was the group of people running the show in New Jersey. The management team and the group behind the bench remain largely unchanged. There was plenty of change in the leadup to last season, when Tom Fitzgerald had his interim tag removed to become permanent GM and a (mostly) new coaching staff was installed behind the bench with Lindy Ruff and co. Few of those names have changed heading into 2021-22, but today we assess where things are at for the people running the shown in New Jersey.
General Manager — Tom Fitzgerald
We are now about a season and a half into the Tom Fitzgerald era in New Jersey and, for now, I would say that most Devils fans are generally pleased with the job he has done since taking over for Ray Shero in the middle of the 2019-20 season. Fitzgerald started as the interim GM when Shero was fired in early January of 2020, with the ownership group giving him the remainder of the season to have what essentially amounted to a working interview for the longtime Shero assisstant.
Fitzgerald displayed a generally deft touch with his maneuvering at the trade deadline as an interim GM. Some of the deals were better than others, but he did a good job at turning a group of (mostly) expiring contracts into valuable pieces to improve the team going forward. His biggest deal was trading Blake Coleman for Nolan Foote and a first round pick (used to select Shakir Mukhamadullin) which is a solid enough return for a team that was a non-factor the final year of Coleman’s contract anyway. He flipped the expiring contracts of Andy Greene and Wayne Simmonds into 2nd and 5th round picks (the second would be used to acquire Ryan Graves) and he turned what ended up being zero regular season games of Sami Vatanen into Janne Kuokkanen and a third round pick (used to select Nico Daws). It was a solid working interview for Fitzgerald and when the Devils would interview multiple candidates for the permanent GM job, Fitzgerald would be the one to get the job in the 2020 offseason.
Fast forward to summer 2021 and Fitz got aggressive, turning what was a Ray Shero roster with some of his fingerprints on it into Tom Fitzgerald’s team. He made perhaps one of the biggest outside free agent signings in the history of the franchise, bringing in one of the league’s best defenders in Dougie Hamilton. He traded for Ryan Graves to further solidify the defense and also added a top-six winger in Tomas Tatar and a tandem mate for MacKenzie Blackwood in Jonathan Bernier. In all, Fitzgerald’s moves amounted to a huge summer for the Devils, who many are expecting to take a big step forward now this season.
Overall, I think people are feeling pretty good about the job Tom Fitzgerald is doing in New Jersey. Not everything has been a home run but he seems to do fairly well in trades and his work this summer was inspired, as landing a player like Dougie Hamilton immediately remakes the defense and he brought in some other good support pieces to help out the young core this team is building. If this season goes awry, the pressure may start to mount on Fitzgerald similarly to how things did with his predecessor in the disappointing 2019-20 season, though barring anything unforeseen, I think his job is pretty secure for now. He seems to be well respected by his players and his peers and the Devils have one of the youngest rosters in the league to build on. He has theoretically positioned this team to finally start emerging from the bottom of the standings, all that’s left is playing the games.
Ownership — HBSE
In 2013, Josh Harris and David Blitzer purchased a Devils franchise that was struggling badly financially under former owner Jeff Vanderbeek and immediately put it on more stable financial footing. That stable financial footing, while refreshingly removing constant rumors about the Devils’ insolvency from tabloids like the New York Post, has failed to deliver much in terms of results on the ice.
The Devils have been locked in a rebuild for most of the Harris-Blitzer era and salaries have often floated far off from the league’s cap ceiling, drawing plenty of criticism from sections of the fanbase. HSBE (Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, the group that Harris and Blitzer formed in 2017 to manage all of their sports assets, which also include the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and Premier League’s Crystal Palace FC) has been reluctant to put in big dollars on a Devils team that, up to this past season, had only shown faint signs of being ready to compete more broadly. Last season was another bottom-five finish for New Jersey, but apparently the owners saw enough to open their wallets and the Devils made a big splash on the open market with the above-mentioned moves by Tom Fitzgerald. The contracts handed out to Hamilton, Tatar, and Bernier added 18M in 2021-22 cap hit and had a combined value of approximately $80M. It was an encouraging investment from the ownership group.
More broadly, I think people can be off-put by the highly corporate feel of this ownership group and the fact that the Devils seem like just another sports property in the HSBE portfolio. I would say those are fair criticisms, but as long as they are willing to cut the checks, having owners who are a bit hands off can be better than ones who are meddlesome and often make things worse (see: Dolan, James). If this offseason was any indication, it seems like HBSE is willing to invest when they feel the time is right, and hopefully if the Devils are heading toward an era of competitiveness, they will have all the resources they need to attract and keep talent in New Jersey.
Head Coach — Lindy Ruff
When the Devils went searching for a head coach last offseason, a lot of names were on the table, including veteran coaches and up-and-comers. Names like Peter Laviolette, Gerard Gallant, and Rikard Gronborg were thrown around and discussed most often, but the name that finally emerged from the search was a little bit surprising. Lindy Ruff was the choice, a coach with long track record in Buffalo and later Dallas, and a run of results over that long stretch that was decent, if unspectacular. Ruff had coached good teams and bad teams, some offensive juggernauts and some snoozefests, had a President’s Trophy (2007) and a Stanley Cup Final appearance (1999) to his name, but also a fair bit of mediocrity.
The move got what’s probably best described as a tepid reception at the time. Given where the Devils finished in the standings his first season behind the bench, you might expect that people would already be soured on his presence. The 2020-21 season was a strange one, though, and while the Devils sunk out loud in the W-L column, there were a lot of extenuating circumstances that led to that outcome, including a bad COVID outbreak in the team, a highly compressed schedule as a result, some major injuries, and a surprise retirement from what was supposed to be one half of their goalie tandem.
Yes, the Devils were no good in terms of results in their first season, but even beyond the above-mentioned circumstances, there are a few reasons people have some faith remaining in Ruff heading into this year. First off, the Devils were a half-decent team at 5-on-5 last year, finishing 13th in shot attempt percentage and 18th in expected goals percentage. At even strength, they looked like a competitive team a lot of the time, even with all of the issues they were dealing with. Beyond those team stats, though, there seemed to be a lot of progress on the individual side in Ruff’s first season, with multiple breakout rookie seasons from players like Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen, as well as a strong pro debut for defenseman Ty Smith. Jack Hughes looked like a player possessed at times and was given a lot of leash by Ruff to create (and occasionally make mistakes) as he saw fit.
Overall, I think what people like about Ruff is the trust he seems to be willing to put in his young players. The Devils had five or six examples of players having what could be called “breakout” campaigns (to varying degrees) and less reserved playing style under Ruff allowed a lot of underlying talents to show through. As far as what to expect for this season, the Devils seemed headed toward a lot of barn-burners, with the generally free-wheeling Ruff system leading to a lot of excitement but also some breakdowns. I do think having a dynamic player on the back end like Hamilton will help solidify things and keep play moving forward under Ruff.
If there is one coach who has been the target of a lot of ire on this staff, it has been Alain Nasreddine. Perhaps not coincidentally, he is also the longest-tenured member of this coaching staff, with his arrival in New Jersey dating back to 2015 when he was hired as part of John Hynes new staff under Ray Shero. Hynes got fired, Shero got fired, every other assistant he started with has since departed or been removed, but Alain Nasreddine remains. He took over as interim head coach after Hynes was fired in December 2019, leading the Devils to mediocre results while cratering a lot of their underlying numbers in his run. Unlike Fitzgerald, Nasreddine would not be successful in his working interview for a promotion but, like Fitzgerald, he would remain with the organization when the dust settled.
Nasreddine has been tasked with being the lead defensive assistant for most of his time in New Jersey as well as the coach in charge of the penalty kill. The results on the penalty kill were generally fine prior to 2020-21, but the team’s overall defensive reputation has steadily declined in his run. Part of that is due to personnel changes over his tenure, but the Devils are not regarded as the stout defensive unit they once were and Nasreddine bears at least a little bit of the responsibility there. In 2020-21, Nasreddine oversaw a penalty kill that had the leagues’ worst success rate by a substantial margin. Despite that, Nasreddine will get another crack at being a part of the caoching staff in New Jersey and he’ll have a couple new big bodies on defense to try and improve his results. If the penalty kill continues to struggle, I expect a lot of grief to go Nasreddine’s way from the fanbase in a hurry.
Mark Recchi was hired as an assistant to be part of Lindy Ruff’s staff in the leadup to last season. Recchi was put in charge of the power play, a role he had in his previous stop in Pittsburgh, where he had some success his first couple seasons in the role but saw a decline in his final year, when the Penguins had a below-average power play. In his first season in New Jersey, the power play unit was not so good. Particularly out of the gate, the Devils struggled mightily to generate anything on the power play. They would finish with the league’s 28th-best power play unit based on success rate, making the Devils combined special teams almost certainly the very worst in the league. Like Nasreddine, though, Recchi will get another crack at running his special teams unit. To Recchi’s credit, the power play did seem to be finding some form by the end of the season, scoring at a rate that would put them in the middle of the pack over the last month and a half of the season.
Dave Rogalski was hired at the same time as Mark Recchi to be a part of Lindy Ruff’s coaching staff and, like Recchi, his first season in New Jersey found wanting in his specific department. The Devils goaltending in 2020-21 was very bad, though it is admittedly tough to pin that on Rogalski, given that the retirement of Corey Crawford had the Devils scrambling to the waiver wire and the minors for replacements and Blackwood had a difficult bout with COVID-19 that upended much of his season. Still, with a more stable situation in net heading into 2021-22 (setting aside the whole quagmire over vaccination status), Rogalski and the Devils will be looking for better results this season from the goaltenders under his watch.
In all, at least in terms of coaching and management, the Devils seem to just be taking a mulligan on a highly unusual 2020-21 season and running it back again in 2021-22. I think I have more confidence in some of the people remaining in place than others, but I have generally positive feelings about Fitzgerald’s management of the team and am cautiously optimistic that Lindy Ruff can oversee further improvement from this team’s young core. The special teams are a big concern, and the same coaches being in charge there doesn’t give me the warmest feelings, but 2020-21 was a bizarre season and I think there’s some reason to be hopeful for at least some improvement on that front as well.