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Fragile Mindsets and the Current New Jersey Devils

A quote from New Jersey Devils head coach Lindy Ruff about how the Devils lost to the New York Islanders revealed a potentially bad sign for the Devils: a fragile mindset, looking to blame a bad break for a loss than the process. This goes into the quote and reacts a lot to it.

Boston Bruins v New Jersey Devils
Lindy Ruff revealed more than I think he expected in his post-game press conference on Saturday night.
Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

On Saturday night, the New Jersey Devils lost 2-4 to the New York Islanders. It was the first ever win at UBS Arena for the Islanders. It was the eleventh winless game in their last 14 played; a time period where the Devils made one (1) stunning comeback in Tampa Bay and took two (2) wins over a then-slumping Philadelphia team. While some recent drawbacks within the Metropolitan Division did not put the Devils out of the wild card race, this past week saw their spot in sixth place become more vulnerable and further behind Pittsburgh and Detroit (and Boston if you include those games in hand) for those wild card spots. Fans may not have expected a playoff team, but they expected far better than this. From my standpoint, it is increasingly clear that the Devils are dealing with, among other issues, a fragile mindset.

To put it another way: When it rains, it pours, and so what’s the use in trying not to get wet. It is understandable that a team or a player who is struggling continues to struggle when more things happen that do not go their way. A player on a goalless streak may fire away but hit nothing but iron or the goalie’s logo. A team who has won just, say, three out of their last fourteen, may crumble at the sign of any adversity. This is a tough spot to be in because the short-term fix is to succeed. Which is not as likely to happen if a player or team gets on themselves whenever something does not go in their favor in a given shift, period, or game. It is common to see some teams just slide in a slump until that one game where things come together a bit better, fortune is more favorable, and the player or team gets that needed goal or needed win and can begin to re-build confidence to attain further success.

The Devils are arguably in that mode. Again, they won three of their last fourteen games and two of them were against a team in a similar state of disarray on the ice. Philly broke their slump recently with a back-to-back set of wins over Las Vegas and Arizona on the road. The Devils are still searching for a win against a non-Flyers opponent since November 20.

From my stance as a fan, this is something you would expect experienced players and personnel would help guard against. Having someone on the roster or on the bench to let the guys know that, yeah, the game stunk but there were positives so let us work on those instead of thinking everything is terrible. These would be the people to provide reassurance when things go awry in an 82-game season. These would be the people who can speak from experience to help a player or a unit or a squad out from being demoralized from some bad games. They can presumably motivate the team to avoid a further drop in performances and morale. These would be especially useful for a team full of young players in the toughest league in the world.

Do the Devils have this? Yes. They actually do. As young as the team are, they do have players like P.K Subban, Tomas Tatar, and Dougie Hamilton with well over 600 games in this league. While he is on IR, Jonathan Bernier has over 400 appearances in this league across now six different organization. He knows a thing or two because he has seen a thing or two. Even among the homegrown Devils, Severson has over 500 games with the team and even Hischier is in his fifth season.

However, the biggest wealth of experience the players can tap into for when things get tough, though, is behind the bench. Consider the following four out of the main five people on the Devils’ site under Coaching Staff.

  • Lindy Ruff played in 691 season games and 59 playoff games as a player and appeared behind the bench for 1,549 games and counting as a head coach. Ruff has overseen bad teams, mediocre teams, and good teams between a lot of years in Buffalo alone. He has been in the coaching game since 1997. As much as the game has changed, there is very little Ruff has not seen in this sport.
  • Mark Recchi is (deservedly) maligned for his running of an abysmal power play. He is also the most experienced as a player among all of the coaches with a massive 1,652 games played in regular seasons and 189 in the playoffs. And Recchi was an assistant coach in Pittsburgh and Arizona over the last five years before coming to Newark. Like Ruff, I cannot imagine Recchi would see anything he could not recall from his extensive past as a player.
  • Alain Nasreddine did not play much in the NHL, but played a lot in the AHL and abroad. He was also an assistant coach with the Devils since October 2015. He has been one of the few constants from the First Failed Rebuild. He can surely relate to a lot of what has been going on (and why things look so familiar now).
  • Chris Taylor, similar to Nasreddine, primarily played in the AHL although he did appear in 149 games in the NHL (and for Lindy Ruff). Taylor has been an assistant coach since 2011-12 between the AHL and NHL levels. He even was a head coach at Rochester for three seasons. Again, he can relate to those who are trying to break through to the roster at a minimum.

Even if the more experienced players are getting on themselves, this coaching staff should be able to get their minds right if only based on what they have seen and felt as a player or a coach. No, the Devils do not have the vaunted Veteran Presence that some in sports media highlight for being Good in the Room and Teaching the Young Players. They are also far from short on experience - especially behind the bench. One of the pluses of the Devils bringing in Lindy Ruff was his desire to work with the younger and inexperienced players; to share his wealth of knowledge and what it takes to succeed in this league.

This is why I am very concerned about what he said in the press conference Lindy Ruff gave after the loss to the Islanders. The quote the Devils’ social media highlighted for the video was bad enough. It is hard for me to believe Ruff wants players to pick up the slack when he effectively played with 17 skaters by dressing Mason Geertsen. 16 when you consider Christian Jaros, a defenseman, was given fewer than nine minutes of ice time. This after losing to Nashville the night before, too. But the one that stuck out to me came in an answer that started at 0:42 (the main part of the quote I have a problem with is at 0:53 if you want to jump ahead nine seconds).

Here is my best attempt at transcribing Ruff’s answer, which starts at 42 seconds to a question by New Jersey Devils employee Amanda Stein asking whether any players took advantage of the opportunity:

“I thought there was a lot of good in tonight’s game. We had a lot of great opportunities to really get them down. I thought, probably, one of the biggest turning points was that we had the breakaway to make it 3-1. We didn’t score. They had a breakaway, you know, they scored, they make it 3-2. So (sigh) you know there was opportunities to put the nail. I thought our first power play did everything but score, you know, hit a post again, had a couple of really good looks, and then, you know, the way we defended the play in the neutral zone on the second power play hurt us.”

This quote bothers me. A lot. Three thoughts:

First, the breakaway Ruff was referring to was when Andreas Johnsson got a breakaway and failed to score. The score was 2-1 then. Yes, Ruff was right, the goal would have made it 3-1. My problem is that Johnsson not scoring did not prevent the Devils from trying to score a third goal at all in the game. I know they tried. They put plenty of rubber on net against Ilya Sorokin. The issue is that they did not really stop the Islanders from putting a similar amount against Akira Schmid. And they did not adjust to break down an Isles team that saw that breakaway, realized they conceded a breakaway goal to Jesper Bratt earlier, so they adjusted to keep players back as much as they could. It worked for the Islanders, clearly.

Second, Ruff skips over the equalizing goal by Andy Greene - a curious omission, it was an important goal! - and jumps right to the shorthanded goal that ultimately won the game. Yes, Zach Parise finished his breakaway. Yes, Schmid should have done better. The larger issue is why this team’s power play unit is prone to giving up shorthanded opportunities at all. Ruff noted that by stating their issues were in the neutral zone. This begs a larger question why defending in the neutral zone on a power play is an issue for the Devils. It is true the first power play of the night was Actually Good, but given how little the power play has yielded the Devils over this season as well as their current 3-wins-in-last-14-games run, this is a bigger issue that was not really discussed adequately in this presser. Stein followed up with a question about the power play but not about its systems or what changes Ruff or Mark Recchi intend to make about it. As expected from an employee, but still.

Third, and this is my big problem, why is Lindy Ruff talking like Ken Daneyko or any other color commentator about this game?

One of my pet peeves with Dano and sports commentary is how they try to cram a narrative into a game where it does not fit. When the Devils were getting beat on 4-8 by Winnipeg, Dano kept going on about this post that zacha hit that would have put the Devils up 5-3 at the time. But he didn’t and so that is how Winnipeg roared back in the game. Not Jonathan Bernier having a bad night, not about the Devils’ listless performance on defense getting run over by the Jets, not about Winnipeg wanting to end their own slump at the time with a ton of goals in front of their home fans, not about Winnipeg’s resilience after conceding four straight to the Devils. No. Zacha hit the post instead of scoring, that was the turning point, that’s why they lost. So says and repeats Dano throughout the broadcast. Nothing else in the game before, after, or during matters as much as #37 striking iron. That is the message given. I roll my eyes. But when a coach says it, I raise my eyebrows instead.

Sure, there are turning points in hockey games (and any other sport). Sure, there are times where a failure to score is a big cause for a loss. But this is hockey and part of succeeding in the sport comes from having a strong enough mindset to respond to when things go bad. In the Winnipeg game, the Jets definitely did not feel down and started skating a bit slower and moved the puck with less pace when the Devils went up 4-3 to erase the Jets’ early 0-3 lead. In the Islanders game, the Islanders clearly did not go back to their slumping ways after Jack Hughes clapped a bomb past Sorokin to make it 2-1 late in the first period. Those goals by the Devils were turning points; it is just that their opponents decided to create some of their own.

Moreover, the game was far from over in Long Island even after Parise’s goal. It was still the second period when it happened. The Devils were not down 3+ goals from a blizzard of activity around their rookie goaltender’s crease. They were down just one goal. One goal in a sport where a puck taking a funny bounce can cause a goal. Yes, it was a disappointment to give up a shorthanded goal to Parise, whom had zero goals prior to the game. But it was just 2-3 at the time! They could have worked to score on the remainder of that power play. They could have tilted the ice more effectively in the third period. They could have not given up an ultimately back-breaking insurance goal to Pageau in the third period. I mean, Ruff knows he pulled Schmid with a bit over four minutes remaining in regulation to make something happen, so he clearly felt something was still there to play for. But after the game, all of that is ignored. It was all the result from failing to score on a breakaway and the opponents did so - after a game-tying goal that did not warrant mention in that comment.

I know I am reading a bit into a post-game press conference from Lindy Ruff. But his unnamed finger pointing at Johnsson is what I would expect from one of the People Who Matter on this site or on social media unhappy about the game. His statement that the Devils failed to finish on one breakaway to put the Devils up two so the Isles took the lead with one later in the game could have came out of Daneyko’s mouth on the broadcast (I had it on mute, so maybe it actually did). I would expect it from those sources. Not from the head coach with a wealth of experience in this sport that few in the NHL can stack up against in explaining why the game went as it did. I expect him to be more of the lighthouse trying to show the rocks to the boats rocking in the storm, not the being on the boat claiming it will be for naught.

In a way, I get it. The team is struggling. The expectations were not to make the playoffs but be more competitive. And the Devils are spiraling away from that with just three wins in their last 14 games. Maybe that would bring down even an experienced coaching staff as the ones the Devils have. At the same time, this is the kind of thing that makes fans like me question how much better they actually are and whether the coaches are the right ones for the job. It was not that long ago this team was earning praise for its spirited comeback efforts in the third period. They had some and took some points that the squads in past seasons would not have earned. Sure, it is not ideal that they would go down a score or two early and have to fight back. But there would be an attempt to fight back. That was evidence of a stronger mindset. A mindset to correctly recognize that, yeah, mistakes were made and a goal was given up; instead of dwelling on it, what are we going to do to respond? Didn’t score on a breakaway? That sucks, let’s try to get another one or create some other way to score. That is what the Devils and other teams demonstrated. It is a good thing for a team to have. Somehow, it went away amid this current slump.

I would suggest that the better teams in this league display this stronger, more constructive mindset much more often and it is why they often earn points in their games. Even the Devils’ most recent opponents displayed it. The Devils scored first but they came back and locked down a win on both nights. What about the Devils? Again: Their head coach - with four decades of game experience as a player and a coach - explained after their most recent loss that a failed opportunity from the second period and one succeeded by the opposition later in that same period cost them the game. From my outsider perspective, the Devils have become a more mentally fragile team. And it is something that is apparent in their current slump.

What is it going to take to fix it? Some wins would help tremendously, obviously. It can start with the head coach not faulting Andreas Johnsson for not finishing a breakaway and start looking into plans to create more chances when the opposition starts to drop back. It can start with the head coach not faulting the power play failing to defend outside of the offensive zone when a shorthanded goal was scored. And if not from Ruff, then Recchi, Nasreddine, or Taylor can utilize their past experiences to at least get the players minds right. And if not from the coaches, then the players may have to take it upon themselves. Perhaps with the option of having the infamous Players Only meeting. If it has not happened yet and things are not turning around, then I would expect it soon. And after then, expect more changes should the Devils confirm to have their season effectively end by December 31 as it was in 2019-20 and 2018-19 before it. I do not want it to happen again. But in the meantime, the mindset has to be stronger in New Jersey - and that at least has to come from someone in charge of all of this and directly responsible: the head coach.

Here is a free tip for Ruff in the meantime as they should seek to get their minds right as soon as they can: Don’t blame one of your top scorers for not finishing a breakaway for a two-goal loss. It happens. Even the greats do not always score. Breakaways have a relatively high shooting percentage of about 33%. This means most do not go in. Further, it was not as if Andreas Johnsson failed to score in the dying seconds of overtime and so the Devils went to a shootout most fans expect to lose and did so. There was a lot of time left to make up for it. You know whose confidence was not helped by that comment? Johnsson’s. Making him feel worse for missing is not going to help the larger cause of winning some games.

Again, I realize this is a lot of words about a post-game presser to a loss so familiar that even Ruff noted at the end of it how the presser could be repeated in the future. But this is the kind of detail that makes me think things are going to get worse in New Jersey before they get better. What do you think? Is this too much being read into it? Or do you agree this is indicative of a larger problem? For those who hate the concept of stats, do you appreciate a nearly stat-free post for a change? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this and the team’s mindset in the comments. Thank you for reading.