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Looking Towards the Future of the Devils

In this post I avoid an existential crisis by coming to grips with ignoring the Devils present failures and instead focus on some moves that could benefit the team in the future.

New Jersey Devils v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Sara Schmidle/NHLI via Getty Images

As a collective fanbase, it seems like most Devil’s fans are somewhere between anger and bargaining in the Stages of Grief for this year’s iteration of the Devils. It’s not quite acceptance because I haven’t seen any talk about Shane Wright just quite yet. But that’s probably not too far in the future the way things have been trending. Myself, it depends on the day, but usually I’m hovering somewhere between anger and depression; it just depends on how recently I’ve had to watch a Devil’s power play. Today though, I will (however briefly) attempt to move into final stage of grief: acceptance. So instead of looking at the problems and issues of today’s Devils team, let’s look to the future at some changes that could allow the future to be just a bit brighter.

And as I write this I realize that it sounds a lot like I’m just avoiding dealing with the team’s current problems. But, acceptance, avoidance, those are basically the same thing, right?

A New Coaching Staff

This could be considered a short-term issue, I suppose, but I am skeptical this is a move that actually gets made in the short-term. Personally, I am slow to join the fire the coach bandwagon. I think this is in part because I worry that the alternative will be worse (which is definitely the name of some fallacy/cognitive bias that I’m too lazy to look up). I also don’t trust NHL GMs to make a good coaching hire except by accident. Ok, maybe I’m being a little harsh, but history says the next coach will likely be another retread, probably a former player, and probably someone with a personal connection to Fitzgerald or another key member of the front office. Regardless, short of a miraculous turn-around, I don’t expect Ruff to be the Devils head coach next season. I don’t think he’s a bad coach, necessarily. In fact, as I’ve mentioned previously, I enjoy his up-tempo offensive-minded system. He’s also been dealt a really tough hand, with Hischier missing most of last season, and Hughes missing a big chunk of this one, and not looking the same after his injury. So I understand Fitzgerald’s hesitancy to make a coaching change considering Ruff’s barely been head coach for a regular seasons worth of games and there’s been an incredible amount of uncertainty in that time. But I also can’t say I’ve been very impressed with how he has handled this uncertainty. In particular, many of his line-up decisions leave a lot to be desired and his deployment is often... odd, to say the least. This has lead to the hot seat getting very warm and some restless fans. Even if Fitzgerald doesn’t want to make the change, he might eventually do it just for Ruff’s sake.

If nothing else, Mark Recchi needs to go. There is no redeemable quality to the power play. According to NHL.com It’s 3rd worst in the league at 12.9%, worst in terms of goal differential at +5, and the unit has given up the most short-handed goals in the league.

With Boudreau being picked up by Vancouver, I don’t have a good sense of who I’d look for the Devils to replace Ruff with. Lane Lambert, Barry Trotz’s assistant, has been rumored to be an up-and-comer for a little while now. Or, if Fitzgerald wanted to go outside the box, Rikard Gronborg would be an interesting option. Honestly, if the Devils did say screw it and gave the reigns to Kevin Dineen I’d probably be on board. It’s a very small sample size but some of the credit has to go to him for Utica’s hot start. Just please stay away from Torts.

Move on From Pavel Zacha

Zacha has been a divisive player from the time he was drafted, and 6 years later, not much has changed. From a talent and skill perspective, there’s no doubt he has top-6 capabilities. But he just doesn’t have whatever instinct or hockey sense is necessary to consistently make an impact at 5 on 5. Although for the first time in Zacha’s career he is making a positive impact on the Devils shot-share, with a CF% of 52.95%, without Bratt and Hischier on his line, this number drops sharply to 48.78% in 107 minutes and change of 5 on 5 ice time. Zacha has also been porous defensively throughout his career, consistently providing negative value in terms of even-strength defense. Although in fairness to Zacha, he’s actually been more middle-of-the-pack in that category on this year’s team. On top of this, he is still an unreliable point-producer at even strength, doing most of his damage in odd man situations. I have debated whether or not this makes him a useful enough piece to keep around, but you can only have so many specialists in your line-up, and preferably they wouldn’t be in the top-6.

What this ultimately comes down to for me is opportunity cost. The Devils need more elite talent to compete for a playoff spot and Zacha, who needs to be surrounded by better players, takes up a top-6 roster spot that would ideally be filled by someone more capable. I’m never in favor of getting rid of good players just for the sake of change. But it’s questionable whether or not Zacha fits into the category of good NHL player. If Fitzgerald wants to shake things up, moving out someone who was once considered to be a big part of the rebuild, would be a good place to start. With the obvious caveat that he is able to get something better in return.

Re-sign Jesper Bratt

Jesper Bratt is currently the team leader in xGAR at 5.4 and is 5th in GAR at 3.3. He is 2nd to Tatar in CF% at 53.75%, and leads the team in xGF% at 57.50% among forwards with over 50 minutes of ice time at 5 on 5. He also leads the team in points with 24 points in 29 games played. You know, if you care about that sort of thing. For more on Bratt’s greatness, see Mike’s post from earlier this month.

Bratt’s influence can also be seen by the impact he has on his line-mates. For instance, in a recent post at Infernal Access, Todd Cordell shows how as soon as Bratt was taken off of Mercer’s line, the rookie center started to struggle, with a sizable dip in all of his on-ice metrics.

Bratt has been trending towards a breakout season for a couple years now, and now he finally getting rewarded on the scoresheet for strong on-ice impacts. Now it’s time for Fitzgerald to lock up someone who should be a core player moving forward to a big contract. And the sooner and longer, the better.

Sorry, I forgot, he’s only playing well because it’s a contract year. Bratt is soft, can’t shoot, and is a perimeter player.

Move on From Ty Smith

This one hurts. Ty Smith was the prize of the Devils 2018 draft class. The left-shot defenseman out of Spokane was touted for his intelligence and puck-moving ability, despite being “undersized”. I was excited the Devils had the opportunity to draft Smith, and I was a strong supporter of his since day one. That said, sometimes you need to know when to move on. After a strong camp in his first year with the team, Smith took another couple seasons to finally arrive in New Jersey. He put up a good number of points last year, and eventually found success on a pairing with Damon Severson. But rather than a matter of Smith and Severson gelling together, that was more the case of Severson propping up the rookie blueliner. The hope was that Smith would continue to put up points like he did last season, but improve the underlying metrics a bit. That hasn’t happened. In fact, the opposite has happened. After last season, Smith was in the 66 percentile in even strength offense with most of his struggles being due to defensive issues. With this years data added to the picture, things are not looking good for Smith.

Isn’t it really early to give up on a player you only drafted 4 years ago? Yes, absolutely. Is it possible for Smith to turn things around and still end up a good player? Also, yes. I certainly hope he does and I hope I’m way off on this. But, if Smith can put up some offense down the stretch to improve his stock (I’d say on the power play, but, well, you know...), I think the smart play would be to shop him and see if another team overvalues him for his boxcar stats.

Your Thoughts

Now that you have read some of the moves I would make to improve the future of this team, what are your thoughts? Am I too harsh on Ty Smith? Would you be more aggressive? Can the coaching staff turn things around or are they already lame ducks? What other moves would you make? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading.