Last week I wrote about how I thought the Devils were trending in the right direction and were capable of being, especially with Hughes in the lineup, a slightly better than average team. Well, clearly I jinxed something, because since their win against Philly they’ve lost four straight games and have been outscored 21 to 10. They’ve been straight up garbage. The goaltending has been mediocre at best, they stink defensively, and even when they’ve had a stretch of good play they can’t put the puck in the net. It’s not been fun, man.
Anytime a team averages giving up more than 5 goals a game, there’s going to be plenty of blame to be spread around. Certainly some of it falls on the players. At this level, they should have the pride and attention to detail to not give up almost 2.5 goals per 60 minutes at 5 on 5. Similarly, the goaltenders need to be better. While I usually dislike talking about goaltending due to the volatile nature of the position, I don’t mind spreading some blame their way either. Blackwood and Bernier rank 64th and 37th per 60 minutes, respectively, in goals save above average (GSAA). So even accounting for the sieve -like Devils defense, neither are performing particularly well. However, most of the blame for this team’s recent performance belongs squarely at the feet of the coaching staff.
Fans of the team, myself included, have felt that changes to some of the coaching staff was warranted for a while now; mostly it has been Mark Recchi as the main source of fan’s ire. The Devils power play has been atrocious under his tenure, with little creativity or off-puck movement. The unit currently ranks 31st, clicking at 13.9%, this following a last place finish a season ago. The best thing you could say about the Devils power play under his direction is that Recchi isn’t afraid to experiment with different personnel, and that’s just a really kind way of saying he has no idea what he’s doing. Alain Nasreddine, who runs the defense and penalty kill, has also had fans call for his head off and on since the John Hynes era. I’ve gone back and forth on that idea over the years, mostly because I’m not sure how much control he has over the defensive systems at 5 on 5, and the penalty kill has mostly been good in his tenure; it has been ranked in the top 10 percentage-wise in 4 of the 7 years of his tenure. On top of that, short-handed defense has been one of the team’s few strengths over his tenure, generally ranking in the top half of the league (via Evolving Hockey ($)) in GAR and xGAR, including several top-5 appearances. Even if some of this is due to personnel (Zajac, Coleman), generally the penalty kill has to work as a unit, and in most years they’ve done this effectively.
So while the special team’s have been mostly bad over the last season and a quarter, the head coach has escaped most of the heat for the team’s struggles, and I’d argue deservedly so. They’ve gone from being one of the worst 5 on 5 teams (via CF% and xGF%) in the league in the 3 season’s prior to Ruff’s arrival, to league average during his tenure. That’s a really big improvement. And to be clear, I am not calling for Ruff to lose his job (yet) but I am pointing the finger at him for many of the team’s issues this season.
I’ve touched on the Devils struggles defensively this season, and that has obviously not improved any since then. I don’t think it is for lack of effort, and while it is very fair to question whether this skater group is capable of being a strong defensive team, I don’t think the system in place is doing the group any favors. I don’t hate Ruff’s systems, frankly I don’t have enough of a coaches eye to tell you what specifically the issue here is, other than they are giving up too many quality opportunities against, thus, a 24th place ranking in xGA/60. They play an up-tempo system that favors offense, and is much more entertaining than anything I’ve watched from a Devils team since the “Swarm-it-up” days. But does that have to come at the expense of defensive play. I would argue no, but maybe someone with coaching experience or who is more versed with systems could enlighten me.
Furthermore, it is the coaches job to make sure the team is ready to start on time. If a few players aren’t ready to go at 7:08 PM, that’s on them. When it’s the whole team, repeatedly, that is on the coaching staff to figure out what the problem is. Since the Boston game on 11/13 the Devils have 2 wins in 11 tries. In that time they’ve been outscored 14-7 in the first period. It is hard to win game if you are always playing catch up.
Finally, the line-up decisions this season have been... frustrating to say the least. First, there was the Mason Geertsen experiment. Putting someone in the line-up solely for toughness is always an idiotic move and a waste of a line-up spot. The man has averaged 6.5 minutes a game when he’s in the line-up. I don’t know what the point of that is, because he’s certainly not preventing anyone from being taken advantage of considering he was in the line-up when Hughes was injured. His continual presence on the roster is a testament to Ruff being from a bygone era. But most coaches have blind spots like this, so this isn’t something unique to him. But, there are plenty of other concerns with his line-up decisions. Since Hughes’s return, putting together this line-up should’ve been simple. You have 2 lines that had been working well, and two forwards (Sharangovich, Kuokkanen) who were good last year, but have struggled this year. Just coincidentally, the Devils best offensive forward, who happened to center those same 2 forwards last year, is returning to the line-up. So what do you do? If your answer was move Hughes to the wing, and juggle the rest of the line-up, well, there’s a 99.99% chance you are actually Lindy Ruff, because no one else thought that was a good idea. Then there’s this.
Lindy Ruff deployed Jack Hughes as the 3C in terms of 5v5 ice time tonight.— CJ Turtoro (@CJTDevil) December 7, 2021
He deployed Nico Hischier as the 4C. pic.twitter.com/IQ7gICKjqv
This is probably the most talented line-up the Devils have had in a decade and the best they’ve had since the Taylor Hall MVP year. But it’s hard to win games when you’re making decisions like playing your 4th line center who, may or may not be any good (I’m honestly not sure right now) more than your two 1st overall picks. Bottom line, Ruff has done some good things for this team, but he needs to pull his head out of his butt, and stop making avoidable, self-inflicted errors.
Do you agree that the coaches deserve the majority of the blame for the team’s recent struggles? Would you make a coaching change or give the staff more time to figure things out? Would you replace either or both of the assistants? Is it time to make a trade to shake things up? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading.