Just over a week ago, John did a pair of pieces on the optimistic and pessimistic views of the Devils season and broader state of the franchise. In his optimistic view, he mentioned several things to be excited about (like the performance of Jack Hughes), but also a few things that really tanked the Devils this year which will presumably not recur next season. I think these issues deserve their own piece, because they are intrinsically related and will lead you to the conclusion that much of this year is essentially useless in determining the long-term potential for this roster and staff.
Let’s start here: the Devils had a new head coach in 2021. Last year, the Devils dismissed John Hynes in the middle of last season and bumped defensive assistant Alain Nasreddine up to interim head coach. It’s clear that fellow-interim — GM, Tom Fitzgerald — had rightly assessed the youth and speed of the lineup (the forwards in particular) to be the strength of the roster and so, rather than keeping Nasreddine who is a perfectly adequate defensive coach of the Hynes class of thought, he went out and brought Lindy Ruff in to open up the ice for his youngsters to go wild with some pond hockey.
Jack Han did an excellent job of describing some of the key schematic changes to the Devils system and what the chief principles of their approach seemed to be under Ruff. If you scroll through them, you’ll find a common theme of activating players that are typically more passive on the play. In the DZ, both defenders attack the puck. In the breakout and rush, there are 4 skaters actively pushing which means all 3 forwards and one of the defenders are activated. And in the OZ, the defenders are more pinch-heavy which forces the forwards to compensate by being ready to cycle back to the point to cover.
When it works, this philosophy has the potential to make the opponent feel constantly outnumbered by a younger, faster, Devils squad. I talked about some of these chaos-inducing principles early in the season, specifically how they were embodied by the speedster/wrecking ball Miles Wood. I recommend going back and reading that because, while most of the principles still apply, some of the impacts fell apart as the year wore on and I think it’s telling to investigate how that happened. As just one example, here’s a graph from that piece showing how the energetic Devils were constantly pouncing on rebounds, and then that same graph by the end of the season (via MoneyPuck.com)
At the time of that piece, the Devils were 4-3-2 despite being without Mackenzie Blackwood for 6 of the 9 games and looked really tough to deal with. Sure, they were getting some good goaltending, but for the first time in years, the Devils were winning the possession game as well — the team was top 10 in the NHL in CF%. It would’ve been great to build on that momentum, but, as we all know, the Devils received no such opportunity due to the COVID outbreak that hit the team. As it would turn out, the Devils next game wouldn’t happen until 2 weeks later, by which point 2 key things had happened:
1) Several players got COVID, many of whom reported having symptoms during the next few games, and according to players’ exit interviews, a couple suffered for months after
2) The Devils already-condensed schedule got super-condensed. Only one of the remaining 47 games would be played on more than 1 day of rest, and 10 of them were back-to-backs.
Let’s recall the principles that the Devils team relied on. Ruff’s philosophy was to out-skate and out hustle the opponent at the point of attack with our youth, speed, and conditioning. Now give the whole team a respiratory illness with prolonged symptoms and then take away almost all their rest for the balance of the season. How much better do you think our conditioning generally was than that of our opponents given those factors?
The 4-man rush that had created OZ possessions and the defensive pinching that extended them both began to produce odd-man rushes the other way. The defensive zone aggression that used to force turnovers no longer did, and started to leave guys open in front of the net instead. And that’s only on 5v5 play. The second point — the condensed schedule — had an even more detrimental impact on special teams.
Special teams are much more controlled than 5v5 play. They rely much more on players’ chemistry with their unit, familiarity with the set plays, and comfort in executing them. Things that come with practice and tutelage.
The powerplay had a new coach (Mark Recchi) with a new system. The penalty kill did return Alain Nasreddine, but did not return half their top PK unit from last season (Greene, Coleman, Mueller, Rooney) and lost another 2 mid-season (Zajac, Vatanen). And, in a year with essentially no pre-season; the COVID outbreak of February removed much of what little practice time they had. The result? The Devils had the worst PK in the league and a bottom 5 powerplay. In total, they were “successful” in just 42% of powerplay/shorthanded opportunities. Not only is that the lowest such number in the league, but the difference between them and the 2nd worst team (Detroit, 46%) is the same as the difference between the 2nd worst team and an average team. We were grotesque on special teams.
So let’s review
1) The lack of a true pre-season removed valuable time to prepare a roster with many new/young faces, specifically for special teams situations.
2) Several team members contracted COVID-19 and more than one reported prolonged symptoms that impacted conditioning — uniquely detrimental to a team reliant on out-hustling opponents.
3) The 2-week delay forced a condensed the schedule which exacerbated both of the above problems — removing valuable practice time to address the special teams problems, and/or valuable rest time to revive a winded roster.
After enduring this perfect storm of unprecedented circumstances, we are left without any real information about how this system works in a typical season. So, despite a full season of data, we don’t truly know what the Lindy Ruff Devils look like — because we haven’t seen them yet.