On Wednesday night, the New Jersey Devils lost what was perhaps the most embarrassing game of the season so far, a 1-4 beatdown against perhaps the worst team in hockey right now. Well, Wednesday night, it was the Devils who were the worst team in hockey, and it wasn’t much of a debate. They started off strong, things started to go south as Arizona counterattacked, and the team had absolutely no answer thereafter, other than to just fall down and lose. Is that on the players? Absolutely, they need to be better, especially the goaltending which has been outright horrendous.
But at what point do changes get made? And when it comes down to it, when the team is not performing, it is the coaching staff that gets held responsible. Players might not be brought back or traded or sent down, but when things hit rock bottom, the coaching staff is not going to survive, regardless of how much blame is on the players versus the coaches.
To that end, and with the game Wednesday night signaling a low point in the season for New Jersey, at what point do coaches get held responsible for this mess and lose their jobs? I know if I ran a fan poll at the end of this article, overwhelmingly the base would want to clean house with the coaching staff sooner than later. In fact, most likely the sooner the better. It is clear that Lindy Ruff’s message is not resonating with the players, and the team is not responding in a manner you would expect given the talent on this roster. Before the season, I predicted a 6th-place finish for NJ in the division, so I did not expect some glorious playoff run, but this team has more talent than it did last year, or even the year before that, so I expected to see growth and improvement, positive change towards becoming a perennial playoff contender.
But what have I seen outside of a fairly good start to the season? Just a continual slide south right back into the same doldrums we have seen for years on end at this point. And that knowledge is what makes me confused about what will happen with the coaching staff. If it were up to me, or up to most anyone reading this I am sure, the coaching staff would be relieved of duties soon, and someone outside the organization would be brought in to clean up the mess and get the train back on the tracks. But it isn’t up to any of us. It’s up to Tom Fitzgerald, perhaps in conjunction with owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer, depending on how hands-on they want to be. And what they want to do is what will matter.
So, going back into history to try and get a gauge, Harris and Blitzer bought the team back in the summer of 2013. Since then, they have relieved two head coaches of their duties, Peter DeBoer and John Hynes. I am not going to get into interims, like Scott Stevens or Alain Nasreddine. They gave DeBoer a season plus a little more, firing him two months into the 2014-15 season. Considering how DeBoer has succeeded as a coach since then, perhaps that trigger was pulled a little prematurely. That was done while Lou Lamoriello was still the GM of the team.
However, I think the more relevant historical precedent is what they did with John Hynes. He was hired a month after Ray Shero became the new GM in June of 2015 and coached the team for over 4 seasons. He was eventually relieved by Shero in December of 2019, and Shero followed him out the door a month later. So in total, Hynes was given a fairly long leash given he only coached the team to one successful season, surrounded by some pretty poor ones.
Now, Harris and Blitzer have Tom Fitzgerald as GM, but Fitz was also a Shero guy, being hired from in-house. And clearly, Shero was not pressured heavily by the owners to remove Hynes at any point given the length of his tenure and his overall success, or lack thereof outside of one season that they limped into the postseason and really were not competitive once they got there. That makes me think that the team will most likely leave the coaching staff in place for the rest of the season, although they might be forced to make a move if the team continues to be embarrassed for the rest of the season. John Mara desperately wanted to keep Joe Judge as head coach, but he embarrassed himself too much down the stretch, and the Giants were non-competitive, so he had to be removed. That could end up being a similar scenario for Lindy Ruff if nothing changes.
If the higher-ups want to be forward-thinking, maybe they will learn a thing or two about what just transpired with the football Giants and get out ahead of it, or at least somewhat ahead of it. Maybe start with removing Dave Rogalski, the goaltending coach. No position has been more of a disappointment than goaltending this season, with Mackenzie Blackwood taking about 35 steps back this year, so that is the clearly logical place to start if you don’t want to clean sweep the entire coaching staff. Bring in someone else who could bring back some confidence to Blackwood’s game and help him stabilize his mind. In games, it looks like he gets in his own head, starts to feel that quicksand under his feet, and just cannot make easy saves. A new goaltending coach could help to give him back the confidence he needs to be a professional netminder once again.
Then, if the team still struggles and loses more, you could always get rid of Ruff early and bring in someone to provide a jolt to the entire team, not just the goaltenders. It might not change everything around, it might not make this team into a winning one instantly, but it could help to right the ship, get this thing going in a positive direction and at least inspire some level of optimism heading into the offseason, for both the players and the fanbase. If it were up to me, and I am sure if it were up to you as well, this would be the answer ASAP, but let’s see what the Devils top brass decides to go. I mean honestly, how much worse will they let it get?