As much as the focus of the New Jersey Devils is what is on the ice, who is in charge off the ice plays a major role in terms of how the team is set up for success. After a busy offseason with the roster, there were some notable changes - and notable non-changes - behind the bench. Will these changes bear better fruit for the Devils? This part of the multi-part preview for the 2022-23 New Jersey Devils will focus on the owners, management, and the coaching staff.
Ownership & Management
The Owners - Josh Harris & David Blitzer (Harris-Blitzer Sports & Entertainment)
HSBE is the parent company that owns the Devils, a consolidation of various ventures owned by Josh Harris and David Blitzer. This group includes the Devils, the Prudential Center, the Utica Comets, the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA, and the Delaware Blue Coats of the NBA G League. Harris and Blitzer also controls Crystal Palace FC of the Premier League in England and a minority stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers of the NFL, although that is not officially a part of HSBE. Either Harris and/or Blitzer is a shareholder of several other teams: the Cleveland Guardians of MLB, Real Salt Lake of MLS, the Stcranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, a AAA affiliate of the New York Yankees, FC Augsburg of the Bundesliga in Germany, ADO Den Haag of the Keuken Kampioen Divisie in the Netherlands (it’s their second tier), AD Alcorcon of the Primera Division RFEF (Spain’s third tier) in Spain, and SK Beveren of the Jupiler Pro League in Belgium (second tier in Belgium). Needless to say, Harris and Blitzer are into sports and remarkably wealthy - Harris is a multi-billionaire, for example - just to have shares in all of these different teams.
To this end, it could be argued that the Devils may not always be at the forefront of Harris’ and Blitzer’s minds. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Owners who may not know much about the sport getting directly involved in their team’s affairs tend to not be good for the team’s affairs. (Aside: It’s a source of a lot of franchise’s runs without playoffs.) If an owner or a group of owners decides to just provide the funds and resources and appoint people who do know more about the sport to be in charge, then that is a perfectly fine way to run the team. Perhaps a preferable than a more hands-on approach. From my standpoint, this appears to be the path Harris and Blitzer have taken.
Has it worked out? It depends how you see it. The Devils have not been an actually good hockey team since they took over in August 2013. However, Harris and Blitzer have absolutely invested in the team and the arena. The giant video board hanging over the rink is a great and visible example of that investment. As much as one may gripe about food or the PA announcer or how much is spent on the team, the organization has been willing to make changes in the hopes for the better. (And they have changed all three.) Past acquisitions of P.K. Subban and Dougie Hamilton along with significant contract extensions to Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes have shown that ownership is more than willing to spend money on the roster. In fact, this season may be the first in a while where they do not have an extraordinary amount of cap space available. We shall see whether this leads to a more successful team. To that end, ownership has worked out.
Ultimately, that’s the piece that has been eluding HSBE among all of their teams. The 76ers have become playoff regulars but their “Process” has not yielded any trips to the NBA Finals, much less winning the golden basket. The Guardians are in the postseason, so maybe they have a shot at going the distance? (I don’t know much/care about baseball so I don’t know.) Crystal Palace certainly is not going to win the EPL anytime soon; although, it is a league where 6 teams have a legit chance at it except for once in a blue moon (see: Leicester). Augsburg is in Germany where they could go on a run for something greater, but that’s a league where Bayern Munich pretty much dominates year-in and year-out. (No, FC Union Berlin isn’t holding onto first for long.) RSL won on Decision Day this past weekend so they’re at least in the playoffs but could likely get dumped out by Austin next weekend. The RailRiders did miss out on the playoffs, although they posted an 83-67 record. AD Alcorcon was relegated to the third tier last season. Beveren’s season just started and the ownership is recent. ADO’s season has also started and they’re sitting in 17th in the second division after 9 games. And the Devils have had just one playoff appearance since Harris and Blitzer have become involved. Of course, the lack of success of all of these teams is not a fault of Harris or Blitzer not providing enough funding or resources. Again, they’re just the owners and they just provide the means to their shareholdings. If there is anything to question, then it is whom they put in charge of their respective teams.
General Manager - Tom Fitzgerald
Tom Fitzgerald is entering his third season as General Manager of the Devils. He is also entering his eighth season with the organization as Ray Shero brought in Fitzgerald as his assistant. When Shero was fired in January 2020, Fitzgerald was the interim GM. Based on how the owners saw how he handled business through the shortened end of that season, they have decided to give Fitzgerald the position full-time. He officially took over a team that was young who were beset by injury problems, struggled on the power play, and had serious goaltending issues among other issues. Going into 2022-23, the Devils are still a fairly young team who was beset by injuries in each of the past two seasons, struggled mightily on the power play in each of the past two seasons, and had serious goaltending issues in each of the past two seasons. That is a short and crude overview of the Devils’ recent seasons, but it is what it is.
To Fitzgerald’s credit, he has not been idle the last two seasons. No, he has been active in free agency and with trades to try to improve the team. This has led to a plethora of moves made in the offseason that has garnered plenty of praise from myself, the People Who Matter, and those outside of the fanbase. Within the past two seasons, the team has added Dougie Hamilton, Ryan Graves, Jonas Siegenthaler, and John Marino to the defense. The team has acquired and/or signed Andreas Johnsson, Tomas Tatar, Erik Haula, and Ondrej Palat at forward. The youth movement was allowed to grow as Yegor Sharangovich, Janne Kuokkanen, Ty Smith, Dawson Mercer, and Alexander Holtz getting shots to make - and stay - on the team. Should they falter, they were moved out. And, in net, the Devils tried for Corey Crawford, Jonathan Bernier, and Vitek Vanecek. This has led to positive season previews with legitimate, defendable arguments that this team is much better. Perhaps enough to make the playoffs. Something Fitzgerald spoke to after the 2021 season and before this upcoming season.
As you know, the playoffs did not happen for the Devils. They were not even close in either of the first two seasons Fitzgerald was fully in charge. In 2020, there was plenty of sympathy between the injuries, the shortened 56-game schedule, and Crawford retiring instead of playing for New Jersey. That team finished with a 19-30-7 record for 45 points, a 40.2% point percentage, good for 7th in the East Division. They missed the playoffs by 26 points. In a more normal, 82-game 2020-21 season, the Devils ended up with an even more futile record. The Devils finished last season in 7th place in the Metropolitan Division with a record of 27-46-9 for 64 points, a 38.4% point percentage. They missed the playoffs by an even wider margin: 37 points. I liked plenty of Fitzgerald’s moves. You may have liked them even more. They just did not lead to the one thing Fitzgerald is responsible for: putting a successful team on the ice. My sympathy dried up a while ago, and I am not the only member of the People Who Matter who feels that way.
Now we come to this season. Once again, Fitzgerald is claiming the playoffs are a goal after missing badly in each of the last two seasons. Once again, there is a new goalie to support MacKenzie Blackwood in Vanecek. Once again, there is a change to the defense with Marino joining the group (Ty Smith was traded for him). Once again, a big contract was handed out - this time to Ondrej Palat as Fitzgerald tried for Johnny Gaudreau and tried to trade for Matthew Tkachuk. Combined with new deals to RFAs - most notably Jesper Bratt being signed for a season on the cusp of an arbitration hearing - the team is now close to the cap. Is team closer to success? On paper, absolutely. But until this team starts winning some games, there is little reason to actually believe they are better.
Is Fitzgerald on a hot seat? I would say it has to be kind of warm at this point. Fitzgerald has committed a lot of money and effort to his approach with nothing of value to show for it. Eventually, this does not bode well for a GM. Even one as proactive as Fitzgerald. Ironically, two assets he has not moved on from may ultimately hold him - and the team - back.
The first is Blackwood. Between injuries and poor performances, it is unclear whether Blackwood is legitimately a goaltender the team can build around. In each of the last three seasons, Fitzgerald acquired a goaltender meant to support him. While he could not have predicted Crawford to retire or Bernier to have a hip injury, Blackwood was still in a position to succeed and he has fallen way short of that. He posted an 89.2% overall save percentage last season. That is simply not going to cut it. Even Nico Daws, a rookie, posted a slightly better overall save percentage than Blackwood last season. Yet, Blackwood was not 100% last season and Fitzgerald thinks he can be good again so the goalie is getting another chance in 2022-23. If Blackwood fails this opportunity, then it could damage more than just the Devils’ season but also Fitzgerald’s current position as GM.
The second is Lindy Ruff. The veteran head coach was hired by Fitzgerald. He was announced on the same day as Fitzgerald was announced as GM of the team on July 9, 2020. Ruff signed a three-season deal which is expiring after this season. Fitzgerald stuck to Lindy Ruff as head coach as the 2021-22 campaign fizzled in December to all but guarantee another playoff-less season. Again, the team went 19-30-7 in 2021 and 27-46-9 in 2021-22 under Ruff. I am not sure how the constant losing helps the development of a young team. Especially since the whole point of all of the acquisitions, transactions, data analysis, and drafts is to build a team to win a lot hockey games. The Devils have not been that team. An outsider may conclude that Ruff is therefore not the right choice behind the bench. Significant changes have been made with the coaching staff for this season, presumably with the message that if struggles continue, then Ruff’s own position is in doubt. Should the Devils flounder within the first three months to risk another lost season, then Ruff could be out of a job before his contract ends. Will Fitzgerald pull the trigger if that happens? If not, then the heat will surely rise on Fitzgerald.
I’ve taken to calling those the two anchors that Fitzgerald has attached himself to for this season. I do not want him to fail. I want Blackwood to be the goaltender he has shown in flashes much, much more often than he has in the last two seasons. I want Ruff to not coach the Devils into another oblivion. I think Fitzgerald really wants those two things to happen because if they do not, the team is going to be worse off for it. That, among other things, will lead to more people asking whether Fitzgerald is still the right person for the job. If those questions start coming from Harris, Blitzer, or a delegate of theirs, then he should absolutely be worried.
Again, the whole point of all of this is to build a better hockey team. Not to talk about it or get a bunch of meaningless rankings from websites about their prospect pools; or get favorable projections from statistical models based on limited, public information by people with no skin in the game. To actually have a better hockey team on the ice. The only way this can be done is to have the Devils win (many) more games and push for improvement in 2022-23. Fitzgerald has claimed this to be the goal for each of the last two seasons. We shall see if the third time is a charm.
The Coaching Staff
The Head Coach - Lindy Ruff
Lindy Ruff was named as the New Jersey Devils head coach on the same day it was announced that Tom Fitzgerald was announced as the full-time GM of the team. Ruff was hired in part to wanting to work and develop a young team for success in the future. Have they been successful? No. The Devils finished the 2021 season with a 19-30-7 record, finished seventh in the East, and missed the playoffs by 26 points. That was Ruff’s first season. Last season was Ruff’s second season. The Devils finished the 2021-22 season with a 27-46-9 record, finished seventh in the Metropolitan Division, and missed the playoffs by 37 points. This is not a success by any standard.
Of course, the record is just the results of the team. As we know, the Devils have been undercut by bad goaltending and injuries. Is the team performing well under Ruff? An argument can be made that, yes, they have. Last season, the Devils’ 5-on-5 numbers were actually decent. Far better than the 28th place finish they actually had. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Devils’ 5-on-5 on-ice percentages were 50.52% CF% (15th), 50.15% SF% (14th), 51.91% SCF% (11th), 55.09% HDCF% (6th), and 51.45 xGF% (13th). Their 2.69 GF/60 rate was above the league median, so the team was certainly putting up goals. Again, had the goaltending been anywhere near decent, then the Devils would have been out-scored a lot less and the record would be better for it. Which would reflect better for Ruff. It’s rates like these that help drive statistical models to conclude that the Devils could very well be 30+ points better than they were last season. This suggests Ruff is doing something right.
However, when you dig into how the Devils play, then you may go back to wondering what Ruff is doing. Which I would understand. After all, improving the goaltending to league average would only fix about half of the deficit the Devils put up last season.
The simplest description I can use for Ruff’s tactics from last season is confusingly aggressive. In 5-on-5 offense, the common approach after gaining the zone is for the forwards to work the puck in deep and then pass it back to an open point-man. This is known as going low-to-high. This is also why there were games where Ryan Graves was firing a ton of pucks instead of, say, Jesper Bratt. No matter the size or style, two to three forwards were behind the goal line to win that puck to set up a long, low percentage shot. A shot that, if blocked or missed, gives the opposition numbers to counter-attack. The Devils racked up plenty of high-danger chances in part to a quick transition approach, with the defenseman feeding forwards up high for long passes. Think Damon Severson or Dougie Hamilton passing it up to Hughes, Hischier, or Bratt. The problem with that - other than that a long pass missed is often icing - is their 5-on-5 approach to defense. The Devils would often swarm the puck carrier and/or the side of the puck carrier. Overloading the puck carrier was made with the intent of ending an opposition attack quickly and then getting the puck up and out of the zone. The reality is that if the opposition beat the overload, caught a forward cheating, or held onto position such that all 5 players were deep in the defensive zone, then they could beat the Devils’ attack and fire a strong, uncontested shot against the calamitous Devils goaltenders. So once the Devils started swarming, they could not transition quickly. How this all worked out, well, sometimes it did and sometimes it did not. More importantly, it did not change much throughout the season. At both ends, the Devils expended a lot of energy to either create a shot with little chance of going in the net or stop the opposition with a little chance of hitting back with a quick 2-on-1, 3-on-2, or breakaway. And it certainly did not help the goaltenders, who needed all of the help they could get.
That was last season, though. What about this season? Preseason has shown some restraint. The team has not overloaded as much on defense. The team is not looking for long breakout passes to get forwards behind the defense as much, although they will seek it out if it is there. The offense has changed with the many different lineup changes, but there seems to be a reduction of the low-to-high approach with players like Hughes and Bratt taking spaces in the middle of the offensive zone if they are there. These adjustments could prove fruitful for an offense that was productive in 5-on-5 and keep it going, if not get more out of the many skill players the team has on the roster.
Of course, the results will come with improvements elsewhere. While others on staff may be more in control of those areas, Ruff certainly has an input in terms of special teams and player management. Will the staff be allowed to run the power play or penalty kill as they see fit, or look to continue what was done in the last two seasons? Will the goalie coach be preparing the goalies on their own? Will Ruff play a player clearly not 100% in health and certainly not 100% in performances? Will Ruff utilize players appropriately and not seek to throw players under the bus publicly when things go awry? Will Ruff follow the results of how the team is performing or stick to what he knows? Will struggles be handwaved away by young players who need to Learn How to Win? Basically, the big issue I have with Ruff boils down to whether Ruff is willing to adjust things within the season. How the 2021 and 2021-22 teams played under Ruff largely stayed the same throughout their seasons. While I understand the grind of an 82-game season does not lend itself to wholesale changes in tactics, adjustments are certainly possible and encouraged. Will he be able to identify them and make them when things go awry?
If he sticks to what he has planned and it is not working and he is not changing them, then I think Ruff’s seat will only get hotter. Given he is in the final season of a three-year contract where he has not even coached the team to even 50 total wins overt he last two seasons, you would be naïve to think his seat is not somewhat hot already. Especially as two key members of his staff have changed for this season and one is a bit more than just an assistant coach. If the struggles continue, then the attention will be on Ruff more than ever before.
The Associate Coach - Andrew Brunette
Andrew Brunette was hired by the Devils on July 13, which was the first day of free agency this past offseason. Of all of the moves made in the NHL that day, this one could very well be one of more impactful ones. Brunette was Florida’s interim head coach as he stepped in to replace Joel Quenneville, who has been deservedly jettisoned from the NHL. He led a talented Panthers team to their best season ever. The 2021-22 Panthers smashed their franchise record by 19 points by finishing 51-18-6 and winning the President’s Trophy. They even won a playoff series for the first time in 26 years. However, a playoff sweep by Tampa Bay in the second round was enough for Florida management to look elsewhere. Brunette was let go and Florida hired Paul Maurice to be their head coach. As the Devils deservedly fired Mark Recchi back in May, Fitzgerald sought out Brunette and signed him to a three season contract to be an associate coach.
The term “associate” is not an accident. It means he is a bit higher up than an assistant. Lindy Ruff is in the final season of his contract. Even if the 2022-23 season goes well and Ruff remains behind the bench for the whole season, there is no telling that Ruff will want to continue as head coach. Brunette, who more than proved he can handle a head coaching job last season, is in a perfect position to step in after Ruff. Whether that is after this season or within this season. Which makes sense as I doubt Brunette would take a simple assistant coaching job after what he did last season.
In terms of the role for this season, Brunette is indeed replacing Recchi in terms of focusing on the power play. Last season’s power play was a 1-3-1 where all 5 skaters remained largely in place as two players would pass the puck before forcing a seam pass to a third one. It also featured a remarkably inefficient breakout with a drop pass in their own zone that only served to give opposing penalty killers a target to pressure. The power play was statistically and aesthetically terrible. Surely, changes had to be made.
So far, there has been some change in preseason games. First, the bad news. The drop pass has not gone away despite leading to a shorthanded goal and a handful of shorthanded opportunities against. This makes me wonder whether that’s an instruction from Ruff instead of Brunette. Now, the encouraging news. The 1-3-1 formation in preseason games have been less statuesque. The bottom one gets passes at the goal line. The bumper - the middle one of the three - is fed for opportunities. The wide players among the three are in motion. There even has been some rotation among the players. The attack is not settling for 50-footers from the back point. At a minimum, Brunette has the power play units playing more dynamic hockey. If he can have the units utilize a more traditional breakout, then this power play has a shot at being decent in 2022-23 instead of having the 28th most successful power play (15.6%, 35 for 225, 14 shorthanded goals allowed).
Provided that the power play is more effective and less wasteful, then Brunette will surely get plenty of praise. Even just for being an improvement over Recchi. Should the team stumble out of the gate this season, then expect more calls for Brunette to replace Ruff. You may not like that but the Devils were the ones to sign him to a three-year deal with a title that implies he’s the next man up if/when the head coach moves on.
The Assistant Coach - Ryan McGill
The Devils let go Alain Nasreddine in May. The long-time assistant in NJ was responsible for the penalty kill and had a strong say about the team’s defensive play. His implementation of the wedge-plus-one was generally effective. While the team’s success rate on penalty kills was just above the league median at 80.2% (14th, 170 kills out of 212), goaltending undercut the units’ success. That said, the defense was reliant on overloading to a point where oppositions picked on the Devils’ weak side over and over and over. Nasreddine (and Ruff) did not adjust for that and it hurt the team. The lack of development of younger defenders was also a sticking point for Nasreddine. The team moved on from Ty Smith. When he spoke to Nasreddine working with him, then my impression was that Nasreddine did not help a struggling defender out. I want to think that played a role in the Devils cutting Nasreddine loose in May. They found his replacement in late July with Ryan McGill.
Ryan McGill was the assistant coach responsible for the defense and penalty kill in Las Vegas since the Golden Knights existed. He has been behind the bench in support of both Gerard Gallant and Peter DeBoer. In his five seasons with the G-Knights, the team ranked at the league median or much, much better in terms of shots against, expected goals against, and Corsi against in 5-on-5 play. Their 5-on-5 defense peaked in 2018-19 and 2019-20. The penalty kill varied in terms of success between 76.6% (2019-20) to 86.8% (2021). All signs point to an assistant coach that got plenty out of the players in terms of playing defense. What will the Devils defense look like under him?
With the varying different rosters by the Devils and their opponents, it is hard to get a strong read from preseason games about what the defense will look like. From what I’ve seen so far, the team is not swarming it up nearly as much in their own end. There is not nearly as much overloading on puck carriers. The weakside is not just occupied by an opposing player just waiting for a puck to come his way. I have seen some forwards still cheating high up in the zone, but that may be more of the player than the design of the defense. On penalty kills, I have seen the Devils morph their formation from a wedge-plus-one to a more shallow version with the “plus one” hanging in the high slot to even a small box at times. It is not uncommon for a wedge plus one to shift in their look as they react to plays, so that may be my own misreading of what they are doing. I am at least glad it is not a passive diamond, which the Devils used to disastrous results on their penalty kill last October.
Between the changes to the players and the hiring of McGill, there is a reason to think the Devils should be a stingier team on defense in 2022-23. The penalty kill may be about as successful as it was last season, but that was not a real problem the Devils needed to fix. It was their 5-on-5 approach to defense. Provided Ruff does not impose that over-aggressive reliance on overloading over McGill in the season, then that should be better. Provided McGill can get the players on the same page and communicate better, especially in net-front situations, I think it really can be better. Of course, we shall see how it goes.
The Assistant Coach - Chris Taylor
Chris Taylor returns as an assistant coach. It was unclear in the past as to what exactly he focused on. My understanding was that he was the “man in the sky,” reporting to the rest of the staff what he saw from the press box. Which does add value as the view is up high enough to see what is happening from a wider perspective than what the coaches see at ice-level. Taylor was previously coached as a player under Ruff and has spent plenty of time in Rochester of the AHL, so he was hired in 2020 with his connection to Ruff and his past experience. Taylor was also hired in the wake of Mike Grier leaving the organization. As Grier was working more individually with players, I suspect Taylor took on that role as well. With the addition of one new member to the coaching staff, Taylor is expected to join Ruff, Brunette, and McGill behind the bench for the season. I think he will remain in a supporting role beyond that as Brunette and McGill have larger responsibilities.
The Assistant Coach - Sergei Brylin
The third and final new addition to the coaching staff is a fan favorite. Sergei Brylin is now with the New Jersey Devils - as a staff member. He was promoted from Utica in August to be officially added to the coaching staff. Sarge spent nearly a decade coaching in the AHL as an assistant. He has remained loyal to the Devils as a coach just as he was as a player. Brylin’s role will be what Taylor has done for the last two seasons. He will be in the press box as the “man in the sky” to relay what he sees from up high to the coaching staff. He will work individually with players in practices. It is a perfectly fine position to move Brylin into. There could be room for further growth pending further changes, even. Welcome back to New Jersey, Brylin.
The Goaltending Coach - Dave Rogalski
Dave Rogalski returns to the team as the team’s goaltending coach. The Devils’ goaltending last season was terrible. Horrible. Miserable. Abysmal. The team’s save percentage in 5-on-5 situations was dead last in the NHL at 89.7%. In all situations, the save percentage was next to last at 88.11%. Due to injuries and poor performances, the Devils used seven different goalies. In order of overall save percentage: Jonathan Bernier (10 GP, 90.2%), Nico Daws (25 GP, 89.3%), Mackenzie Blackwood (25 GP, 89.2%), Jon Gillies (19 GP, 88.5%), Scott Wedgewood (3 GP, 88%), Andrew Hammond (7 GP, 86%), and Akira Schmid (6 GP, 83.3%). The Devils waived Wedgewood and Wedgewood proceeded to be notably better in spot duty with Dallas. Gillies was a waiver-wire pick up and Hammond was acquired in trade for Nathan Schnarr. Not exactly a run of great luck, but certainly not a group of goalies that was prepared or capable for the 2021-22 season. Look at those save percentages. I know Rogalski was not out there stopping pucks, but it begs the question as to what exactly he was (or was not) doing with the goalies.
The decision makers have decided that the issue was more with the personnel than the coaching. Hence, Daws and Schmid are understandably set for Utica in 2022-23; and Gilles and Hammond were cut loose. The team acquired Vitek Vanecek, Blackwood is 100% now, and Bernier, well, he is not expected to play much. Rogalski remains on the staff. Should the goalies perform better, that will speak well to Rogalski’s contributions. If not, well, it is another part of the staff where the People Who Matter will wonder why it was not changed too.
In terms of ownership, the Devils are in a perfectly fine position. Harris and Blitzer have a lot of money and can provide a lot of resources. Sure, their attention to sports is divided among many different teams. However, they have provided a lot to the Prudential Center and the Devils. They were not a cap team for a long time because, well, they were bad and not expecting to be anything good. When the GM wanted a player on a big contract or sign a player to a big one, they signed off on it. To a point where the Devils were up against the salary cap ceiling for a bit of time in this offseason. Short of any news coming out of Harris or Blitzer being too involved with hockey decisions, ownership is not the issue.
Management and coaching, however, is more of a pressing issue. As much as I can - and I have! - praised some of Tom Fitzgerald’s transactions and decisions, the results have not been there. Mike wrote last season that 2021 seems like a mulligan taken by the organization. Fine. Then the fact the team finished with a worse record in 2021-22 and even further away from the postseason is an indictment of the team Fitzgerald built. Sure, he cannot control injuries. Neither can the other 31 franchises; it is still a results-oriented business in the NHL and he has not achieved them. If 2022-23 does not bear a legitimately better Devils team on the ice, then Fitzgerald’s seat will get warmer - if not any hotter. Harris and Blitzer have plenty of money but their patience is not infinite.
I think Fitzgerald knows this given the changes to the coaching staff alone. Coaching absolutely was an issue last season and the act of letting Nasreddine go and firing Recchi means that the team agrees with that to a point. The hiring of McGill and Brunette to replace them look like great decisions on paper (adding Brylin is also a positive sign that, yes, you can grow in the organization). That Brunette was given the Associate Coach title combined with the fact that Ruff is in the final year in his contract makes for an obvious sign that Brunette could become the head coach of the Devils in the future. How the team performs will determine if that is after this season or in a few months. The pressure is absolutely on Ruff. In my view, his high-risk, not-high-reward strategies held the Devils back last season and his lack of adjustments from those strategies really added to a painful season. If his ways do not work out, he refuses to change them, and (or?) the team struggles to get wins early in this season, then Ruff could be fired well before his contract ends this season.
I understand this may come across as a negative or pessimistic view of things. Once again, the Devils are coming off a 27-46-9 record in a season where they missed the playoffs by 37 points. I am not interested in Fitzgerald talking about the playoffs. I am more interested in the team he put together actually competing for it. Can I be convinced it can be better between the player and coaching hires? Sure. I do think Brunette and McGill are upgrades over Recchi and Nasreddine. I do think a healthier roster will help out tremendously. But I need to see something before I can believe it this time.