When things start to go bad for a sports team — any sports team — the heat will inevitably get turned up on the head coach. The Devils, proud owners of two 5-2 losses to teams that were lousy in 2021-22 in their opening two games, are no exception to this rule. At the end of Saturday’s contest where the Devils yielded five of the final six goals of the game to a Detroit team on the second half of a back-to-back in two different cities, the fans were piling on the team and, yes, Lindy Ruff in particular.
A crowd that had started the evening in a raucous and festive mood for the home opener curdled as they witnessed what definitely looked like a rerun from a show they had no interest in watching in the first place. Years of latent frustration poured out of the fans as they showered boos on the team they so desperately would like to go back to enjoying again at some point. “Fire Lindy” chants echoed through the dejected Prudential Center, which is unlikely to be as well attended as it was on Saturday night for a long while if things don’t turn around quickly. The mood in New Jersey is toxic after years of failure, and the coach who kept his job after the franchise’s worst season in 35 years is understandably in the crosshairs of a fed up fanbase.
A common refrain from a subsect of fans in these situations goes something like this: “This team has way more problems than the head coach. / It’s on this group of players to step up too. / A new coach is not going to fix everything,” etc. This doesn’t just apply to the Devils, it applies to every team I have ever followed that is going through struggles. And in most cases, it is true. The Devils have problems that extend beyond Lindy Ruff, most notably goaltending and a proclivity toward responding to every mistake on the ice with another, bigger mistake to exacerbate the problem. I concede that there are potential issues with roster construction in New Jersey, that maybe the mix of bodies just isn’t quite right to generate a brand of hockey that is not infuriating to watch.
Here’s the thing, though: coaching changes can and have drastically reshaped the fortunes of many franchises, not just in hockey, but in most major professional sports. Examples abound of teams who jettison a voice at the top, replace them with a new one and see substantially different results with a largely intact group of players on the field/court/ice. Here’s just a few off the top of my head (coaching record information from the Sports-Reference family of sites):
- Last year’s Vancouver Canucks fired head coach Travis Green after a putrid 8-15-2 start; after hiring Bruce Boudreau to replace him, the team responded by going 32-15-10 and finishing a stone’s throw from the playoffs.
- In baseball, the 2022 Philadelphia Philles fired their manager Joe Girardi when they were seven games under .500 in June and heading toward another lost season and are now awaiting the start of the National League Championship Series, which they will be participating in.
- Just up the Turnpike near the Devils’ old stomping grounds, the football Giants are now sitting on more victories (5) under Brian Daboll in six games in 2022 than they had under Joe Judge (4) during the 17 games in 2021.
- Even the Devils have examples of coaches changing fortunes, with the 2010-11 season being the starkest example. The Devils were the very worst team in the league under John MacLean (9-22-2) and then rebounded for an excellent 29-17-3 record under Jacques Lemaire that included an insane 23-3-2 stretch to claw them to the edge of the playoff race before they ran out of steam.
I’m not saying that replacing the coach is a magic bullet, there are certainly plenty of teams who made a change and then continued to tread water under the new head coach. The bottom line in response to the “it’s not just the coach” vein of thinking, though, is this: you can’t fire the whole team. The players are all under contract, the team is still quite young in the Devils’ case, and tearing a team town to the studs can require years of work and patience that may or may not have a payoff at the end anyway. Maybe you hate looking at Damon Severson’s seven-trillionth boneheaded turnover of his career, or think that the group of forwards has too many finesse-types who can’t win a board battle, or maybe you think the players just don’t have the fire to stop the spiral... perhaps there is something to the roster that doesn’t work. Sometimes a group just needs the right voice, though, and it is becoming increasingly clear that Lindy Ruff ain’t that guy.
I said it on Sunday morning in a not-so-family-friendly tweet, but I will state it here in more appropriate terms: I’m sure Lindy Ruff is a good dude. He has lived a whole life at the rink and likely forgotten more about hockey tactics than I will ever hope to learn here in the peanut gallery. I don’t know that he is the issue. He does not appear to be the solution, though. Perhaps he is a victim of goaltending or bad luck or whatever excuse we can cook up, but let’s give someone else the opportunity to change the direction of this ship before it plows into the iceberg once again.
This season has the feeling of a situation that could rapidly spiral and the longer the Devils wait to act, the higher the likelihood that this one ends on the same draft lottery scrap heap as almost all of the previous 10 have landed. Most people will concede that the Devils have plenty of talent, and even if the goaltenders are not world-beaters, they’ve provided enough games of above-replacement-level performance in other systems to think that there is a way to get, I don’t know, at least .900-ish goaltending out of this team. Sometimes a locker room just needs a new voice and a new direction, and the Devils are a team that seems to need a new outlook on the ice as much as any squad you could imagine.
The status quo cannot remain in New Jersey and the Devils’ best chance right now to change it in a hurry is to install a new leader behind the bench. Whether that leader is new assistant Andrew Brunette, or Utica boss Kevin Dineen, or some other outside candidate, it would be tough to make things much worse than they’ve been the past few years, so let’s get on with it.