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Help Yourself, Lindy Ruff; Help the Devils Goalies

The 2021-22 New Jersey Devils are bad and are on pace for being the worst team in franchise history during the salary cap era. What can head coach Lindy Ruff do? This post goes into detail with suggestions for Ruff that can help out the goaltenders and help himself in the process.

Arizona Coyotes v New Jersey Devils
You can help yourself and the Devils by helping the Devils goalies.
Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

Before going into the meat of this post - which you can figure out from the title - I have to go off on a tangent. I assure you, this is applicable to the New Jersey Devils.

After a really poor performance last season under a head coach’s first season in the organization, the second season has been almost as bad. Perhaps worse due to the lack of visible improvement. Any gains are in the details but certainly not in anything like in points or wins. Which are the things that all of these decision-makers, analytics people, trainers, and the players all work for.

I have to say that perhaps the head coach is getting a raw deal. For one, the team has suffered quite a bit both last season and this season with injuries and COVID. Has the team played even half of their games so far with their best players even available to play? Not to mention that the head coach isn’t a player. He’s not out there to make plays. He can’t do it for them. Yet, when they fail, he suffers.

And let us not forget the state of the personnel in some their most important positions. Sure, they may not be all that good. They may actually be bad. But they’ve been dinged up at best and outright too hurt to perform at worst. Shutting them down was necessary. Yet, can you really blame the coaches if the second, third, or even sub-third-stringers are not that good? If they were any good, they would be starters or at least regulars elsewhere. How can anyone seriously determine if the head coach and his staff are doing a good job with a less than 100% roster and possibly-real-bad players at key positions?

Quite frankly, I think ownership may be out of touch. Sure, they provided the money and sign off on the deals that the GM wants to make. Sure, they have to have a say because they own the team. But they cannot just be so rash after just two seasons to actually fire the head coach.

I am stunned. I cannot believe that the New York Football Giants would fire Joe Judge. I just can’t.

OK, the situation in East Rutherford was not exactly the same as it is in Newark. (Aside: See, I can make a sarcastic point in less than 500 words. And, for the record, Judge and Gettleman deserved to go.)

However, it came to my mind as the Devils still waddle in the depths of the standings along with two big pieces of news in the NHL last week. After the Devils crushed Montreal 7-1, head coach Dominique Ducharme was fired. Earlier this year, he was behind the bench for the Canadiens’ Cinderella-like run to the Stanley Cup Finals. While a downturn could have been predicted by anyone, you would think that would have bought him some goodwill for at least this season. A season that saw Shea Weber and Carey Price be unavailable prior to this season. But then the GM who named him and extended him that season was fired. Eight wins in 45 games later, Ducharme was out. That firing was the big news on Wednesday. On Thursday, there was another pink slip handed out. Edmonton head coach Dave Tippett was fired. The Oilers have been slumping and the possibility of wasting another prime season out of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl by missing the playoffs was real. The goal for the Oilers (or at least what it should be) was to contend for a Pacific Division title and make a run for the Cup. Their current path under Tippett was to get torched while leaning on a 40-year old Mike Smith in back-to-back games just after he recovered from injury. Edmonton management (finally) realized this was not working and made the change.

With Montreal firing Ducharme in spite of their season being done-and-dusted already and Edmonton dumping Tippett to try to save their season, one has to wonder. What about about New Jersey? The team with a point percentage just above 40% prior to Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh? The team with just 17 wins in 49 games this season? Shouldn’t the Devils make similar changes?

While playoffs may have not been the expectation, the goal was to play some meaningful games in the Spring. That failed just as the calendar flipped to 2022. The People Who Matter are coping by reducing expectations to “not be last,” or trying to accept it as it is while not wanting any change behind the bench or in the front office. Whether you agree or not, this is a results-oriented business and Fitzgerald-Ruff Era has earned a combined 36 wins in 105 games with last season and this season. Even if the seat does not appear to be hot - partially due to no one closely covering the Devils - it surely is not cold. I do not think anyone can honestly say the Devils would not be justified if they did decide to pull the trigger on Ruff and go with an interim for the remainder of this season. (And this can apply to Fitzgerald too)

To be fair, the Giants, Canadiens, and Oilers firings have one aspect in common that may not be the case in New Jersey: losing the room. Judge infamously cut press conferences about players claiming to call him up about wanting to the play for the team amid a 4-win season. That was false and disgruntlement in the locker room with each passing week of ugly losses. For Montreal, the team was a bit quieter but definitely going through the motions with every passing week of losses. There was definitely a sense of the team not listening as the Devils dropped a touchdown and extra point on them. For Edmonton, Tippett publicly beefed with backup goaltender Mikko Koskinen among other signs. If the backup goalie is calling out the coach about how he can’t score goals, then I cannot imagine the environment in the locker room favors Tippett. Generally in sports, losing the room is a death sentence for any coach. Especially if the team is bad. At the least, there’s no indication that Ruff has lost or is losing the room. Should Ruff make it all the way to May 2022 as Devils head coach, that may be why.

If he does not and he does not lose the room, then expect one thing to be pointed to as to why: goaltending. There will be much hand-wringing about this. This happens a lot, especially online, when a coach gets fired in hockey. Coach X gets fired? Look at the team’s save percentage. Coach X may not actually be bad at their job; they were just a victim of bad goaltending. Poor Coach X. Bad goaltender(s). Intentionally or not, this argument explains why there are so many re-treads among coaches. Ironically or not, this is lost on the same people who do the hand-wringing. With the Devils currently owning the 31st best team save percentage in 5-on-5 play (89.61% after Sunday’s games), I can almost guarantee this will be brought up should Ruff get the axe. And his defenders will never stop reminding you of it. Ditto with injuries - although that didn’t keep Ducharme from losing his job or other teams with significant losses from excelling (e.g. Pittsburgh this season).

They will not be wrong. Do not misunderstand me. I know the Devils’ goaltending has been bad. You know it. The world knows it. I am not arguing that it is not bad or that it is not a problem. It is a problem. My issue is that it is not the only significant problem with the team. There is the argument that if the Devils had decent goaltending, then they would be good and poor Ruff (and maybe even Fitzgerald) would not be on any kind of hot seat. The Devils would absolutely be better with a better team save percentage, certainly. But good? Not so fast.

After Sunday’s games, the league median team save percentage in 5-on-5 - which is where the Devils are in the most pain - is 92.23%. Had the Devils received that level of goaltending all season and assuming they allowed the same quantity and quality of shots (1232, seventh highest in the NHL by count), then they would have let up about 96 goals instead of 128 goals in 5-on-5 (which is the most in the NHL by count as well). That difference of 32 would be good for about five wins as a goal differential improvement of six is worth a win. Ten more points would boost the Devils up from 39 to 49. That would put the Devils in fifth place just ahead of Columbus in the division standings by two points (who would have three games in hand on New Jersey). They would still be an incredible long shot to catch Boston for a wild card spot. Eight points behind the B’s with Boston owning three games in hand on the Devils, to be exact. The Devils would still not play any meaningful games in March and April unless you think there is meaning in competing to be the best non-playoff team in the East. (Spoiler: There isn’t.) They would likely still be sellers by the trade deadline regardless. It would point to the team heading in a better direction, but that is just about it. Several of the People Who Matter would still be disappointed with the season as a whole. The main point here: the 2021-22 Devils have several problems in addition to goaltending.

(Also: The Devils did get actually good goaltending in November and won just five out of thirteen games from it. So there’s that too.)

Goaltending has been bad but it is not going to be the only thing that is sinking Ruff in New Jersey. It was bad in Montreal and Edmonton to lesser degrees, but they were not the only reasons why Ducharme and Tippett are now team-less. Anymore than Judge was let go because Daniel Jones wasn’t very good. Tempting as it is, it is foolish to just write off this season or state that Ruff’s performance cannot be properly analyzed because of goaltending (or injuries for that matter). Instead, a closer look can find some areas where Ruff can make adjustments to help improve things. No, he may not turn the Devils’ group of goalies into top NHL shot-stoppers. But he can help them by reducing the number of difficult situations they face, assisting the offense such that they are not giving up counter-attacks, and put them in a better position to succeed. This may be a path for more wins, fewer disappointing losses, and a better feeling by April 29 than it was on January 29.

I am earnest about this. I could easily write essays about how Ruff has failed. Of course, the standings and increasingly empty Prudential Center do better jobs of that for me. The season may be lost, but that does not mean at least Ruff has to get a pink slip for it before it is over. Whether Ruff is interested in staying or wants to end his coaching career on a high note, I think he can at least earn some goodwill before the season’s end. I have some suggestions where he can help his goalies - and, by extension, help his team and his own job.

Turn Down the Aggressive 5-on-5 Play

Since Lindy Ruff joined the organization, two major tactical shifts have happened under the Devils. One: Defensemen are free to shoot and activate as they see fit. The Devils play a high-low style of offense when set up in the offensive zone. The forwards win a puck in deep, they find someone at the point - usually a defenseman - open, and then the attack begins in earnest. With those spots on the ice usually open, there can be a shot (which can be tipped or create a rebound) or a defenseman can go in deeper to catch the opposition off guard. Two: On defense in 5-on-5, the Devils tend to overload on the puck carrier or the side of the zone where the puck is. The idea is to pressure the puck carrier or have extra bodies available to win picks, stop the opposition, and be able to make a quick zone exit. The latter can create opportunities off the rush for forwards to take shots from medium or high danger areas - also known as scoring chances.

Both have created an aggressive style of attacking and defending in 5-on-5 situations. Defensemen frequently shoot on this team. Among the 256 defensemen in the NHL with at least 100 minutes in 5-on-5 play, seven out of nine defensemen are in the upper half in attempted shots per 60 minutes. And the league leader om that stat is Dougie Hamilton. The defenders shoot the puck a lot, even with Hamilton out for the past month. And while there are miscues at times, the Devils stick to swarming it up on defense. On the surface, this does not seem to be bad. The Devils are above 50% in Corsi, shots, expected goals, and scoring chances. The overloading on defense has yielded counter attacks that create chances for the offense. And killing plays when they can has been a big factor as to why their rate of high danger chances allowed is relatively low at 9.88 per 60 minutes. This is all good. Or at least, it definitely is not bad.

The problem is that both of these tactics are risky and when it fails, it fails big time. The defensemen shooting as much as it does is more likely to create blocked shots, missed shots, and fairly easy shots for goalies to stop. This is how the Devils can create over 20 shooting attempts in a period and struggle to get half of them on net. The concept of those long bombs creating rebound opportunities or tip-ins makes logical sense. It has not happened nearly enough times in Devils games to make it work. And that’s a best case scenario. The failures come when there is a turnover, a pinch-in or activation by a defensemen gets beaten, or a shot blocked up high in the zone. This can and does create odd man rushes and counter-attacking opportunities, which creates scoring chances for the opposition and can put goaltenders - Devils goaltenders who are struggling - in tough spots having to make a save on a scoring chance they may likely get beat on. Given that this approach does not always yield goals and can help create goals against, it has worked against the Devils at times even if the overall picture by way of expected goals or shooting opportunities work out.

As for the overloading on defense, the issue is the same when a football team blitzes on defense. If the pressure gets to the quarterback, then it can work quite well. When it does not, the defense can often be at the mercy of the offense. If an opposing team can move the puck before the overloading comes, or recognize the other Devils skaters are confused as to who is supposed to cover the weakside or the slot, then they can find a lot of open space to work with for shots. In this league, someone getting wide open within 30 feet of the net - even if it is only a “medium danger chance” - is bad news. The goalie may do his best but may end up being beaten for it. This is how a team can have something like a fairly low HDCA/60 or a positive expected goals percentage and fans lament the defensive performance on a nightly basis.

Aside: The Devils have the fourth highest medium danger chance rate in 5-on-5 prior to Sunday’s games. (It’s 18.37 per 60, right behind the two New York teams and Chicago, a hair ahead of Columbus.) Medium danger chances are shots from the high slot, the inside halves of the circles, and the area from the faceoff dots to the sides of the crease. They’re still good locations to shoot from - they are all scoring chances. A low HDCA is great, but that’s only two parts of the zone to cover. It alone does not mean an opponent being kept to the outside. The other areas relatively close to the net need defending too.

The suggestion here is not to throw away those plans and put in something else. The season is 49 games old. The Devils, for all of its flaws, run these plays as intended. The key here is to modify them. Adjust them. Change it up a bit. Whatever it is, they should have the idea of being less aggressive on them.

For offense, I would suggest having the defensemen to pull back a bit. They do not need to activate if they see a glimmer of space. They do not need to fire through 3-5 bodies from 50-60 feet away at most moments. The ask would be to have them look for an option down low before considering a shot or going in deep. Or have a forward come out to the middle or sideboards area as a safety valve if there’s no shot or play from the point to be made. The general idea would be to reduce the number of opportunities for plays to fall apart at the point. If an attack is going to fail, then try to do so where the team is not going to be on their heels backchecking or out-numbered immediately after a turnover.

This can also yield a potential opportunity for other forwards to be firing away more often. This is good as the Devils have several forwards who have been inconsistent at best when it comes to production. As much as - to pick some examples - Tomas Tatar, Andreas Johnsson, and Corner-Seeker Pavel Zacha among others have struggled for stretches, they are not going to create or score goals if they are constantly cleaning up after a defenseman fires away a long shot or battling to create said long shot. Fewer odd man rushes for Devils goalies to deal with and possibly some more scoring opportunities for forwards? I think it is worth trying.

As for the defense, I would suggest just dialing back the overloading. Use it more judiciously. It has been commented offhand that the Devils’ 5-on-5 defense is unorthodox. It is that way for a reason. It asks a lot of the non-overloading players to know where they need to be and who to cover. It also puts pressure on the overloaders to, well, win with their overloading. If the play is in the corner and forwards are back already, then go for it. If it seems that all five skaters are on one side and the opposition isn’t, then someone (the goalie? the bench?) needs to call that out and know to break from it. The answer is not to sit in a shell and just collapse around the slot over and over like a John Tortorella Rangers team. Engagement is working. The issue is that it is happening too often and opposing teams are beating it. Maybe not a lot, but it only takes a few times to get a few goals and have that be the difference between a win and a loss. Sure, overloading less often may yield fewer quick counters and early denials of an attack. But if it means fewer opponents being wide open due to the pressure being beat and/or a Devil not understanding where they need to be during it, then that helps the goalie and the team overall.

Again, the key idea is to adjust these primary ways of playing. Not to throw it all away and doing something more traditional. Sure, that worked with the penalty kill, but that was closer to the beginning of the season and it was with something several players on the team knew. This late in the season, it will be hard to get everyone on the same page to do something else. So adjust. Turn down the aggression and that can give the team a break from defensive breakdowns, cut down on costly counter-attacks from offense, and

Please Use All Four or Even Five Players in a Power Play or At Least Get the Puck in Deeper

The Devils run a 1-3-1 formation on their power play. This is common in today’s NHL. What is not common is how the Devils run it. The puck is primarily handled and passed between the back one - usually a defenseman - and the two wings among the three. The man in the middle is just there to keep the PK honest and jump in if a puck gets in close. The man in front is there to screen a goalie. While the Devils’ power play has yielded some results, how they execute it also explains how they give up shorthanded opportunities to their opponents.

Sure, the Devils have given up just 8 shorthanded goals on their power plays. That is also the most in the NHL. Additionally, their power play’s expected goals against count is 5.28 - also the highest in the NHL. This is not good for what should be an offensive situation. It definitely does not help the goalie, as the majority of the shorthanded attempts they allow are scoring chances. While the Devils have allowed a not-so-high 59 attempts shorthanded (league median is 59), 37 of them were scoring chances (among the most in the NHL) and all 8 goals against were off scoring chances. It definitely does not help the team trying to punish an opponent for a foul, as a SHGA can really undercut or outright lose a game. (Hello, 4-6 loss in Toronto). It gives a fan a reason to actually worry when a power play is called.

What can be done? An adjustment is appropriate. Sit down with Mark Recchi and figure out how to get four or even all five skaters involved when they get set up on the power play. Sure, there are other issues. Such as the fact the Devils have only one functional power play unit, their methods of entry are not consistently leading to set-ups, and some of their best successes on power plays have come from the players not even getting set up and scoring off the rush. Those are issues to address too. From the perspective of helping the goalie and not having power plays turn into goals against, this is the one to start with.

The formation has the Devils in the right place, but they are often static and so only those three players are actually open to distribute the puck. An adjustment to flare out the man in front - Nathan Bastian in recent weeks - so he can be an option to receive a quick pass down low can be worth trying. It can force the penalty kill to respect him, opening up a potential lane to the bumper player (the man in the middle) or catch them unaware with a quick pass back. Rotating the three players so it is not the same player on the walls or in the middle can also help and also force the PK to focus on something other than the back half of the zone. Consider having the wingers to move up and down to change the shape so it is not just one man at the center point. These are just ideas. But the larger point is that there is absolutely room for change. Given that the Devils power play is still in the bottom end of the league when it comes to creating shot attempts, shots, and scoring chances, it would be warranted.

From the perspective of “help the goalies,” whatever that can lead to fewer lost pucks at the point would be great. It would absolutely reduce the number of chances for opposing teams to break ahead shorthanded for a great opportunity at goal. That would stem the bleeding they already had on their power plays this season. It would be great if they could yield more looks on net (and with that, more power play goals), too. But that is a starting point for change on the power play.

Sort it Out with Dave Rogalski

Consider this: The Devils’ goaltenders this season have all been bad. We know Bernier got hurt and is out for the season after 10 appearances. We know Blackwood has fallen off in December and January and he was playing hurt, obscuring the issue of whether he was just in a slump or just not good. We know that Nico Daws and Akira Schmid were (and are) very good in Utica but were real bad in New Jersey. Jon Gillies is the team’s best available option right now. And his save percentage took a big hit from the win over St. Louis to fall below 90% in all situations.

Did Tom Fitzgerald collect the one of the worst groups of goaltenders possible? Maybe. Or is there something else not working out? As much as Recchi has been criticized (and deservedly so to a degree) for the power play and Alain Nasreddine has been criticized for defensive miscues (and deservedly so to a degree), shouldn’t the goaltenders coach get some heat for these goalies performing this way? Who is that anyway? It is Dave Rogalski.

Rogalski was hired back on October 2020. When he was hired, the team highlighted how much he cares, a past connection with Martin Brodeur when Rogalski and Brodeur were with the Blues, and how he has shared his work. Nothing about whether the Blues goaltenders were better with him. Or any kind of notable improvement in any goaltender over the last two seasons of Devils hockey. Given the importance of the position, that is a bit concerning.

One would think the coach has some role in how the goaltenders perform - whether it someone expected to be the starter or a call-up or a new player to the organization. With the Devils’ team save percentage being low as it is in 5-on-5 and in all situations (Read: Power play and 5-on-5. The Devils goalies have been fine in shorthanded situations this season.), we cannot say that Rogalski is certainly elevating the players or assisting them when they struggle. We can say Blackwood was better under Roland Melanson, the team’s goalie coach from 2017 to the early end to the 2019-20 season. I would love to know why. I think it is more important for Ruff and the staff (Fitzgerald too) to understand why. Harsh as it may seem, I think accountability alone demands at least a tough conversation with Rogalski regarding what he is doing in New Jersey and whether he has a future here.

And if turns out he’s not, then the answer is simple. Move on professionally and find a new goalie coach to help out the goalies. Teams fire coaches during seasons. Why not assistants or specialty coaches? I understand that contracts may get in the way. But given that goaltending is this significant problem, the coach dedicated to the position needs to be held account. Should Rogalski recognize the flaws and work to make some improvements with the individual goalies, leading to better performances; then great. Keep him then. But only then.

Do Not Rush Mackenzie Blackwood Back to the Crease

It has to be stated. Putting Blackwood in at less than 100% is more likely going to lead to less than 100% performances from him. It will further make it harder for Tom Fitzgerald and others to decide if Blackwood should still be their starter or if they need to move on this offseason. Jon Gillies is doing the best he can and he’s healthy. He is nothing more than a stop-gap for this season. Fine. Let him be a stop-gap. The season is lost; let Blackwood fully recover before giving him starts. Key word: Fully.

If he is fully healthy and he is still a liability between the pipes, then the difficult conversations can be had about whether he’s someone to keep in New Jersey and who they could get to replace him. However, that cannot really happen if Blackwood is back in games before he should be. Ruff, you made this mistake earlier this season. There is no value to repeating it.

Do Not Overthink Your Lineup Decisions

One of the actual positives under Ruff is that he has been willing to move forwards around a lineup if something is not working out. Yesterday saw the Devils start with Hischier and Hughes together. That combo did not even last a period. However, it also saw adjustments that were essentially not helpful. Putting Michael McLeod to win a defensive zone faceoff is not helpful if the run of play is still going to stay in the Devils’ end even if he does win it. As this member of the People Who Matter put it in a FanPost, the Devils appear to have a McLeod problem.

However, this goes beyond McLeod’s usage. It goes into utilizing players appropriately in matchups with opposing players and who works out with who. It may make sense to put more defensively responsible forwards in front of Ty Smith and P.K. Subban. It may make sense to tell the pairing behind Jack Hughes’ line to let Hughes cook instead of winging 50-footers on faceoffs. And so forth. Ruff, you have had 49 games with this team and a lot of time with each player to know what they can and cannot do well. While injuries and bad nights will happen, you should have a feel by now of what forward lines and defensive pairings make sense. You do not need to galaxy-brain it with moves like throwing McLeod out for a draw because you do not trust Hischier or Dawson Mercer or Hughes only to find out that the faceoff is meaningless and McLeod isn’t getting out of his own end.

Aim for 33 Wins

The worst team in New Jersey Devils history in the salary cap era in terms of point percentage was the 2021 Devils under Lindy Ruff. They earned just 40.2% of all possible points by going 19-30-7. Of course, that was the 56-game season impacted by COVID with a very compressed schedule that allowed little time for practice and playing the same seven opponents all season. The worst 82-game season in the salary cap era is owned by the 2016-17 Devils, where they took 42.7% of the points by going 28-40-14. That was the second season under Ray Shero and Tom Fitzgerald. The team was still tearing it down and trying to build everything back up from behind the scenes to the prospect pool to the roster itself then. The People Who Matter understood a season like that would come from a rebuilding effort. That goodwill and patience is not there anymore in 2022, where the current team is 17-27-5 and sitting at 39.8% points earned. Which is just below than Ruff’s first season with the Devils.

While the playoffs are not going to happen and the games may not mean much, setting a goal can help induce some motivation for the remainder of this season. Something to shoot for. Something to show some actual progress. Something that may show that hiring you was a good idea by Tom Fitzgerald. Something that may help should you continue elsewhere in hockey. And something to help further drive wanting to make some much-needed adjustments that can help the team succeed if only by making life a little easier for the goaltenders. Here it is: 33 wins.

Lou’s last season with the Devils before he was pushed out for Ray Shero, who promptly began a re-build - which included Tom Fitzgerald, the man who hired Lindy Ruff, was in 2014-15. The Devils went 32-36-14 for 78 points and a point percentage of 47.6%. This is a mark that the Devils have beaten exactly twice: 2019-20, which ended the season early but still had a better point percentage; and the one playoff season in 2017-18. To show that the team is still on the better path and that a second season of Lindy Ruff Hockey can be better than the first of that, finishing with a record close should be a good goal. At least, it will make Fitzgerald’s end of season review with ownership a little easier. A good goal to get there is to surpass it in wins.

Why wins and not points? Getting to 80 points from 39 right now is remarkably difficult. That would mean taking 41 out of a potential 64 in the team’s next 34 games. That would mean a point percentage of 64%. That would be asking a lot for a team that has been at 40% so far this season. But 33 wins? That would mean taking 16 out of the team’s 34 games, or winning just less than half of the remaining games. It would be hard, yes; but a lot more doable than taking 64% of all points. It would also be a visible improvement more than just stats like CF% or xGF%. It could even bring some of the People Who Matter back into watching this team or paying some more attention knowing that the Devils could indeed win some games. Given that even their seven-game losing streak included 3 close (read: winnable) games to Los Angeles, at Carolina, and at Tampa Bay plus being a period away from winning in Toronto, it is not an issue that the Devils cannot hang with really good teams. It is in finding the details and adjustments to turn some of those close losses into points and wins on the board.

To get there would require improvements in the team’s performances in all aspects outside of the already-good penalty kill. If we assume the goalies are bad, then helping them out by reducing the number of counter-attacking opportunities, odd man rush opportunities, and scoring chances through system adjustments can absolutely lead to fewer goals against. Some of those adjustments could even yield some more goals. Both can lead to more wins. I’ve already written about how tanking really should not be something the Devils do this season. I still stand by it. Mike wrote about not being last as a goal. As much as I can agree with Mike, I suggest aiming higher. The rest of the team, who is following your gameplans almost to a fault, may follow and get more achievements than they have already. Even if they fall a little short of 33 wins, we can at least easily see an improved team in your second season, Ruff. Even if it is your last one in New Jersey, it can at least help out the guy who hired you to New Jersey.

A Sidebar to Tom Fitzgerald

If you want to help the motivation aspect, I suggest making it clear to Gillies that he’s playing for a contract in the NHL. Even if there’s no future here in New Jersey, a decent few months will garner him some interest in the larger hockey world. I would also make it clear to Daws and Schmid that performing well could mean more games in New Jersey and more days being paid at the NHL rate on their contracts. They may know this already and it is not like they are not trying. But hearing it from someone in power can only help. You may also want to do this with other players - like a certain 6’3” Czech forward a lot of the People Who Matter think needs some.

Concluding Thoughts

These suggestions are just that: suggestions. By no means am I stating that if the Devils do this, their 5-on-5 save percentage will rise from being just above 89% to around a league-median of 92%. Or that if the goalies are within a half-goal of the expected goals model more often, then things will be fine. Per J.P.’s post about Washington’s more recent goaltending issues (go read it, it’s fantastic), the Devils are surprisingly within expected goal model expectations more often than most NHL teams - it’s that they’re often either OK or real bad. Or that any coach can suddenly make goalies make the big saves, the little saves, the big saves that stop being big because they didn’t win, and the little saves that become big because they did. Or that if these are implemented and they work out like I hope, then the Devils do not have to worry about the position for next season and beyond.

What I am stating is that there are things that Lindy Ruff and his staff can do to make life easier for a struggling Devils goaltender group. By extension, this can help the team stay in more games and perhaps win more of them to try to end this season a better note than it is right now. This will not turn bad goalies into great goalies. This is meant to reduce the potential pain of goaltending to be a more manageable in games. And to do so while not trying to completely change the entire system of playing after 49-50 games of it in a season.

Goaltending has always been this blind spot for analytics-minded people and non-analytics people alike. There’s not a lot there to analyze outside of save percentage and expected goals models. Two stats (among others) that do not and can not take into account real causes for goals against like pre-shot puck movement, screens, rebound control, and shot-placement. Or those lucky/unlucky bounces, deflections, and other chaotic moments that helps make hockey hockey. The position itself is rife with success bias and a lot of variance. For example: Carter Hart went from posting a sub-88% save percentage in 5-on-5 in 2021 to a more decent 91% level this season and Philly is somehow worse in spite of it. Why? I wish I knew more about the position and how it is played to tell you what Hart is doing differently. Assuming he is doing anything differently at all.

I do know that how a team plays, how they are structured, and who is involved can at least provide some relief (or pain) for the people between the pipes. Not to a point where a good team can make a bad goalie good or a good goalie great. But at least to make their lives a little easier. Given how much details matter and how little margins can be in pro sports, it can help the cause. Even if it does not work, Ruff can at least say he tried. I do not think many Devils fans or people in the organization would argue against adjustments and non-wholesale changes. Better that than throwing players under the bus publicly or privately or just shrugging and just resorting to “Goalies bad, what do you want me to do?” Try to help them.

That is the main theme that I think can at least keep your job going for this season: Help your goalies out, Lindy Ruff. To summarize the suggestions: Adjust your system to be less aggressive and it should reduce the number of dangerous situations they have to stop. To cut back on shorties, work with Recchi to make the power play involve more players and not reliant on three players above the faceoff dots. Sort out whatever issues there may be with the goalie coach. Don’t rush back Blackwood or overthink your decisions. Set a goal for the remainder of this season so everyone has something to play for even if it is meaningless outside of the organization. Ideally one to show the team is making some kind of progress.

And don’t lose the locker room. Never lose the room. But you know that. I hope.

Thank you for reading.