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Do the Devils Already Have Their Next Head Coach?

Lindy Ruff is probably a lame duck at this point. But the Devils may not have to look far for their next head coach. In fact, he might already be on the payroll.

Edmonton Oilers v Florida Panthers Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

If you pulled aside random Devils fans off of the street and asked them what the team’s main issue was, chances are the general consensus would be they can’t buy a save. I discussed that in more detail last week so I won’t belabor the point, other than to say that I concur, the goaltending stinks. But as I also brought up last week, that doesn’t give everyone else a free pass. The easiest change to make is nearly always behind the bench, and that will likely be the first big change the Devils make this offseason. The question then becomes who will replace Lindy Ruff as head coach?

I want to be clear that I am not rooting for Ruff to be fired. His tenure in New Jersey has been plagued by misfortune and bad timing. Between last year’s COVID situation, the goaltending health/performance both last season and this season, and various other injury issues, Ruff has had his work cut out for him. I also don’t think the team has ever quit on Ruff. In other circumstances, where the organization had more than one playoff appearance in the last decade, I would argue that he deserves a shot at coaching this team through a more normal season. But these are not other circumstances, no one knows when the next “normal” season will be, and while Ruff hasn’t been a disappointment (I still prefer him to Hynes, for example) he also hasn’t exceeded expectations. To use a goaltending analogy, Ruff hasn’t stopped any of the ones he wasn’t supposed to stop. I am not rooting for his termination, but I do think a change is for the best, and I would be very surprised if the Devils aren’t in the coaching market this summer.

What should the Devils be looking for in their next head coach?

First, something every good coach should be attempting to accomplish: play to the team’s strengths, while minimizing or working around their weaknesses. This is a fast-paced, up-tempo roster. It would be a mistake to hire someone who will attempt to suppress that in the name of defensive systems. Yes, that means no Torts. At the same time, this is a team that has struggled with defensive positioning, awareness, and coverage. This is an issue across the entire roster, not just on the back-end. The next coach should be someone who can put enough structure in defensively to ease the burden on the goaltending without being overly passive or killing any offensive creativity. Am I asking for the world? Or for someone to turn chicken poop into chicken salad? I have no idea.

The next coach should also be someone who can communicate well with younger players (again, sorry Torts). This isn’t optional. The Devils have one of the youngest rosters in the league with several highly touted prospects on their way in the coming years. The old militaristic, drill sergeant style coaching is long gone and good riddance. It was dumb back in the 80s and 90s and probably only worked on occasion out of sheer luck or because the team was talented enough to overcome deficiencies at the coaching position. Now, not every hardo coach was compensating for a lack of communication skills. Some of them (Torts, Hitchcock) actually knew what they were doing, but that still doesn’t mean I think they’d be good fits for this roster. This team doesn’t need more try, they need different ideas. A good example of this is Pete Deboer. Hate on his press conferences or body language all you want, players (most recently Patrik Elias and Ryan Carter on Spittin’ Chiclets) raved about his coaching and communication and he’s taken multiple teams to the Stanley Cup final.

There are other important qualities that I’m missing, I’m sure. We probably have to throw, “don’t be complicit in covering up sexual abuse because you’re worried it could be a distraction,” into the mix. And don’t be mentally or physically abusive to your players. I know, I’m setting a really high bar.

Admittedly, I am not very knowledgeable with regards to which up and coming coaches are next in line for NHL jobs. Here to help is ESPN reporter Emily Kaplan, who wrote a column on this subject last year. It’s a very thorough list. Some of the standouts are longtime Swedish National team head coach Rikard Gronborg who has been the hipster pick for every head coaching job for the last 5 years or so. I wouldn’t hate it, by all accounts he is well-respected by his players and his main limitation is, ‘being European’. He’d be a tough sell for some fans given his lack of NHL experience, but I think the Devils could do much worse. Lane Lambert is another name on the list who has been on the radar for a few years that I recognize. He is a longtime assistant of Barry Trotz’s since his days in Nashville. My only concern with him would be my earlier point about not stifling offense for the sake of defensive structure, which is a trademark of Barry Trotz hockey. This team isn’t built for that. Lambert isn’t necessarily going to copy Trotz’s style just because he’s an assistant on Trotz’s staff, but I’d still be less excited about that hire.

Someone who didn’t make Kaplan’s list, and someone I would love to see get his shot behind the bench in Newark next season, is Utica Comets head coach, Kevin Dineen. Dineen has had all of the success for the Devil’s AHL affiliate that the NHL club has been lacking. The Comets currently have a 27-6-5-0 record (that’s 27 wins, 6 losses, 5 OT losses, 0 shootout losses) to lead their division and conference with 59 points in 38 games played. This is after the franchise finished last in their division in 2021 with 7 wins in 35 games. The Comets have scored the 3rd most goals in the AHL (141) and surrendered the 3rd fewest (96). It’s debatable whether either stat has anything to due directly with coaching, but it speaks to the results the team has had on both ends of the ice under his instruction. Certainly the AHL roster has had some turnover since last season, notably at the goaltending position, but their are a lot of familiar faces as well and AHL rosters are notorious for turnover not just year-to-year, but from game-to-game, as the big club makes roster moves due to injury, illness, and performance. Managing all of that, particularly for a franchise that has needed a lot of help from the farm team, is impressive in its own right. Dineen has had the good fortune of elite goaltending in his time in Utica. Akira Schmid leads the AHL in save percentage at .947 and Daws is 8th at .917. That shouldn’t be ignored, but it also seems a little coincidental that both goalies excelled in Utica, but can’t stop a beach ball in New Jersey. I’m not convinced it can be explained away as rookies who aren’t ready for the NHL.

Dineen isn’t some newcomer to the coaching profession either. In addition to a lot of AHL head coaching experience, which includes several 100 point seasons and winning the Louis A. R. Pieri Memorial Award in 2006 (the AHLs equivalent of the Jack Adams), Dineen spent 2.5 seasons coaching the Florida Panthers, where they took the Devils to 7 games in the 2012 playoffs. He coached the Canadian Women’s team to an Olympic Gold Medal in 2014 and won a Stanley Cup in 2015 while serving as an assistant with the Blackhawks. He has the qualifications and experience and has shown the ability to coach a winning team. And certainly he has his fans among the players in Utica. Recently, Alex Holtz spoke to Ben Birnell of the Rome Sentinel and had this to say of Dineen:

“I would say he’s been the best coach I’ve had. He helps me on and off the ice. I think I speak for all the guys that we like having him here,” Holtz said. “Small things he tells me all the time. I take in what he says.”

When the time comes to hire the Devils next coach, I hope Dineen gets a good long look.

Your Thoughts

Do you think Ruff will be let go after this season? Do you think he should get another year or is it time for a change? Who should the Devils next coach be? Do you agree that Dineen deserves a shot in New Jersey? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!