Yesterday, the New Jersey Devils had their first round of final media sessions for the 2021-22 season. Call it locker room clean out day. Or break down day. Or exit interviews. Whatever it is, it is an opportunity for players to have their say before going away for the offseason. These sessions can and do reveal telling information about the player and perhaps what they would like to see going forward. There was plenty said by Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Dougie Hamilton, Jonathan Bernier, and more on Sunday. Today featured a few more players and a media availability for Lindy Ruff. Time to provide a later reaction to what was said earlier today.
World Championship Invitation Status Updates
First, some more updates for the World Championships - which will begins in Finland on May 13. Nico Hischier, Jonas Siegenthaler, Tomas Tatar, and Damon Severson stated they would participate. Jack Hughes said he would not. Two more were announced today: Dawson Mercer will play for Canada and Jon Gillies will play for the United States.
Really, USA Hockey? Gillies? I know that it is not easy to get players for the WCs after a NHL season. And he could be a third goaltender. But Gillies? Did you not see how he played this season? Gillies? Then again, what do I know. The team did well enough with Matt Tennyson and Matt Hellickson and took Bronze in 2021.
Notable Quotes from Players
Not as many quotes from players today. Or as many players. But here are a few of note.
Jesper Bratt: The biggest name to speak today among the players was the team’s leading scorer, Jesper Bratt. The pending restricted free agent had two items of note that stuck out to me. First, regarding his need for a new contract:
Bratt on his RFA status: "I'm focussing on doing everything I can to be a better player next season...hopefully the negotiation part will go well. I see New Jersey as my home. I've been part of an organization not succeeding...but, I want to be part of changing that"— Neal (@nealmchale) May 2, 2022
Second, Bratt joins Hughes as a player publicly endorsing Lindy Ruff from these sessions.
cont: to take the next step and that's kind of what he was brought into to start out this whole championship mentality with these players and I think it's been a thing...I'm looking forward to coming back to camp next year and keep working on his and grow into this mentality"— Neal (@nealmchale) May 2, 2022
My Take: First, about his pending free agency status. I think most like that he sees New Jersey as his home. As he is a restricted free agent, Bratt does not have much an option in his future. All New Jersey needs to do is qualify him - and he will - and then talk contract. All Bratt can actually do his hold out if things break down and there is a lot of time before that becomes a possibility. Bratt will likely get paid real well and let his agent do the work.
Second, Bratt was more specific in endorsing Ruff as a head coach. Whereas Hughes was likely going to be a great player regardless of who was the coach, Bratt saying that he helped his development does carry more weight. This past season points to Bratt being a first-line caliber winger, something he only kind-of fit in earlier seasons. That stated, I would still question the praise for working with young players given how much Ty Smith and Janne Kuokkanen struggled, how Yegor Sharangovich was ice cold for the first few months and did not heat up from a demotion, and how the staff could not get more out of the likes of Pavel Zacha or Michael McLeod. If you credit Ruff for the good, then you have to fault him for the bad or not-so-good. And, again, Ruff has led the team to a combined 47 wins in the last two seasons. I’m not seeing how this leads to a “championship mentality.” Still, Bratt has certainly played his way into being a core Devil, he should (and likely will) get paid like one, so Bratt favoring Ruff may not be ignored by management.
Yegor Sharangovich: Speaking of the Belarussian forward, Yegor Sharangovich spoke first today and acknowledge his poor start to the season. He had a different member of the organization to thank for helping him turn it around. A fan favorite and someone currently on the staff in Utica: Sergei Brylin.
On Brylin:— Neal (@nealmchale) May 2, 2022
"He helped me a lot...sometimes we talk about different plays. It's nice to talk with this guy cause he won 3 Cups, he's so smart and he's coaching 10 years already."
My Take: Brylin is not just someone who has been in the organization for a while. That he survived an upheaval in management speaks to his qualities. Sharangovich played under Brylin for two seasons. Clearly, there is a relationship there. It certainly helped as Sharangovich found the scoresheet more often and played his way back into the top six in the second half of the season. This begs a question: Why not promote Brylin? Or does he prefer his current role as an assistant in the AHL? Rather than seeing some of the People Who Matter wish for Stevens or Elias or another ex-player to get behind the bench in some capacity, why not someone who has the experience already in Sarge?
Dawson Mercer: Mercer acknowledged that he played in all 82 games for the team. He also had good things to say about the coaching staff. This part was more interesting to me, though:
Mercer asked if he's more comfortable at wing or center...said he's comfortable at both and has done 50/50 for most of his hockey playing career.— Neal (@nealmchale) May 2, 2022
Said he wants to prepare/fine-tune the details for playing both
My Take: This is important to know for Mercer’s future. I know some of the People Who Matter see him as a future pivot. Between injuries to others or Mercer’s own skills growing, putting him on the wing of either Hughes or Hischier would still be a viable idea. The versatility will be an asset. Coaches can move him around as needed, even within games should match-ups call for it. Rather than try to keep him to one given spot, I think there is merit in encouraging Mercer to work on both than just one position. Hopefully, the Devils will abide.
Pavel Zacha: Pavel Zacha did state he knows he needs to be “a little bit harder on pucks and creating chances and battles” on offense. Which has been true for years. Interesting to me, Zacha did address the trade rumors from earlier this season:
Pavel says he was never approached about a trade this season. Said he heard some of the talk, but no one with the team approached him about anything re: trade— Neal (@nealmchale) May 2, 2022
My Take: Zacha has no trade clauses in his contract - which is now near its end - so no one at the Devils did not have to talk to him about anything. I understand that it would be a polite courtesy to let a player know he may be moved. Although that is tricky to do. If the player gets hurt (like Zacha did around the trade deadline) or no one makes an offer for the player, then the team is stuck with someone they told they did not want around the team. That is not a good thing in general. Given that Zacha needs a new contract, meeting with the player about a potential trade would make more sense as to get a sense of whether he would be willing to sign an extension elsewhere and for about how much. Again, easier said than done as even asking the question could burn the relationship for good. This is all to say that I think the Devils were not really that interested in moving Zacha - and they did not. We shall see if that is true before July 13.
Jesper Boqvist also spoke and did not really say much of note. He did say “I’ve taken huge pride in that defensive side of it [playing center].” So there’s that.
The Main Event - The Lindy Ruff Media Session
Lindy Ruff was originally scheduled to speak to the media at 1 PM. Then that got pushed back to 1:30 PM It actually began just after 2 PM. Ruff had a lot to say and I think it all needs commentary. As you can tell, I pulled a lot of the information as reported by Neal McHale of Inside Hockey, who was also present at yesterday’s proceedings. This is all from him as it is the most comprehensive of what Ruff said earlier today.
First off, Ruff on the goaltending:
Ruff asked about the struggles in net: "If you look at the teams that do make it, a lot of the wins will fall on consistent goaltending. For two years now we've dealt with injuries, loss of important pieces. We lost both our goaltenders this year that we were counting on"— Neal (@nealmchale) May 2, 2022
My Take: It is true that losing goaltenders to injury is a bad thing for a team and often a bad stroke of luck. Ruff is not wrong in this statement. However, I read this as more of a rationale as to why this season went awry and not anything he did. Similar to Fitzgerald during his post-trade deadline press conference.
Second, Ruff goes into a little more detail about the team’s performances, which is followed by perhaps the biggest takeaway from Ruff today. That the coaching staff is still “under evaluation.”
..."You go through that evaluation."— Neal (@nealmchale) May 2, 2022
Ruff on his coaching staff: "Right now we're all under an evaluation...it's really all part of the process."
My Take: Clearly, Ruff is a fan of accountability.
More seriously, Ruff is referencing how three giveaways in the defensive zone ultimately led to three Carolina goals in a 2-3 overtime loss. Fair given what happened on the scoring plays, even though one was a fluke bounce off Kevin Bahl’s shin. What about the response to those giveaways? Or after the two goals were scored? What about how the equalizer in that game featured big man Nathan Bastian not even getting a stick on Nino Niederreiter down low or Damon Severson - no small man himself at 6’2” - being away from doing anything about him? What about the fact the Carolina game Ruff referenced was the team’s 78th game of the season and not their, say, 4th? If there are individual mistakes happening in multiple games prior to that, then the focus should rightfully be on the coaching staff on what they are telling the players to reduce these errors. That Ruff brings up whether it was systemic and on the coaches at the end may be a tell that someone in the organization may also think that the coaching might have something to do with players making errors frequently.
The part about “evaluation” is the bigger bombshell. Other organizations like Detroit - a team who had a better season than the Devils and beat them twice last week - have cleaned house behind the bench. The Devils, who have had nothing to play for since the calendar flipped to 2022, are still deciding what they want to do with their staff. For some reason. And, in light of this, let Ruff actually speak to the media not knowing about his own future. This is not completely unusual. Joe Judge of the New York Football Giants got his last media session before getting rightfully canned. I am not sure the Devils should follow that path. This is touched on again later by Ruff.
Third, Ruff brings up stats for the first time:
Ruff on how close this team is: "I think we're close...you look at our group of forwards, where they got to and where they're getting to....You have to use numbers, you can use analytics, there's lots of base levels"— Neal (@nealmchale) May 2, 2022
My Take: Funny how the numbers, analytics, and other “base levels” did not compute when it came to the power play and how its ineffectiveness for nearly the whole season also undercut the team, especially the forwards. And that power play really did not change much outside of the personnel throughout the season, either. The Mark Recchi Experience was pretty constant in 2021-22. If you thought Bratt breaking 70 points was amazing, imagine if the 2021-22 team had a decent power play. As for team stats, I would like to kindly suggest to Ruff and the staff that if the expected goals model is nowhere close to reality, then something is clearly not working. I want to believe Tyler Dellow and Matt Cane, among others, know that. Whether the people in power know that, who is to say. Keep this in mind, as we get to have a stat break soon.
By the way, the whole point of numbers, analytics, analysis, etc. is to make a better hockey team that wins more games. This is a point lost on some, but a great xGF% or HDCF% in 5-on-5 does not really make up for a team that finished only better than the pre-Lou Devils teams in the 1980s.
Fourth, Ruff is back to spinning a narrative:
Ruff: "If you go to any team and you take the core..you take a good team's top two goalies and maybe take a leading defenseman and a leading scorer. I think it would be a big hole on any team. But at the same time, we're trying to find out what's real, what makes us better"— Neal (@nealmchale) May 2, 2022
My Take: Again, Ruff is not wrong here. But this smacks again of a rationale to change nothing behind the bench. My interpretation of this implies that the injuries were why the Devils finished 28th out of 32 teams and that Ruff had little to do with it. That rubs me the wrong way.
Fifth, Ruff further states that it is unknown if he is coming back at all:
Lindy would not say definitively that he knows he's coming back. "We're all being evaluated"— Neal (@nealmchale) May 2, 2022
My Take: OK. So why is he allowed to speak to the press? What if the evaluation turns out to let go of him? Then what was the point? And if the decision is to keep him, then why not have him speak after then? It is a long offseason. There is no reason that the coach has to speak on this day. Between this season, this situation, and Larry Brooks’ recent editorial in the New York Post, I am confused as to who is really in charge in keeping this organization running.
Sixth, Ruff says something I think I can dig into right here and right now.
Ruff on team identity: "We tried to change our game to help our goalies out--the way we played. We started the season on a real fast pace, heavily involved with the defense."— Neal (@nealmchale) May 2, 2022
Said they had to change that b/c they were giving up too many high-risk chances
My Take: The blogger in me says to make this a separate post. But why wait? Let’s look into this and see if Ruff is right or not. Time for a stat break.
Let us assume that high-risk chances include scoring chances and high-danger chances as defined by Natural Stat Trick. We cannot measure pace exactly, but we can approximate it with combining rates of shot attempts taken and allowed. A slow game would not have so many. A fast pace would have much more end-to-end action. , We can also see how the defense did with rates of attempts, shots, and expected goals allowed. 5-on-5 is the focus here as to leave out any special team situations. Here is a month-by-month breakdown of those team stats.
If we presume that the combined rate of shot attempts equates to pace, then it appears the Devils did try to slow things down after November 2021. Their HDCA/60 and SCA/60 rates did decrease. As did their CA/60 and SA/60 rates. This did not move the needle much for expected goals against per 60 minutes, but a drop of 0.01 is still a drop. With the exception of the xGA/60 hitting a peak in February, the defensive rate stats were not as bad as they were in November.
However, I do not think this is what Ruff meant. The problem is that the Devils’ goaltending was Actually Good in November 2021. Mackenzie Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier combined for a team save percentage of 92.6% in 5-on-5 hockey. That was the eleventh best team save percentage in the NHL for that month. Why would Ruff and his staff have a month of goaltending that was good, then make changes? For his sake, I hope it is not that as the goaltending cratered from December 2021 (team save percentage: 86.97% in 5-on-5) onward. It also begs the question about what other changes were made since then. Plus, from what I saw of the Devils in 5-on-5 play this season, the defensemen were still activating and free to shoot, the forwards were getting pucks in deep to play it back unless they generated a rush on defense, and the defensive zone play featured a lot of overloading and flooding the puck-carrier’s side of the zone to get a turnover for a quick counter-attack. This was true in October as it was in April before the final two weeks where the Devils’ offense had stretches of non-threatness.
Ruff is more experienced than I ever will be. I am sure he could sit me down and explain in great detail what was changed and when. Maybe it would convince me that it is true. Maybe he has different stats. I am not sure I buy it with what is publicly available. It would be one thing if the high-pace and high peaks in against rate stats in November came with bad goaltending. But it did not.
Seventh, Ruff repeats the same canard from pretty much every player who spoke to it over the past two days. The team is “tired” of losing.
cont..."I'm so impressed with the bulk of these guys got to. I challenged them to get to a place and I'm just going to tell you the bulk of these guys want to get to the next place. They're tired of losing."— Neal (@nealmchale) May 2, 2022
My Take: My brother in hockey, the team is 46-76-16 with you as head coach over the last two seasons! They finished worse than last season by way of points percentage! Clearly, they did not meet your challenge if it is about results! Sure, they’re tired of losing. You might have a role in that.
But, seriously, I can appreciate that Ruff actually was impressed by multiple players. This falls in line with the endorsements from Hughes, Bratt, and Subban among possibly any others. For all of the issues I and the People Who Matter have with the 2021-22 Devils, the locker room atmosphere and cohesion with the coach was not one of them. And likewise from Ruff’s end. Which is a good thing. It does not make up for the awfulness of 2021-22, but at least there is not a broken set of player dynamics for potentially the next guy to fix.
Eighth, and after Ruff stated he wants to stay, he dropped this little nugget about the vaunted presence of veterans:
Also asked Ruff if this team needed some veteran presence during the adversity this season: "I will tell you one thing: There's no replacing good veteran presence. So the answer will always be yes"— Neal (@nealmchale) May 2, 2022
My Take: I have questioned this before. I know the 2021-22 Devils were a young team. So were the 2021 Devils, who mostly remained on this roster and gained another year and season of experience. The team also added Dougie Hamilton, Tomas Tatar, Ryan Graves, Jonathan Bernier (and later Jon Gillies and Andrew Hammond), and Jimmy Vesey to join Damon Severson, Miles Wood, Andreas Johnsson, and P.K. Subban in the 25 and Up side of the roster. Not to mention that I think Zacha, Bratt, and Hischier should be seen as vets since they each have over 300 games played in the NHL even though they are not yet 25 years old. It is true that those acquisitions were not always great or even available. At least a few were around. The point remains: Fitzgerald added veterans in the 2021 offseason. This was not a team largely made up of guys who were on the Top 25 Under 25 List for several years now.
It is true that the roster does need improvement. And some more veterans will likely be added as only veterans are really available in free agency. It can be done without putting the value of experience on a pedestal. Especially since this young team had an extremely experienced coaching staff all season and look how well that worked out for them. I fear that between this, Wood’s comments for wanting more vets, and what Fitzgerald did last season that they will lionize it. Hopefully it works out on the ice this time.
So that’s all of Ruff’s media session. Goaltending was bad. Players were hurt. Unclear whether games were lost by mistakes or systems. He and the other coaches are still “under evaluation.” Stats have a role. He does not know if he is returning. He likes the young players. He would want more older players.
Originally, I was hoping this would be the last part. But based on Ruff’s comments and those who attended today’s session, there will be more to come. General Manager Tom Fitzgerald will speak later this week. Will the evaluation of the coaches (or at least Ruff) be decided by then? Will the Devils wait for someone else to become available first? Will Fitzgerald say anything insightful? Will a media member remind Fitzgerald that after last season he said the team was going to play “meaningful games” in March and ask him whatever happened to that? Will we know who the head coach will be for 2022-23? We will find out later.
Thanks again to McHale for having quotes to reference from today’s breakdown. What did you think of what was said? Does any of this change your opinion of how they played? Or what the Devils should do in this offseason? Do you still want Ruff to be retained? We will find out more later when Fitzgerald decides to have his say in public. Please leave your answers and other reactions in the comments. Thank you for reading.