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Revisiting: The Time Ticking on Tom Fitzgerald

Last summer, I said that Tom Fitzgerald's all-in offseason put a spotlight of pressure on him. Now, his team has flopped and we might be in hot seat territory.

San Jose Sharks v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

We’re lost, but we’re making good time!

While I was listening to someone rattle off some of their favorite Yogisms - the sayings of Hall of Fame baseball catcher Yogi Berra - this one caught my ear. I was interested enough that I looked up the quote, and found it was an old saying from as early as the 1940s. But why did this line catch my attention so much? The morning I heard someone quoting Berra, I had been reading Stephen’s article on projecting the Devils’ roster for 2022-23. In that article, Stephen referenced a post in The Athletic by Shayna Goldman in which she evaluated from an analytic standpoint whether the Devils have the "pieces" to win a championship. While I think most of us agree that the Devils have some of the pieces to compete in the playoffs, with top offensive performers like Jesper Bratt and Jack Hughes and a two-way top center in Nico Hischier, depth has been chronically questionable.

Last offseason, I argued that not all was rosy in Tom Fitzgerald’s regime at the helm of the New Jersey Devils. While I appreciated his offseason acquisitions, I thought the timing of the move put a spotlight on him before the team was absolutely set to compete:

While Fitzgerald made the team much more interesting to watch, his decision to make a free agency splash will intensify the focus on his job performance. Because Fitzgerald will be under more scrutiny, I expect that ownership will be tougher in their evaluation of him.

Since this past season was incredibly poor for the Devils, I think Tom Fitzgerald went from comfortable to in growing danger of losing his job. Especially now that Hughes, Hischier, and Bratt will be on long-term contracts with Hamilton locked up, Fitzgerald has nowhere to hide - and he needs to make sure the next season is a marked improvement. With that, let’s evaluate whether Fitzgerald is making “good time” despite his disastrous results in his first full season.

The Good Moves: The Defense and Nathan Bastian

Three new defensemen took the reigns of top pairing minutes in 2021-22 for the Devils: Jonas Siegenthaler, Ryan Graves, and Dougie Hamilton. While Jonas Siegenthaler was acquired in the shortened COVID bubble season, he did not get to make much of an impact until 2021-22. Playing each of the team’s 70 games before injuring his hand, Siegenthaler proved Fitzgerald made a very good trade. Having only given up a mid-round pick for what amounted to a shutdown defenseman capable of playing in the top four, Fitzgerald efficiently improved the roster.

Hockey Viz

As for Nathan Bastian, in September, I cautioned against writing off the losses of Mikhail Maltsev (Graves trade) and Nathan Bastian (expansion) as not that meaningful, and called out the team for not making any bottom six signings in response to the loss of an impactful fourth liner. Thankfully, Fitzgerald ended up signing Jimmy Vesey to a PTO five days after I posted the article, which provided some fallback prior to the reacquisition of Bastian. Nonetheless, I wrote on Bastian:

While these two are “replaceable,” it’s tough to successfully replace four NHL forwards with only one acquisition. One can only hope that Miles Wood and Michael McLeod mesh with another bruiser in the organization. When we look back at the end of this season, will we be questioning what Tom Fitzgerald was thinking with forward depth? Time will tell.

As previously said, Fitzgerald would jump on the opportunity to bring Nathan Bastian back into the fold. When the Seattle Kraken waived Nathan Bastian, having used him in a fourth-line pest role, Fitzgerald claimed him on Thanksgiving, giving the Devils some netfront grit for the power play and defensive capability for even strength. Since Bastian amounted to a league-mandated loss, I was very happy when fate played out with him returning to the team - and that Fitzgerald was not so comfortable with Mason Geertsen that he would pass up the opportunity to reclaim the former Devil.

Evolving Hockey

As it turned out, Nathan Bastian was one of the only bottom six forwards who was consistently good for the team. In the first month of the season, Michael McLeod looked regularly lost on the ice, only to show more flashes of effectiveness when reunited with his longtime teammate. I can only imagine how well they could have done if they had a steady left winger.

The other depth forward loss last offseason, Mikhail Maltsev, did not make the team regret moving him. As he was involved in a trade for Ryan Graves, Tom Fitzgerald gets another good mark for being able to utilize a prospect without a high ceiling in a trade for an established NHL defenseman. Graves, who is 6’5”, could probably afford to be more physical - but Fitzgerald did accomplish a difficult task in solidifying the top two pairings with Siegenthaler, Graves, and Hamilton - who was also acquired last offseason in free agency. Hamilton, who started out great for the Devils, was hobbled by injuries in the second half of the season. Fitzgerald’s success this season may depend on his return to form.

Evidence of Bad Management: Goaltenders, Geertsen, and Prospects

While the best in-season acquisition came from waivers, Tom Fitzgerald had his most crushing loss come through the waiver wire - though it did not necessarily seem so bad to some at the time. When Mackenzie Blackwood came back from his heel injury at the start of the season, along with Jonathan Bernier returning from treating his lingering pains, Fitzgerald waived backup goaltender Scott Wedgewood. This amounted to a move that allowed Mason Geertsen to remain a Devil. So when it turned out that Blackwood never fully recovered from his heel surgery and Jonathan Bernier would be out for the season, a mildly poor move turned into a disastrous one.

But Tom Fitzgerald needs to have the foresight to avoid these types of situations. Just because it seems like there is enough talent at a position does not mean it’s a good idea to discard with depth. When the injury bug struck, it killed this team - which received historically bad goaltending at an .881 save percentage. Would it have been so bad to just let Marian Studenic handle fourth line duties while Scott Wedgewood was a third goaltender on the roster, rather than waive both instead of a goon who does not seem to win fights? Marian Studenic was also let go by the Devils on waivers to the Dallas Stars. The team could have been evaluating him for a fourth line role in the absence of Miles Wood, but would rather keep an older, less talented Geertsen in the fold.

Both Lindy Ruff and Tom Fitzgerald will use goaltending as a mulligan for the poor results this past regular season. While Lindy Ruff might have a claim to this, keeping the goaltending afloat was absolutely within Fitzgerald’s grasp. Had the team been able to fall back on Wedgwood and Nico Daws rather than Jon Gillies and Daws, the team might have been able to stay a few ticks higher than an .881 save percentage. In all of his 37 appearances this season - a career high - Wedgewood had a 13-15-6 record with a .910 save percentage and 3.14 goals against average. Since other teams seem capable of holding onto a third goaltender they do not want to waive, it would have been the right move to send the team’s goon to Utica.

Lindy Ruff and the Coaching Staff

The biggest point of contention this season that much of the fan base seems to have with the team is that the coaching staff needs to go. On May 4, the New Jersey Devils announced that Mark Recchi and Alain Nasreddine would not be returning for the 2022-23 season. Mark Recchi was "relieved of his duties" while the Devils and Nasreddine "mutually parted ways" as his contract expired. This may just be coincidental, but I think it reflects how many of us feel about the two. Nasreddine, historically, had great penalty kills and even strength defenses ranging from bad to average. Unfortunately for Nasreddine, the team's worst goaltending came when his defense's even strength shot suppression was at its best. A change of voice in this regard is not unwelcome, as the Devils had Nasreddine from the Hynes years and never really got elite in all areas under his watch.

Mark Recchi, however, had a target on his back since the day he was hired. Some fans were skeptical of his time in Pittsburgh, arguing a decent power play with Crosby, Letang, and Malkin is not an accomplishment. While I was not so skeptical of Recchi when he was first hired, those fans were right. Removed from an environment of surefire hall of fame players still playing at elite levels, Mark Recchi's power play performance absolutely fell apart in New Jersey. Without Recchi moving forward, perhaps we will be able to see the creativity of Bratt, Hughes, and Hischier at a more successful rate.

HockeyViz

Describing Lindy Ruff as his partner was an interesting choice for Ruff. It shows that he is opting for loyalty, to some extent, over pure results. It also means that if Lindy Ruff cannot get his team to perform well in the early stages of the season, Fitzgerald will be treading the same water that Shero was when he held onto Hynes for too long. And it seemed to me throughout the year that Lindy Ruff rarely made adjustments on the ice in terms of how the Devils played. Looking at his team’s score effects on HockeyViz, it mostly looks like the team plays to the whims of the team they are up against, with very weak score effects. You do not see them clamp down defensively at really any point, and they are not good at putting the pressure on when down a goal. Devils, as a result, need coaching that has them playing better situational hockey. I do not know if Ruff can be that guy, but Fitzgerald seems to have tied their fates to each other by not firing him.

What Fitzgerald Needs to Accomplish, and What He Needs to Avoid

Tom Fitzgerald needs to find a few things for the Devils this offseason: center depth, more wingers, and a solid third defensive pairing. On the other hand, he needs to be very careful about which players he considers long-term pieces. For example, Jesper Bratt is a restricted free agent coming off a career season. Fitzgerald should not be listening to any trade talk involving Bratt. It would be a mistake, also, to sign Bratt to a shorter bridge deal as opposed to locking him up. While this probably would not affect Fitzgerald’s job security, it would affect the Devils long-term.

While there are trade options out there, there are some things he needs to avoid. Looking at the disastrous effects of Rasmus Ristolainen on the Flyers, he should not trade for someone like Tyler Myers from the Canucks. The Devils need more grit and physicality, but they cannot overpay for it and should look for it in free agency. Besides - Kevin Bahl and Nikita Okhotiuk should be physical plenty enough in the NHL, and some internal options at forward like Fabian Zetterlund show a lot of spice in their play.

Fitzgerald did a pretty good job in the top four last offseason. He should venture not to overhaul that any further, with the exception of moving someone like Severson or Graves onto the third pairing if a better option comes around. Relying on goons as defensive and forward depth is also a concern, as I do not think the Devils can survive another long-term injury to Dougie Hamilton - which would also reflect poorly on Fitz's decision to give him $9 million.

But injuries are hard to avoid. If I were Fitz, I would be looking intently at free agency for improvements to the depth of the team - especially at center and defense - so injuries become survivable for both Ruff and Fitzgerald. Ultimately, I think I was not wrong to question whether Fitz put himself under too much pressure last season, as they were not ready to compete. He's going to have to be aggressive now if he wants the team to actually improve from this year's dreadful collapse.

Your Thoughts

What do you think of Tom Fitzgerald’s future with the team? Do you think he has done enough to keep his job beyond this season if the results on-ice are poor again? How long do you think Ruff has until a coaching change is made? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.