Now that the dust has fully settled on the 2021-22 season for the New Jersey Devils, many fans are expecting some major changes this offseason. However, seeing as NHL contracts are guaranteed and the trade market is generally non-existent until after the Stanley Cup has been awarded, not much is expected to happen on the roster front until sometime in June. That is why one of the first big changes usually made is on the coaching front. And this Devils team has been out of the playoff race since December on route to the worst season by a Devils team by points percentage since 1985-86. That, in combination with last year’s uninspired 7th place finish in the East Division appears to make a coaching change an obvious move. So the question becomes, why does Lindy Ruff still have a job?
The answer seems to be that the Devils front office still hasn’t made up their mind. These tweets by Greg Wyshynski from last week indicate as much:
Devils like what Ruff's done in developing young players like Bratt and Hughes, whom I'm told is a Lindy fan. Also, they recognize that coaches are usually as good as their goaltending, and NJD has been in SV% basement in Ruff's 2 seasons.— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) April 26, 2022
One year left on deal. We shall see.
I think a logical excuse could be made at this point. After all, it’s very possible that Tom Fitzgerald and co would want to go through their exit meetings to get a sense of how the players felt about the coaching staff prior to making any moves. But exit meetings (and media interviews) have come and gone now and yet reports from Ruff himself indicate that his job is still being evaluated.
SportsNet insider Elliotte Friedman corroborated this:
Friedman on TJMS show says he's heard mixed things on #NJDevils when it comes to a coaching change.— NHL Watcher (@NHL_Watcher) May 2, 2022
My first thought when reading this is that a lot of fans are going to take this as a sign of issues with the Devils front office. Why are they being so indecisive? Is there conflict between members of the Devils management group? Or is ownership hesitant to fire a coach who will still have to be paid for another year? Those things could very well be true, especially the latter given that there were rumors that the reason Gallant wasn’t a finalist for the job when Ruff was hired is that his salary ask was too high. But I’m not jumping to any conclusions yet. And I also don’t think taking a few extra days to make the decision is a bad thing. Not to get on my soap box, but decisiveness, like confidence, is not an inherently good trait in leadership. Give me someone who is willing to acknowledge uncertainty and take the time to make an informed decision over someone who rushes to action without thought or without considering all available information. To be clear, I’m not saying they are negatives, just that they aren’t positives unless they also come with a healthy dose of humility and willingness to consider all credible sources of information. But I digress.
From our perspective, we don’t know for sure what the players said in their exit meetings with management or how heavily that information is weighted in terms of the final decision for Ruff and his staff. We can make some well informed guesses, however. John did a great job breaking down all of the exit interviews so read his posts from earlier this week for the full story and analysis (Part 1, Part 2) to get a comprehensive picture. But, some key points are that Hughes and Bratt were pretty vocal in support of Ruff. This makes some sense given they had their best seasons under his direction, although I am somewhat surprised by Bratt’s support of him given how much Ruff jerked him around at times. We can postulate that some other players likely echoed that sentiment but it wasn’t universal. Hischier gave a no comment, which, as John pointed out, is somewhat telling given it’s the norm for players to respond to these types of questions with vague, noncommittal answers, yet the captain chose silence instead.
If we assume that Hughes and Bratt were honest in their media availabilities, the question then becomes how much does the support of the team’s two biggest offensive stars weigh in the minds of the front office? How much does Hischier’s potential lack of support matter? Given that there isn’t any good reason for Fitzgerald to not have voiced a statement in support of or wishing Ruff good luck in his future endeavors by now other than he is considering information gathered from exit interviews, we can probably assume he actually values the players’ input.
But how much should their voices matter? Usually my answer is going to be, not all that much. Players are too close to the situation and have too much personal stakes attached to these decisions to be expected to see things objectively. In this case however, I think there is good reason to weigh the player’s opinions more heavily. First, goaltending was a huge issue this season and everyone knows it. Whether or not the problem is just goaltending or not, I don’t think there’s a good argument against it being by far the biggest issue for this team. I don’t think Jaques Lemaire and the ghost of Al Arbour together could’ve made this team competitive with the net-minding they received. Second, as John pointed out in his posts, this team had some weirdly positive energy for a team finishing with the franchise’s worst record in almost 30 years. That says something about the coaches ability to keep things together through rough patches. Third, for the second year in a row, this team has had some horrid injury/illness luck. The team’s superstar went down on the second game of the season, their big free-agent signing was either out of the line-up or playing injured for most of the year. Both goalies were apparently dealing with injuries even before the season started, and a bunch of other players missed games with either injuries, COVID, or both. Finally, one of the themes of this season was how many players had breakout seasons despite the team’s complete lack of team success. If part of Ruff’s job was to develop talented players on the youngest roster in the league, on that front he succeeded. Hughes and Bratt exploded offensively. Hischier had his best season so far both in terms of production and in terms of underlying defensive metrics, Severson set a career high in points, Siegenthaler emerged as one of the leagues best shut-down defensemen, and players like Boqvist, Mercer, and Bastian have developed under his tutelage. If these same players feel that Ruff’s coaching or system helped them reach these new heights then surely that should carry some weight with the front office.
I can say that personally, all this adds up to me not caring one way or the other whether Ruff keeps his job. I can see both sides of the coin. I was leaning in favor of letting him go, but the support of Hughes, and especially Bratt given I thought Ruff was overly hard on him, have swayed me back towards undecided. I tend to blame the team’s failures more on goaltending and the power-play than on Ruff’s systems. If the Rags can make the playoffs on the back of goaltending and a good power-play, certainly those same things can result in a bottom-five finish for New Jersey. Plus, there’s always the chance that whoever replaces Ruff is worse. Ultimately, I won’t be disappointed if they hold onto him for another year provided the front office does something to at least address those two things, along with hopefully improving the rest of the roster.
What do you think the Devils should do with Ruff? Does the support of Hughes and Bratt impact your feelings about the Devil’s bench boss at all? Should their support carry any weight with the front office? Do you think Fitzgerald will keep Ruff? If you would have him go who do you want to see replace him as the next head coach? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading.