The New Jersey Devils had their final media sessions on Sunday and Monday. Monday’s session featured head coach Lindy Ruff, who kept bringing up how he and the other staff members were “under evaluation” with regards to his own status. Word got out that Devils General Manager Tom Fitzgerald would speak later in the week. Yesterday, the Devils announced that Alain Nasreddine would be released from his contract and Mark Recchi has been fired. Clearly, their evaluations were completed. Today, Fitzgerald held a press conference at 11 AM to address the press. Let us break down what he said and react to each important bit that Fitzgerald spoke on.
Fitzgerald on Ruff & “Evaluations”
Rather than go in order of the press conference, I am going to bucket the statements from the GM by the subject. Ruff was not clear on Monday about whether he would return as a head coach. Did Fitzgerald provide any clarity? Well...sort of? Here is what Fitzgerald said with respect to Ruff from multiple tweets. I will give my take on them after the slew of relevant ones posted here:
TF on Ruff’s ability to grow in the young talent: “I don’t think there’s any doubt Lindy has done that”— Neal (@nealmchale) May 5, 2022
Says it’s easy to look at negatives of season but likes the progression and response of players under him. Says he “can’t ignore” that
Sounds like the major players were supportive of Lindy Ruff. However Fitzgerald says everyone still being evaluated. #njdevils— Jim Biringer (@JimBiringer) May 5, 2022
#NJDevils Tom Fitzgerald on players like Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, and Nico Hischier in exit meetings:— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) May 5, 2022
"They are very supportive of Lindy Ruff."
They mentioned how influential he's been to the growth of their careers.
#NJDevils GM Tom Fitzgerald said Lindy Ruff was brought in to be his partner and they will together decide on new coaching hires.— Kristy (@InStilettos_NHL) May 5, 2022
Tom Fitzgerald: “Evaluations are going on at all ends of our hockey operations. I’m being evaluated right now”— Neal (@nealmchale) May 5, 2022
TF on evaluations: “it’s everybody…players, coaches, training staff, equipment, hockey ops..we want to be the best.”— Neal (@nealmchale) May 5, 2022
From the way Fitzgerald is talking he and Lindy Ruff are tied at the hip and will be making the coaching decisions and the people they bring will think the same way as them. #njdevils— Jim Biringer (@JimBiringer) May 5, 2022
My Take: What I did not read from any of these quotes or reports was a decisive, clear, 100% easy-to-understand statement that Lindy Ruff is the head coach next season.
What I learned is that Fitzgerald made the decisions on Recchi and Nasreddine, thinks highly of Ruff, he thinks he has developed the players well (I do not fully agree with that, but that’s not important here), he thinks Ruff was the right man for the job when he was hired in 2020, and that Ruff and Fitzgerald are going to make coaching decisions together. Great. Swell. Unless I missed it - and I might have, so forgive me if I am reading too much into this or I missed something from the nearly-42 minute presser - Fitzgerald did not confirm that Ruff was the head coach for next season.
I think it is highly likely that Ruff is the head coach for next season. It would make the most sense based on how Fitzgerald talked about him. It falls in line with the good things Bratt and Hughes said about Ruff earlier in the week. (Hischier gave a no comment.) I do not think the two would work together on coaching hires if he was not at least still within the organization. Sure, Ruff could do that from a front office position. But if that is the plan why not just announce that now and begin the search for a new head coach? That did not happen, so I think that adds further credence to Ruff returning as next season’s head coach.
Assuming I have that right: I believe that Fitzgerald has tied his fate to Ruff. If 2022-23 goes off the rails (and I hope it does not, I’d like to see some winning beyond a month and a half for a change), then we are likely going to get a repeat of 2019-20 when both the head coach and GM got fired within the season.
But the lack of a clear statement of “Ruff is the head coach for next season” does gives me doubt. As does Fitzgerald stating that so many positions are still under “evaluation.” Including himself. Who is doing these evaluations? Is this similar to a performance review at a business where personnel is compared by metrics (Fitzgerald brought up “standards,” which is similar), responses from their managers, and where the company may be going? Is this something being done by those close or at the ownership level; a level that Fitzgerald has to answer to? Evaluations were clearly done for Nasreddine and Recchi; they were let go. Is more to come? I guess?
To be fair, the offseason is a long one for the Devils and the other 15 non-playoff teams. Whether, say, Dave Rogalski is let go now or in, say, three weeks does not matter much. Then again, I do not see the benefit of waiting to make such a move.
So. Ruff is probably next season’s head coach. And Fitzgerald is definitely a Lindy Ruff guy. We shall see whether how that plays out. Hopefully better than the last two seasons.
Fitzgerald on Players and Prospects
The press conference did have Fitzgerald speak about the team’s most significant pending restricted free agents and give out some news regarding a prospect. First, the prospect, which is about Shakir Mukahamadullin.
TF says Mukhamadullin is on his way to NJ. Just got his visa. Going to Utica. May even play— Neal (@nealmchale) May 5, 2022
My Take: This is a positive development. The Devils signed Mukhamadullin to an entry level contract and loaned him back to his KHL team, Salavat Yulaev Ufa. Given the war that Russia started in Ukraine, it has been an open question and challenge as to how the hockey world will handle Russian players and prospects. Some make sense, such as the IIHF banning Russia and Belarus from international play. Others less so, such as the Canadian Hockey League banning Russian players from their import draft. To see that the Devils, Mukhamadullin, and his agent have worked together to sort out his visa and bring him over is good news.
McHale suggests he can play. I am not so sure that will (can?) happen. Or should. Utica’s playoff series will begin on May 10. The timing may be tight to bring him over, get him set up in Utica (living space, language, the North American style of hockey), and then throw him into important games in a league he has never played in. I do not know if the Comets really need a 20-year old defenseman who has yet to even practice with the Utica squad. Having him around is a good experience; but I doubt playing will be in his future. As ever, I could be wrong.
(Aside: Mukhamadullin would join Chase Stillman as the other prospect with Utica. At least in theory. Per Ben Birnell, Stillman is injured right now.)
Speaking of prospects, the Devils are set to receive a top-ten draft pick after next Tuesday’s Draft Lottery. However, Fitzgerald may not necessarily use it.
TF says that he’ll look into potential options with his first round draft pick which may include moving it.— Neal (@nealmchale) May 5, 2022
My Take: I am OK with the idea of moving the first round pick unless the Devils win one of the two lotteries for the top two picks. I will say that the trade needs to be worth it. It would need to be for a player who can help the Devils right away and significantly. Something on the level of Cory Schneider for ninth overall in 2013 in my opinion. Does this statement means that Fitzgerald will definitely move the pick? No. But I am fine with publicly stating that the option will be considered.
Fitzgerald did speak a bit about Mackenzie Blackwood, Jonathan Bernier, Jesper Bratt, Miles Wood, and Pavel Zacha. Some were reported out by McHale. Others were reported out by Amanda Stein of the Devils. Let us tackle the goalies first.
TF doesn’t know if Bernier will realistically be ready for start of season. Says he wants competition in goal next season.— Neal (@nealmchale) May 5, 2022
My Take: Last part first, Fitzgerald’s comment about Bernier echoes my concerns about Bernier’s statements from Sunday’s media session. Again, he will be turning 34, his injury is known to limit the effectiveness of his position, and while Bernier thinks he will be ready by camp, Fitzgerald’s statement reads to me as being more pessimistic. Between the two, I would anticipate Fitzgerald seeks to bring in a goaltender from somewhere else this offseason and deal with the last year of Bernier’s contract later on.
As for Blackwood, I am not supremely confident that the Devils wants Blackwood to be their goalie. Blackwood apparently told Fitzgerald so. But the talk about a “clean slate” suggests a past with issues that probably are not going to go away entirely. Blackwood was suggested to be a part of trade rumors on March 19. I wonder if the clean slate means that is not happening. This upcoming season will be crucial for Blackwood. The 25-year old goaltender will be entering the final season of his contract. His career in New Jersey has been inconsistent both in terms of health, performance, and the performance of the team in front of him. There is an open question as to whether he is actually good, actually average, actually bad, or something different. Some of the People Who Matter have decided on one of those already; but it is truly yet to be determined. Especially in the eyes of those in charge. We shall see whether that remains the case through the offseason.
(Quick aside: Fitzgerald, he’s 25 and entering his seventh season with the organization. There’s probably not a lot of room for development.)
As for the top RFAs for this Summer, Fitzgerald had different responses. First, for Jesper Bratt:
#NJDevils Tom Fitzgerald:— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) May 5, 2022
"We need Jesper Bratt in our lineup."
Second, for Pavel Zacha:
#NJDevils Tom Fitzgerald on the future of Pavel Zacha, RFA:— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) May 5, 2022
"I have to look at the big picture of how we are constructing this team [...] where Pav fits, we'll go through that process. What we need, does he fit [...] But [Zacha] is a really good player."
Third, for Miles Wood:
#NJDevils Tom Fitzgerald: "When you don't have a Miles Wood in your lineup, that type of player. It hurts."— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) May 5, 2022
My Take: The short statements for Bratt and Wood suggest to me they will be safe. Bratt was sensational in 2021-22 and will get paid a significant amount of money for it. I do not think anyone will dispute that. I think Fitzgerald and some of the People Who Matter like Wood a bit too much. But I can agree that bringing him back for at least a full season to show what he can do makes some sense. Wood’s few games in 2021-22 were not nearly enough to make a proper call on whether he should be retained long-term or not. I will point out that Wood will turn 27 in September; he is not this young buck that will likely develop.
As for Zacha, well, that is not a particularly complimentary response. Compare it to Bratt and Wood and it should be clear. If not, then let me point out that Fitzgerald’s initial words was not a “yes” or an affirmative statement for keeping him. It was to “look at the big picture.” This is a picture that may not include Zacha. This is further backed up by “What we need, does he fit...,” which adds more doubt about Zacha. It does not fully rule out Zacha returning as a Devil, but it opens the possibility he may not. Also keep in mind this is coming from Stein, a team employee. Unless this is a manuever to bring down the cost of a new contract for Zacha, this reads to me that management is cool on keeping Zacha. Of course, plans can change.
Additionally, from the press conference (about 8 minutes into the video), Fitzgerald did say that he wants the Devils to be harder to play against and be detail-oriented. Then he said he liked the defense, he liked their size, and he liked their mobility; but “there is room for improvement in all areas of the game.” So there’s that.
Thanks again to Neal McHale, Jim Biringer, Kristy Flannery, and Amanda Stein for having quotes to reference from today’s breakdown. What did you think of what was said by Tom Fitzgerald today? What did I miss from the press conference video that was not reported by others? Am I over-thinking what Fitzgerald said about Ruff? (Probably.) Why the constant refrain of evaluation? Do you expect more changes to come to the staff and other off-ice members of the organization? What do you think of his comments about the goalies? How confident are you that Pavel Zacha will return to the Devils? How confident are you now in Fitzgerald as GM of the Devils? We will find out more later when Fitzgerald decides to have his say in public. Please leave your answers and other reactions to Fitzgerald’s press conference in the comments. Thank you for reading.