When the Devils open training camp tomorrow, head coach Lindy Ruff will be starting his third season behind the Devils bench. How long he stays in this position is arguably one of the biggest questions for this season’s Devils. Ruff, who is entering the final year of his 3 year contract, was clearly on the hot seat by the end of last season, and although he earned a reprieve, his assistants weren’t so lucky, with both Mark Recchi and Alain Nasreddine shown the door this offseason. One of the men chosen to replace said assistants just happens to be coming off a season where he was the interim head coach for President’s Trophy winning Florida Panthers, so you know, no pressure or anything. The consensus among the hockey media certainly is that the writing is on the wall for Lindy. The athletic ran a piece this past July that polled their NHL writers for predictions for the 2022-23 season. Asked the question, who will be the first coach fired, Ruff was the runaway winner with nearly 32% of the votes.
The team has been anything but successful during Ruff’s tenure, going 46-76-16 in 138 games, good for a .391 winning percentage. Thus, when management chose to retain him, it definitely led to some head-scratching among Devils fans. From the perspective of GM Tom Fitzgerald and the rest of the front office, the reason behind retaining Ruff was likely due to a combination of a few different factors.
In each of his first two seasons, Ruff could point to some solid excuses for his team’s position in the standings. In his rookie season, they got crushed by COVID and dealt with injuries that derailed the season of their soon-to-be Captain, Nico Hischier. Last season, the team as a whole played pretty decent but had historically bad goaltending, an inexplicably poor power play, and once again had injuries to key players, including their top two goaltenders, Hughes, and Dougie Hamilton. Look at the Devils team rankings across different categories.
There are just 3 categories where they aren’t an average team (middle 50% of the league): goals against, power play percentage, and goaltending. In a league where average is enough to get you in the playoffs and on a team where the expectations were essentially just don’t be embarrassing, Ruff was an average goaltending performance away from potentially exceeding expectations.
Now, injuries are unavoidable. Chances are, at least one important player will miss a bunch of games this year as well, but poor health has still been the theme of the Devils during Ruff’s tenure as head coach. With any luck, he’ll be able to show what he can do with a more healthy roster this season, but regardless, if the results aren’t better it’s clear that Ruff will be packing his bags. In addition to health, there’s the financial side of things. As I mentioned earlier, Ruff is in the final year of his contract and it’s possible ownership simply doesn’t want to pay Ruff to sit at home and pay someone else to do his job. It also probably helped Ruff’s cause that the team’s superstar forward was vocal in his support of Ruff returning for another year. And this is understandable. Whether Ruff had anything to do with it or not, Hughes went from an underwhelming rookie season to an emerging superstar over the last couple seasons. And as I pointed out last week, a handful of other players are also coming off of career seasons. It’s hard not to think that coaching didn’t play at least some role in this.
As you could probably tell, I’m somewhat conflicted about Ruff. I think he is a serviceable, potentially even above average coach that took over a crappy team that has had crappy luck. During his tenure, the team’s young players have grown by leaps and bounds, and maybe he has even had some small part in that development. And as frustrating as last year was, I’m ok with him getting another chance. But even though I think he’s been dealt a rough (ha) hand, even I’ll admit that at some point he needs to start actually winning some games, even if it’s in less than ideal circumstances. This isn’t just about him running out of chances. Part of the reason to retain his services is that you don’t want to make a change without having a back-up plan in place. I feel much better about moving on from Ruff if things don’t go well this year knowing that they have a clear and competent replacement in Andrew Brunette lined up.
One thing we don’t know the answer to is how quickly that trigger will be pulled if things go poorly. At the extreme is the end of Peter Laviolette’s tenure with the Flyers. He was fired after an 0-3 start back in 2013. I doubt Fitzgerald would do that to Ruff, but Brunette’s presence signals to me that the coach won’t be given half a season to figure things out. Particularly since Fitzgerald likely has his own job to worry about if the Devils can’t rise to mediocrity this season. Expectations and context will still factor into this decision, but if Fitzgerald starts to feel his own seat warming up, that will start to become less and less important and I don’t think sub .800 goaltending and Hughes having his leg amputated will saves Ruff’s job if the team starts 5-10-5.
Hopefully we won’t have to think about any of this. Hopefully the Devils are able to turn things around this year and we won’t have to think about coaching changes until next offseason at the earliest. But the pressure is on and if the team is slow out of the gate, one of the first questions on everyone’s mind will be just how much rope Lindy Ruff has left.