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FanFirst Fridays: Faceoffs are not an excuse for bad lineups

Lindy Ruff has done a good job this season getting a lot out of his roster, but he continually makes a similar mistake over and over and has to stop.

NHL: St. Louis Blues at New Jersey Devils
I get it. Haula is good at faceoffs. But why are the Devils always making lineup decisions made based on this?
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

I was initially going to write this post about how wonderful it was that my kids have both embrace the New Jersey Devils and have been watching the games with me. It’s been a dream of mine since I started following this team way back in the 80s.

In fact, we are going to both the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings matchups in person next weekend. But given a recent development, I decided to take this FanFirst Friday in a different direction.

There is a lot of discussion lately about the Devils lineup choices. And lineups in sports are almost always the easiest things for fans to pick holes in. Whether it’s a baseball batting order, a soccer starting 11 or what hockey lines belong together, it’s a common (and relatively easy) way to attack the coaching or managing of the team.

If I’m honest, I was never a fan of the Lindy Ruff hiring. I didn’t understand why the Devils brought him in when they did and I honestly didn’t really want them to stick with him this past offseason. But I went into the year with an open mind and the team responded well through October and especially November.

The Devils were the talk of the league and folks went from initially chanting Fire Lindy to a Sorry Lindy chant later. In my defense, I did neither. I didn’t really think he deserved a fire him chant, but I also didn’t think he’d earned an apology, either. I still feel like the book is very much out on the Devils coach, in spite of the 800 career wins. I realize that both Jesper Bratt and Jack Hughes love the guy. And that they feel a debt of gratitude to him for helping them on their career ascent.

But where my feelings on Ruff tend to go sour are on things that people have been scream about on the internet lately.

Now it isn’t really solely because Erik Haula is on Jack Hughes line. It’s the reasoning behind it. It goes back to the exact reason why Lindy Ruff played Michael McLeod entirely too much last season. The man is absolutely, positively in love with faceoff wins. And really it’s one of the major reasons why Ruff keeps Haula stapled to Jack Hughes’ wing. Here is his answer after the Blues loss last night:

Erik Haula is good at faceoffs. He’s the second best on the team. And there is definitely something to the the thinking that the more that the Devils possess the puck when Hughes is on the ice, the better it is for the team. Hughes generates more offense than anyone on the team. Hell, look at where he is in terms of NHL game score:

But here’s the thing. If he generates so much, it does make sense for him to have the puck more than have to chase it. There is logic there. But to me, it’s to the detriment of ACTUALLY scoring goals because while Haula is a good offensive player (he’s been insanely snake bit this year as his 2.7 shooting percentage will tell you since he’s a career 11.7 shooting percentage guy), I think he helps a struggling bottom six more than Hughes right now. Jack is great at creating chances on his own and don’t we want players with him with the best chance of knocking home a rebound or the great pass Haula received right at the end of the game last night that could’ve tied the game?

Last season, Lindy played Michael McLeod an inordinate number of minutes when McLeod was very much a black hole of offense and wasn’t even really that great defensively either. And why? Because he kept coming back to the faceoff argument that it’s better to have the puck than be chasing it. Well, yeah, he’s 100 percent right. But what good is the puck possession if you can’t accomplish anything with it?

And Haula can help a struggling bottom six right now by helping guys like Mercer and Sharangovich get the puck with Ruff’s precious faceoff wins. Or even moving Tartar down with Haula and Wood and try and make it a truculent line. Mercer may have had a horrific breakaway attempt that could’ve tied the game last night, but he truly never stops working. The kid is always moving his feet and is hard on pucks. He also thinks the game the way Hughes does. And in spite of that breakaway attempt, I think he could be a decent finisher. Or get the H2O line back together again from preseason with Hughes, Palat and Holtz. Holtz had a great game in Detroit and was trying to will both McLeod and Wood to a good game against St. Louis in spite of those two and their hands of stone.

Any way, of all of my frustrations with Ruff as a head coach, his almost religious attachment to the faceoff win percentage is one of my biggest. To me, it causes him to make bad choices when there are better ones staring him in the face. Like playing McLeod WAAAAAAY too much last season. And basically stapling Erik Haula to Hughes’ wing basically since training camp broke and the first puck dropped. And it isn’t just because of Haula having horrific luck offensively, it’s because I really do think he could help the team in a third center role as opposed to a top six wing role. Maybe the Devils don’t think Haula makes a good enough center, but they don’t need him to be all-world if they can get enough offense out of lines 1 and 2, line three and four just needs to not get caved in and generate the occasional offense themselves.

I also have faith that Hughes will still generate offense basically no matter who he plays with. He’s developing a large enough track record to prove that now.

So yeah, Lindy, I’m not calling for your head. I think you’ll wind up being the coach until the end of the season and I WANT you to succeed. Stop being so rigid with your decisions based on faceoff percentage, please. It’s not my only problem with you, but it’s becoming the biggest one.

There’s several others, like I also tend to think you have different rules for different players. Michael McLeod made a horrible turnover recently that cost the Devils a game, but he saw no consequences. Damon Severson (and I’m not the biggest fan of Severson) did the same thing and wound up scratched for a game. I’m not sure how you keep a cohesive and “connected” dressing room with different rules for different players.

But the faceoff one I think is creating a bigger issue with the lineup card now. And I’d like it to end. Just try it for a game. Even just a period. If Jack Hughes begins to struggle without the magical faceoff man next to him, you can always change back. But I suspect it’ll make a team that seemed very deep at the beginning of the season deep once again. Please, Lindy, do it for yourself. It could even win someone like me over, but even more importantly, it could potentially win you a spot in the playoffs and an extension past the end of this season.

What say you? Am I overreacting here? Would moving Haula down to third line center hurt Jack too much with puck possession? Would it make no difference in strengthening the bottom six?