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FanFirst Friday: Downward Spiral Edition

Devils’s been a rough go without Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes. And a lot of it is exposing holes in Coach Lindy Ruff’s system.

NHL: NOV 14 Devils at Jets
Mercer has finally started going and it hasn’t helped at all.
by Terrence Lee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s been a rough go of it lately for us Devils fans. In fact, you can almost say the entire season thus far has been challenging. Sure the team was picking up wins prior to the Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier injuries, but they looked far from the dominant force they were at both ends of the ice in 2022-2023.

But let’s face it. Many expected some regression for the red and black this year. Losing a third of your regular defense rotation can do that to any team. And one of the pieces that was supposed to play a part in softening that blow, Colin Miller, has been shelved for the entire season, thanks to an unfortunate fall into the boards during practice leading up to opening night. Miller didn’t look great during preseason, but as Devils fans have quickly learned, preseason doesn’t mean diddly once the puck drops for real. And Lindy Ruff’s system is one of the more complicated ones for defensemen to learn.

I believe it was Jack Han on Twitter that discussed it in depth at one point last year (if it wasn’t him, I apologize to whomever it was) and he basically said that Ruff’s system in the defensive zone is about outnumbering attackers to get to puck recovery as quick as possible and transition to offense. The goal is to get out of your zone quickly and turn it up to your attackers so you are essentially batting instead of pitching. It’s a sound strategy, but it requires the players to attack quickly, win a lot of puck battles and the forwards to be prepared to transition to offense or be ready to defend based on what’s transpiring. Jack Hughes, for example, processes information in an almost superhuman fashion. Nico Hischier also possesses elite defensive instincts and abilities so he can quickly determine if the defensemen pressing the puck will win it and be able to get it quickly going up the ice. Think of it as quick overloading. Again, sound strategy when it works. The problem is when you have two players attempting to win a puck in an area of the ice that is not a dangerous part of the ice, if they lose that battle, then chances are someone will be open and a goalie will have little chance. I give you this:

Luke Hughes and Dougie Hamilton were in the corner over Akira Schmid’s right shoulder. They battled for the puck and both of them lost the battle. The puck was then moved quickly to the point for a cross ice pass to Nicolaj Ehlers for a wide open net that a pee wee player could bury. A few different things had to go wrong for this to happen. First, the loss of the puck battle. Two defensemen are now below the goal line on the strong side (the side with the puck). If they don’t hustle really fast, there will be a Jet open on the weak side (hint: it’s Ehlers). The forward covering the point needs to stop the puck from getting up the boards to that point, but that didn’t happen. Dougie wasn’t fast enough to make it to Ehlers or even to the passing lane to prevent it from happening. The forward on the other wing, which I believe is Bastian here, could collapse and try and prevent that weak side pass OR the center could slide down to cut it off. Tierney is the culprit in that instance. If Bastian leaves his point man, there’s a chance that the point man can create havoc by creeping into the high slot.

So why am I talking so in depth about this play? Because it’s basically a fundamental problem in Lindy’s system at times. But last season, he had experienced NHL defensemen who often wound win those outnumbered battles down low or would make it to an area to prevent that wide open weak side look that’s about the best look you can ever get in hockey. In the offensive zone, you have Brendan Smith playing the position that Damon Severson occupied. And while I really like Smith off the ice and as a penalty killer, he’s pretty much a liability almost everywhere else on the ice. Lindy also preaches aggressiveness in both the neutral zone and offensive zone. Severson, for all his flaws, was decent at keeping pucks in the zone and making smart choices if the puck came to him (I’m talking offensive zone here). The personnel matters a lot when trying to execute something like this because it’s dependent on players making smart decisions at NHL speed. And while I think Luke Hughes will eventually be a Norris-caliber defenseman like his brother Quinn, processing the decisions required in Lindy’s system and making the right choice will be a learning curve and sometimes, he’s going to look bad out there.

Brendan Smith also is great at penalty killing because he’s done it for many years and there aren’t that many variations in how to kill penalties in the NHL. You’re either pretty aggressive on the puck or you play a more passive diamond (or rectangle depending on the opponent). Things don’t change and require a lot of quick processing and decision making. At least that’s my theory. Everywhere else, Smith seems to be struggling. He steps up and makes ill advised hits in the neutral zone that will lead to an odd man rush at 5 on 5. He’ll try and keep something in at the offensive blue line (or Luke might do this too), which will lead to, you guessed it, an odd man rush the other way.

The team isn’t processing and reacting in real time the way that Lindy needs them to in order for the system to work. Many times, even prior to the Jack and Nico injuries, they are making poor decisions. Even John Marino, who seemed to make every right decision last year, has been guilty of choosing to take a chance on keeping a puck in or throwing a bad pass from his own zone. The puck support, aka the buzzword connected that the Devils brass and really the league has fallen in love with, isn’t there either. Realizing that Luke and Dougie are going to lose the puck battle in that corner, should’ve led to players collapsing further into the zone since the danger is almost always closer to the net rather than 60 feet away from it (unless you’re the Carolina Hurricanes, who literally have built an entire offensive system based on getting it to the guys 60 feet away and ripping it over and over repeatedly).

Also, the Devils goaltending has been, well, not great.

When your goalies are 57th and 63th in terms of goals saved above expected in the entire league, well, you’re lucky that you’re anywhere near .500, TBH. And not to pat myself on the back here and it’s early, but John Gibson, that goalie that I advocated for throughout the entire offseason, well, he’s 9th in the NHL in terms of GSAA (writing this Wednesday at my son’s hockey practice). Now part of it is a new coach, better defensemen in front of him (Radko Gudas and Pavel Mintyukov to mention two). And it’s also early. But the Devils are over here getting way below league average goaltending. But all that is water under the bridge now because the Ducks aren’t trading Gibson. The Jets re-signed Hellebuyck, so he’s a Winnipegger for life now. And Juuse Saros is likely staying in Nashville long-term as well.

Thatcher Demko is currently one of the best goalies in the league right now (not that he was ever available). Jacob Markstrom might pry loose out of Calgary, but do the Devils want a 33-year-old at a $6 million AAV cap hit? And how would they even fit him? All of this is starting to resemble 2021-2022. Goalie issues exacerbated by a defense that seems clueless on how to defend in Lindy’s system and a forward group that refuses to give them much help.

Oh and to make matters a billion times worse, Hughes and Hischier are still out (though allegedly there’s a remote chance Jack returns in Pittsburgh). Jack is such a dynamic player that he also commands opponents to be aware of him and possibly make difference choices in the offensive zone when he’s around. Maybe they aren’t as aggressive to keep a puck in because they’re afraid Hughes will get the puck and be off to the races and posterize them, Nico’s defensive awareness put him in the Selke running last year and landed him second. So yeah, that’s a huge issue with trying to execute a system of connected hockey players. Though it’s not that surprising that injuries have come to the team given that they didn’t really experience much at all in 2022-2023 other than a few games here and there with the big one being the Ondrej Palat groin surgery. No team goes through a lot of seasons in a row without injuries. We’re talking hockey’s ocean of chaos that always claims players every season. This is a violent, fast and unpredictable sport where 200-pound men are attempting to rip you head off in order to prevent you from putting a puck in a goal.

The solutions seem few and far between right now, other than the depth stepping up, Luke Hughes maturing in his defensive zone and in Lindy’s system faster than most would ever expect, Akira or Vitek suddenly figuring out their issues and the team being a lot more connected in their own zone and making better decisions. Hey, it’s always possible. Then again, just getting a healthy Jack Hughes back could paper over a lot of this team’s issues. I’ll leave some perspective up to Amanda Stein here:

Save us, Jack. You’re our only hope.