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Who Should be the New Jersey Devils Head Coach After This Season?

New Jersey Devils head coach Lindy Ruff has overseen a massive turnaround in 2022-23 after a dismal 2021-22 campaign in the final year of his contract. Ruff has not been given an extension yet. This raises the question: Who should be the head coach of the Devils next season?

New Jersey Devils v Dallas Stars
Will it be Lindy Ruff? Or...?
Photo by Sam Hodde/NHLI via Getty Images

The head coach of the 2022-23 New Jersey Devils is Lindy Ruff. After two awful seasons, this season’s team has eclipsed the point totals and winning percentages of both teams before even the trade deadline. Ruff has been the head coach and, as such, deserves plenty of credit for the massive turnaround. I am sure there will be at least some buzz and votes for Ruff when the Jack Adams Trophy is decided later this year.

However, what Ruff does not have is a secured future. When the Devils announced that they hired Lindy Ruff (and took the interim tag off of General Manager Tom Fitzgerald); he was signed to a three-season contract. This is the third season. Ruff has not been extended. Unless I missed it, the last report I could find regarding that was this Ryan Novozinsky article at back in November. Here is what Fitzgerald had to say:

“I’m not going to talk about his contract with anybody,” Fitzgerald said. “Lindy is here for a reason. I explained those reasons to everybody from the get go and what we needed him to do as the coach because of his history, what he’s done in the past and Buffalo and the younger players he had in Dallas and how they exploded offensively. That’s why he was the guy. And we’re seeing that right now.”

He was the guy and I would like to think the team’s record points to him being the guy. But the guy is going to be out of contract after this season. This is an organization that gave John Hynes an extension in the middle of a bad 2018-19 season, so it is not as if the Devils are averse to in-season negotiations or extending managers without a lot of success. Unless something happens right before this post goes up, Ruff has not been extended. I find this odd given how exceptionally well this season is going. This leads me to ask this important question: Who should be the New Jersey Devils head coach after this season?

(Aside: Plus, thinking about this question is a nice change of pace than thinking about potential trades.)

The Incumbent, Lindy Ruff

In Favor: The easy answer to the question is Lindy Ruff. Why not? As bad as those first two seasons were, this third season under Ruff has been wildly successful. The hope was that the Devils would just play some meaningful games in March and be on a playoff bubble for at least a little bit. The reality is that the Devils could secure home-ice in their first round matchup in the playoffs. Against Our Hated Rivals, no less. As of Wednesday, the 2022-23 Devils have already surpassed last season’s futile campaign by 16 points. By season’s end, it could be more than double that.

There are plenty of favorable signs that point to the Devils’ legitimacy as a quality hockey team. They own a fantastic goal differential at the team level of +42, just shy of Carolina. They own the best road record in hockey at 21-4-3. They have swept entire road trips that have been difficult for Eastern Conference teams in the past such as a trip through California or Western Canada. Even despite the performances since January, their 5-on-5 on-ice rates as a team per Natural Stat Trick are still excellent over the course of this whole season with top 5 percentages in Corsi, shots, expected goals, and actual goals.

Coaching is important as they not only set up who plays with who, but also who is matched-up with the opposition, and what plays they tend to run. Ruff’s insistence on up tempo hockey fits the squad like a well-fitted suit between their overall team speed and the number of players who can make things happen on offense. The defensemen know to activate, yielding more opportunities for the likes of Ryan Graves than otherwise would have if they were just stuck to the point. Devils forwards, most notably Jack Hughes, have the greenlight to take on opposing defenders and can beat the pressure head on. The additions of Ryan McGill and Andrew Brunette in replacing Alain Nasreddine and Mark Recchi has led to improvements both in 5-on-5 and on special teams (aside from the PK success rate). The quality of the bench has improved and Ruff has led the charge.

On the surface, this seems straight forward. The Devils are now a difficult opponent for the league, Ruff has been in charge of that, and so why not keep him around?

Not In Favor: I hate to say it but if this was not the New Jersey Devils and not some other team, we would say the team is overachieving. Sure, the 5-on-5 numbers are legit over the whole season but they have been far from impressive since the turn of the year. Even if they were better, let us face the facts. How likely is it for the Devils to win 21 out of their first 27 road games next season? How likely is it that they sweep entire trips through Western Canada, Eastern Canada, and California once again in 2023-24? How likely is it that they will have a 13-game winning streak that propelled them to a near mortal lock in the playoffs once again? Whether it is fair or not but if the general plan for next season is to stick with the same group, the expectations are going to be a lot higher. And if the team falls short, then we’re back to asking difficult questions about the head coach.

The biggest issue I have with Lindy Ruff is that he is stubborn to a fault. I get it to a point. As a coach, you have your plans, your philosophies, and your assessment of the roster. You want things to be done a certain way and so you stick to them. The issue is that he has done this to a fault this season and signs of it were there in the previous two seasons.

One issue that has come up in recent weeks is the predictability of the Devils’ gameplan. You may have noticed that the Devils are not quite dominating teams like they did in November and even in December when they were not finishing so well. Opponents of all kinds have figured out that the Devils focus on breaking out or making a zone exit on the strong side - or the side with the puck - with the halfwall as support. Former Toronto Marlies assistant coach Jack Han called this out a couple of weeks ago, noting that the Devils make this breakout a lot and opponents pick up on it.

For what it’s worth, the forechecking he calls out in the second half in this video has been dialed back a bit. But since seeing this video, I can not not see how often the Devils make this play from the half wall. And since the Seattle game, I have witnessed Columbus, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Winnipeg pick on it when they can or when certain units are on the ice.

Likewise, in the previous two seasons, the Devils were guilty of overloading the puck carrier to a fault on defense. Think of a blitz in football and you get the idea. Instead of one defender going after the puck, two defenders would engage. Sometimes, more players will go to that area of the zone to try to deny a pass away. The problem here is just as with the blitz in football - if the opposition beats it with a pass or an exceptional move, then there is a lot of open space on the weakside, or the opposite side of where the puck is. And that is when goals can happen, such as in three out of the four goals past Vitek Vanecek in a recent 2-5 loss to Montreal. While the defense has not done this as much since McGill replaced Nasreddine, it happens enough to make you wonder whether that was something Ruff wanted to see - and keep seeing regardless of the results.

Things like this contribute to the increase in slow starts and closer games against all kinds of opponents. It would be one thing if Carolina ripped up the Devils’ game plan. But teams like Columbus, Vancouver, and St. Louis have been able to give the Devils a lot more difficulties than one would expect from them in the run of play. All within this month, in fact. It points to a system that the league knows what the Devils are going to do and short of the Devils being able to out-execute that system than their opponents, there is a real need to adjust it. Yet, there have been few adjustments made. I worry that they will not be made because, hey, they are winning games and Ruff is ultimately too stubborn to change it given that things are generally great season-wise. This will become a problem for the playoffs.

The other aspect that points to Ruff’s stubborness is his roster management. I understand the desire to “don’t fix what is not broken,” but Hughes emerging as a top scorer in the league does not justify sticking Erik Haula next to him for months to not score goals. It took until this month before that was fully severed; even so, Haula’s most common 5-on-5 teammate is still Hughes by a whopping 100+ minutes. Dawson Mercer is rocking a four-game goal streak and increased minutes. Earlier in the season, he was relegated to more limited minutes on a third line that Ruff would sometimes shorten the bench for. Unsurprisingly, he was not producing much then! It took several weeks of awful play before Ruff would cut Miles Wood’s minutes. I wrote a whole post about the odd usage of Yegor Sharangovich. Who is still not on a power play unit despite the second unit regularly including Wood and Haula of all players. More recently, we have had the “enjoyment” of a Dougie Hamilton-Brendan Smith pairing which has not been good for either defender. Sure, the team has been successful, but it has led to the continuation of these line and pairing decisions instead of shifting around what does not work. Credit to Ruff, he has changed some of these - it just took a while to do.

The bigger sign of this stubbornness has been more with the fringe of the roster. Alexander Holtz is pointed out as someone who does not have the NHL pace and needs to contribute more. Yet, when he plays, it often is not much and Ruff has given him all of four appearances since January 1, 2023. Unsurprisingly, keeping a 21-year old winger in the scratch suite does not make him a better NHL player. It was only until recently did he get demoted to actually play hockey. There have been others who have suffered scratches only to not get a real chance unless called upon. Fabian Zetterlund has had his fair share of healthy scratches. Seeing him away from Wood and Michael McLeod has shown more of hi his worth and makes his previous scratches questionable. Ditto Jesper Boqvist, who has put in more pace than even Wood at times in recent games and, again, makes you wonder why he was kept as an extra. Now Nathan Bastian is experiencing this situation. He returned from injury, suffered on a fourth line and contributed little, and now he is on the outside looking in - waiting for his next chance. It is frustrating for the player as well as some of the People Who Matter.

Adding to this frustration is that they sit while some of these players, such as Wood, have a different standard in Ruff’s eyes and continued to play regularly despite not producing (the issue with Zetterlund, if I recall correctly) and doing things that do not help (take your pick of issues here). It is true that Ruff’s job is to not develop the fringe or young players, but when these players have flourished, it has been in spite of Ruff’s usage at times. Which all points to a head coach who has made his determination about the player and will stick to it regardless of the possibility that with more shifts and less pressure of getting the hook, the player may be able to change the coaches’ mind. No, these players may not break games wide open like a Jack Hughes or a Jesper Bratt. But they could have contributed more and make the Devils a deeper team while continuing to get results. All pointing to a head coach that does not want to change from how he sees his charges.

And this stubbornness could absolutely catch up with him in the playoffs. To Han’s point in the video, it does not take long for teams in the NHL to figure out your gameplans if you stick to them that much. This can be exposed as a weakness in a best-of-seven series. Not deepening the team - beyond any additions by Fitzgerald before next Friday - can come back to haunt the Devils should someone get hurt or need a break due to some poor games. Ruff deserves plenty of credit for this season’s impressive turnaround. However, his apparent stubbornness may hold the team back from reaching the next level. And given that he will be out of contract after this season, a clean break is not only possible - but maybe a better option that it may seem.

The Playoff Factor: I think and believe the playoffs are going to be the deciding factor in Ruff’s fate. Should the Devils win a first round matchup - especially if it is against Our Hated Rivals - then it would be the team’s first since 2012. It would be a massive accomplishment. As would any success beyond the first round. If that happens, then I would understand and even welcome a Lindy Ruff extension. Should the Devils crash out of the first round or even fall apart down the stretch of the season to a first round playoff loss, then I think it may be more possible that someone else takes over. Who could be that someone else? Consider these names.

Internal Candidates

Andrew Brunette: Remember, Andrew Brunette is not an assistant coach. He is an associate coach. The Devils signed him to a three-season contract back in July 2022. More importantly, they signed him after he was the interim head coach of the Florida Panthers. After Joel Quenneville was disgraced and deposed, Brunette bossed the Panthers to their best season ever in franchise history. They even won a playoff series; the team’s first since 1996. Florida’s management decided that was not good enough. Being swept by Tampa Bay was enough reason to let him go free. They signed Paul Maurice to replace him. Given that Florida may not even make the playoffs this season, it is clear to me that Florida made a mistake. Someone under contract, someone with a higher title than assistant, and someone who has been a head coach recently? If Ruff is not coming back, then Brunette surely has to be seen as the favorite as a replacement - internal or otherwise.

The issue I have - outside of his golf-cart DUI arrest - is how he has handled the power play. It is better than the statuesque units Mark Recchi organized. There is far more creativity and movement. However, I feel it could be even better than the near-median success rate they have so far. The power play is basically all-or-nothing with the first unit as the second unit has contributed very little. And the team’s still struggles with aggressive penalty killers regardless of whether the opponent has been good on PKs or not. That said, the team is generating a lot of offense on their man advantages. They have won games outright with their power plays, especially in overtime. That is a far cry better than the wasteful Recchi-coached power plays. That does give me confidence that he could build upon the offensive-style that Ruff has set up in New Jersey. Again, he is in a great position to take over.

Kevin Dineen: Utica’s head coach was definitely brought up during last season’s misery. While the Devils stunk, the Utica Comets were soaring last season with a 43-20-8-1 record and a +40 goal differential. Not so much this season at 23-20-5-2 and a -10 goal differential with a mere 146 goals scored, but they are still in a playoff position in a very competitive North Division. There is still time for the Comets to punch their ticket. The appeal of Dineen is that he is a former NHL head coach (2011-12 to 2013-14 with Florida), NHL assistant coach (2014-15 to 2018-19 with Chicago), he is familiar with the organization and how they want to do business on the ice, and he is especially familiar with several players currently with New Jersey. This current season by the Comets may cool off any desires to “call him up” but if management wants someone with more experience and does not want to promote Brunette, Dineen is there.

Ryan McGill: McGill is the darkhorse internally. He has been a defensive assistant coach for the first five seasons of Las Vegas’ existence across two different head coaches. He has been a fine upgrade over Alain Nasreddine this season. The penalty kill has not been as amazing, but the team relying less on overloading puck carriers has been a big benefit for the team’s defense and structure. He has past experience as a head coach at the major junior and AHL levels, too. It would not totally surprise me if he has aspirations for a head coaching opportunity in the future. That he does not have past NHL experience as a head coach does put him well behind Brunette and Dineen. But I would at least keep his name as an option for the future. Whether it is in New Jersey or elsewhere remains to be seen.

External Candidates

There are some tantalizing names that have been available or become available that the Devils would be wise to consider if they do break away from Ruff. Two immediately come to mind as those I would strongly recommend ahead of internal candidates.

Barry Trotz: The two-time Jack Adams Award winner was let go by the Islanders last season as they failed to make the playoffs. This after three straight playoff appearances and two straight trips to the Eastern Conference finals. Trotz was hyped up for Winnipeg but spurned them by deciding to take a break. He has certainly earned it. He was a head coach in the NHL since 1998-99 with Nashville, went right to Washington from 2014 to 2018 wherein he led the Caps to their one and only Stanley Cup, and went to Long Island. He has earned a break. I have a lot of respect for him and his structures he set up across all three teams, including an offensively charged Washington squad. If Trotz wants to get back into the NHL and wants to return to the tri-state area and there’s a spot available in New Jersey, then they have to at least talk to him.

Bruce Boudreau: Bruce, there it was. He got an absolutely raw deal in Vancouver this season. Sure, Vancouver was in a state of disarray this season but Boudreau did not put this disaster class of a roster together. Boudreau has just about done it all in pro hockey as a head coach except win the Cup. He bossed Anaheim to a Western Conference Final in 2015. His teams - Washington for nearly five seasons, Anaheim for nearly five seasons, Minnesota for nearly four seasons - have made the postseason more often than not with his only failure being that nonsense up in British Columbia. I have a lot of respect for him and if the Devils management wants to look outside of the organization, there is a man with possibly a big chip on his shoulder that may be interested to take a quality squad that is not horribly mismanaged or has a questionable owner to the next level. As with Trotz, he has to at least be seriously considered if he is interested at all in New Jersey. Expect a push from media members still answering to The Boss wanting a different kind of Brucemania in the Garden State if this seems possible.

Claude Julien: Julien returning to New Jersey under different ownership would be interesting. Say what you want about him, but he was remarkably successful in Boston from 2007 to 2017 with constant playoff appearances up until his final two seasons where they narrowly missed the postseason, one trip to the cup in 2013 and one actual Cup in 2011. While his second tenure with Montreal did not go so well, those teams were not exactly set up for a lot of success either and he did boss them to two playoff appearances. I do not know how interested he is in getting back into a head coaching spot, but as with Boudreau and Trotz, if the Devils are looking outside of the organization, then management has to at least discuss Julien’s name.

Rikard Grönborg: The Swedish coach’s name has come up for NHL head coaching jobs here and there. Back in 2020, it was reported that the Devils did inquire with ZSC Lions of the National League about Grönborg for the head coaching job. Only to be rebuffed by the Lions as he was still under contract. However, he is now available. He was fired by ZSC Lions during this season and replaced by Marc Crawford, who was unfortunately in the news recently for a bigoted comment at a referee. If the Devils do not stick with Ruff and had strong interest in Grönborg before, then this may be the time to re-visit it as he is now free. Would it be a good idea? I am unsure. While Grönborg had some coaching experience at the lower levels in North American hockey, he has been involved either with Sweden’s national teams or ZSC Lions since 2010. Yes, he has been very successful at the international level. Not so much with ZSC Lions. Even if he became the king of coaches in Swiss hockey with championships all over the place, it would still be a huge risk to put him in charge of a Devils team with legitimate expectations for his first NHL job. But he is now available and the Devils have asked about him before. It is at least a remote possibility should the Devils want to move on from Ruff, internal candidates are not promoted, and other external candidates are not interested or available. In other words: this is a long shot.

The Field: This is basically dependent on who else is fired at the NHL level and who else is an assistant garnering attention for a potential head coaching job. I highly doubt the Devils would get this far over established names and Grönborg, but that depends on who suddenly becomes available. And, of course, what happens in the playoffs.

Final Thoughts & Your Take

Let me make it clear as a final point that I do not want Lindy Ruff to be replaced now. Short of a scandal or a personal choice on Ruff’s end, there is no reason for it. For all of my complaints with how the team is predictable on-ice, the results have proven that the Devils are able to succeed even when the opposition is countering what he is trying to do. For all of my complaints about the roster management, the results point to Ruff getting a lot more right than he is not. It may not have been ideal to stick Haula with Hughes for three to four months, but it certainly did not keep The Big Deal from hitting the top ten in league scoring among other things. This is a results-oriented business and there is value to rewarding success. Ruff has been incredibly successful in 2022-23. He deserves credit for this season as much as he earned blame for the prior two. As such, it is absolutely justifiable to me to keep Ruff on even right now.

Which goes back to the reason why I am asking this question now. Ruff has not (yet) received an extension despite this success. Hynes was given an extension during a far worse season with far fewer results. Ruff not getting one now strikes me as odd. I think with the success the Devils have put up so far, the expectations of management have clearly shifted.. Clearly, the Devils cannot afford to be just be happy to be a bubble team next season. That would be a huge fall from this season’s achievements. The only way is up in this case and that means playoff success. That would be the next level. Can Ruff coach the team up to reach that next level? We will find out later this year. It is my belief that will determine whether Ruff stays as New Jersey’s head coach - presuming he wants it. He may very well achieve playoff success, which I would absolutely want, and get that extension. Until then, this question is one that cannot be totally ignored for the organization.

Now I turn to you. Do you want Lindy Ruff to be the head coach of the New Jersey Devils beyond this season? Do you want the Devils to promote Brunette or Dineen or McGill to the head coaching spot after this season? Do you want the Devils to look outside the organization for the team’s next head coach? Why do you want what you want? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the coaching in the comments. Thank you for reading.