Alexander Holtz is not just a young winger on the New Jersey Devils. He is not just a former top-ten NHL Draft selection. Or only a product of Djurgårdens IF of the SHL. Alexander Holtz is a visible example of some of the issues displayed by Devils head coach Lindy Ruff in this season. How visible? Ryan Novozinsky of NJ.com has written not just one but at least two articles about Holtz’s ice time this season. And the growing frustration from the People Who Matter about Holtz, Ruff, and/or the Devils’ season was fueled further after the Devils’ 2-3 loss to Montreal with the following exchange at 3:38 in the Devils’ official video of the post-game press conference:
Novozinsky: “With Holtz, just two shifts after his, uh obviously, game-tying goal, what went into that?
Ruff: “Again. Um, you don’t watch the game very well. So if you look at the opportunity in the second period where he threw the puck in the middle of the ice, you get a point-blank scoring chance. In a tight game, in a one-goal game, you, uh, it’s, it’s plays like that where we’re trying to get back in the game and I drop down to three lines. Um. We happened to get back in the game. He understands. We’re trying to eliminate the pucks that go into the middle of the ice. The puck management part. So when you make a play like that, then it’s going to be hard to get back onto the ice. We just gave them a quality scoring chance off a play where we put it in the middle of the ice where we do not need to put it in the middle of the ice. Well, yeah. Like this power play goal, and some other things I liked. But is he going to make the same play again?”
Wow. That initial reaction was rather cold from Ruff.
It is also a garbage explanation from the experienced head coach. I attended the 2-3 loss to Montreal and saw plenty of Devils fling pucks to and across the middle in their own end of the rink. Luke Hughes did it. He kept getting shifts. Michael McLeod did it. He even missed a pass in a 3-on-1 and took a minor penalty after the ensuing Montreal counter-attack. He kept getting shifts. Simon Nemec did it as well as covering a ghost between Sean Monahan and Joshua Roy on the second goal against. He kept getting shifts. Even John Marino did it, who also pinched way too deep that led to the 2-on-1 (shout out to the terrible line change in between!) and got bodied up by 5’7” Cole Caufield for the GWG and still kept getting shifts. So, no, it is not something the Devils or Ruff is trying to eliminate since it happened multiple times in the same game.
And it was far from the worst mistake in the 2-3 loss to Montreal. Jared apparently found the play in question. Holtz was trying to make an outlet from the sidewall when it was not clear to do so. Not the best decision but something we have seen from the Devils and opponents. It was also something that could have been a whole big nothing if Kevin Bahl got a stick on it (he whiffed) or Cal Foote did not lose it from a stick check. Still, of all of the things to punish a player for - especially in the loss to Montreal - that would rank rather low on the list. Check it out for yourself if you have more faith in how you watch hockey than Ruff does in Novozinsky.
Novozinsky wrote about the experience, as he should, at NJ.com. He also has a more cleaned up transcription of Ruff’s quote. He concludes that Holtz has earned a top-nine role for his play and that Ruff and the Devils are risking Holtz’s development as they continue to bury him deep in the lineup. And that is a fair conclusion seeing that Ruff did not really answer Novozinsky’s question in full. OK, so he was punishing Holtz, he scores a goal, and so - the punishment had to continue? Really? He needed to stick to three lines in a 2-2 game for most of the third period? (Aside: Devils were out-xG’ed 0.57 to 083 in the third period that was mostly 2-2 so the Ruff gameplan of shortening the bench was not working well.) Holtz just had to be stapled to Max Willman and Chris Tierney for a handful of shifts? For what, a risk that Holtz would score a second goal in the game?
I will say Novozinsky got one thing wrong. Holtz played three shifts after his game-tying PPG as per Caleb in his very good recap of the game.
However, this post is not just about Ruff’s asinine reaction to a fairly benign question about a player who continues to get a short end of the stick. This post is about Alexander Holtz, how Lindy Ruff does not see what he has done very well, and why that is a bigger problem than just that.
Holtz: Last Season to This Season
Last season was a rough one for Holtz. He got into 19 games and averaged just over 10 minutes per game. He took 21 shots, scored three goals, put up four points, and took four penalties. He struggled to get named into the lineup and was often in the scratch suite more often than not. At his exit interview, as Ryan Novozinsky reported at NJ.com back in June, General Manager Tom Fitzgerald, Ruff, Utica Comets head coach Kevin Dineen, Assistant GM Dan MacKinnon, and Director of Player Development Meghan Duggan were all present. The message was clear: Holtz needed to get better in the offseason. European development coach Esa Pirnes gave him the same message separately. His skating needed to improve, his conditioning needed to improve, his play off the puck needed to improve, his defensive game needed to improve, and his mentality needed to improve. Holtz had to work his tail off if he wanted to get time in New Jersey.
The thing is: Holtz has done just that. This season, Holtz made the Devils roster and has been a regular of sorts. He has played in all 42 games. He has been seen on a power play unit, albeit a secondary one. From pure eyesight, Holtz has been skating harder, backchecking better and more often, and moving off the puck to make himself an option more effectively. Discipline with respect to penalties has been much better as he sits with just four penalties this season to date. Discipline with respect to battling for pucks and not just winging shots away has also been better. The Holtz of 2023-24 is not the same as the Holtz of 2022-23. He has definitely upped his game as he turns 22 next week. And we can prove it.
The Production of Alexander Holtz
Yet, Holtz has been largely limited in his ice time. While his average ice time has improved, it has gone up from 10:16 per game in 2022-23 to 12 minutes even so far in 2023-24. In terms of 5-on-5 play, Holtz has went from 8:16 in 2022-23 to 10:30 in 2023-24. Holtz has been largely kept in the bottom six of the Devils’ forward group. This may be understandable when the team is close to full strength. There are only so many spots on the roster and so many options to fill out the top six. Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, Nico Hischier, Dawson Mercer, Tyler Toffoli, Ondrej Palat, Erik Haula, and Timo Meier have all seen time on those prime lines. Yet, even when those guys have been hurt, Holtz’s usage has been all over the place. His most common 5-on-5 teammates have Mercer as the only forward above 150 minutes together with him. Haula, Michael McLeod, and Curtis Lazar join Mercer as the only ones with over 100 minutes with Holtz. And catching up to that group is Chris Tierney, who has been locked with Holtz in the loss to Montreal among recent games. Yes, even when the Devils were missing The Big Deal, Palat, and Timo Meier, Holtz was somehow demoted to play with Tierney and Max Willman.
This has not demoralized Holtz. If anything, he has made the most of his limited opportunities. Consider the following stats after last night’s game:
- Holtz has 11 goals per NHL.com. This puts him in a tie with Hischier for fifth on the team. This is also more goals than “Motor” Michael McLeod, Haula, Meier, Palat, and Lazar - all players who have more average ice time than Holtz.
- Also from NHL.com, Holtz has 21 points, good for eighth on the team. This means he has 10 assists, evidence that he has created for others. He is one behind Mercer and Haula, two behind Hischier, and ahead of McLeod, Meier, Lazar, and Palat.
- And again from NHL.com, Holtz has a very nice 69 shots on net. This puts him in a tie with McLeod for seventh on the team. All the more impressive given that McLeod plays close to three minutes more per game than Holtz. Which leads me to some individual rate stats to go over.
- In all situations per Natural Stat Trick, Holtz has put up 8.21 shots per 60 minutes, 0.73 individual expected goals per 60 (the xG of Holtz’s own shots), 1.31 goals per 60, and 1.19 assists per 60. In shooting rate, Holtz is sixth on the team behind Dougie Hamilton, Bratt, Toffoli, Meier, The Big Deal. In ixG/60, Holtz is a modest 11th on the team. In actual goals per 60, Holtz is tied with Toffoli and only behind The Big Deal for second on the team. For assist rate, Holtz sits seventh. Not amazing, but pretty good and, again, proof that he has created for others. This is a player who has been productive despite averaging 12 minutes per game. Especially with the goals.
- If we break it down to just 5-on-5 play per NST, we get to have our minds blown. Holtz is the team leader in goals per 60 at 1.36. Holtz is third on the team with 1.22 assists per 60 behind Lazar (!) and Bratt. Holtz is still sixth on the team in shots per 60 and his ixG per 60 is a modest 0.7. Still, Holtz is an actual leader on the team in something on offense with 10 goals in 5-on-5 play (tied with Mercer but in about 133 fewer minutes).
- Here is another mind-blowing stat from NST: Holtz’s 1.36 goals per 60 in 5-on-5 play is 27th in the entire NHL per Natural Stat Trick. Granted, that stat is filled with top-end scoring talent (e.g. Zach Hyman, Auston Matthews, Artemi Panarin, Connor Bedard) and depth players with surprisingly productive seasons (e.g. Nils Hoglander, Robby Fabbri, Michael Carcone). Still, Holtz rates really highly in the rather important value known as scoring goals this season. Not just on the Devils but in the entire NHL.
In other words: the young man is a scorer! Now! Today! Something that a team who was struggling to score a 5-on-5 goal since two games ago in Sunrise could really use! And that was a game where Holtz did score in 5-on-5 play! He’s 22, he’s got a high goal rate, he has even scored recently, and the team is currently short on scoring talent due to injuries and other reasons. I am not writing that Holtz needs Tyler Toffoli’s ice time (well...) and the wins would have come. But who can defend keeping a lid on this production, which has blown away his three goals and four points in 19 games in 2022-23? Limiting him to just 5:49 of 5-on-5 ice time because of an outlet attempt from the wall on defense in the second period is baffling. I say is because I remain baffled by it.
The On-Ice Rates of Holtz
But what about the other things? Scoring is not everything, although I would argue it is rather significant for an offensive winger like Holtz. What can show the defensive improvement? What about the all important compete?
Well, Holtz’s on-ice rates in 5-on-5 are not so favorable. He did just end up over 50% in CF% after the Montreal game, but he remains below 50% in shots for percentage (48.18%), expected goals for percentage (47.23%), scoring chance for percentage (49.21%, so not too far off), and high danger scoring chance for percentage (42.86%, which is bad). Despite a positive on-ice actual goals for percentage (53.49%, meaning the Devils outscore their opponents with Holtz on the ice), these do not reflect so well on the other parts of Holtz’s game. They are just about all improvements over his 19 games last season although you have to take anyone’s on-ice rates with some grains of salt when they average over 8 minutes per game.
However, there is more to it than what it seems on the surface at 5-on-5 when Holtz takes a shift.
Remember that Holtz has been shifted around the lineup and has not had any real consistency when it comes to teammates. Those teammates matter. Read the teammates section of his player page at Natural Stat Trick. Here are some notable failings. The team’s on-ice rates have been awful when Holtz has a shift with Bahl behind him. Those 164 minutes with Mercer have not been favorable either. This may shock you that the run of play has been a real struggle in the 83 minutes (and counting) with depth forward Chris Tierney. The Devils have also struggled to move the puck in the right direction when Holtz is on the same shift with Curtis Lazar. Ditto in 71 minutes with Timo Meier, just shy of 82 minutes in front of Simon Nemec, and just shy of 75 minutes with Brendan Smith. The short-lived Max Willman experience has been an utter disaster. Sure, Holtz may not be a play driver or someone who can carry AHL talent to NHL results.
Who can he play well with? McLeod has been a statistically strong connection in nearly 108 minutes together. I would start there. Holtz with either Luke Hughes or Colin Miller behind him has been fruitful. Even John Marino with Holtz has been better more often than not except in goals against. Haula has been a positive influence. While the numbers with Smith, Nemec, and Mercer were not favorable, they also were not as heinous as, say, a shift with Tierney or Willman. Even as injured as the Devils have been, there are legitimate choices to make. But Ruff and his staff have chosen to keep Holtz with two marginal forwards while even the likes of Nathan Bastian get more quality teammates and minutes in recent games.
This is in spite of Lindy Ruff and his staff witnessing some good connections in games. I get that in a game that Ruff cannot just keep Holtz with certain guys for the entire game. There will be some changes that cannot be done or injuries force the lineup to be determined as they go and so forth. Holtz’s role may be a victim of others needing to succeed or actually succeeding on some nights. I get that. But that is not the current situation. The current situation is that Holtz is being buried with fourth line depth guys even with the knowledge - statistical and otherwise! - that he can be successful with better players. Yet, Ruff and the coaching staff do not want to change that at this moment in time.
Lastly, one definitive positive in his on-ice 5-on-5 numbers is that the Devils have outscored opponents 23-20 with Holtz. Seems valuable for a team that should want to stem the bleeding of goals. While the team has bled HDCAs when #10 takes a shift, the on-ice save percentage of 90.61% suggests that the goalies have been able to handle the workload. I went through his game log and tried to see how many of them were a result of something Holtz did or did not do. Here is what I found.
- 10/24/23 - Justin Barron goal: maybe - Holtz came back first and could have occupied the space Barron would put the rebound in. I would fault Vanecek more for the massive rebound and Hamilton taking guys behind the net when the puck went out front.
- 1/6/24 - Elias Pettersson goal: Kind of. Holtz literally jumped over the boards and had to chase the eventual scorer, who was heading to the slot. Pettersson got the feed from Brock Boeser and scored.
That’s 2 out of 20 and both are really borderline cases as to whether Holtz did anything heinous on those goals against. While Holtz should have stayed in the right circle after being the first forward back on Barron’s goal, I really do fault Hamilton and Vanecek more for that goal against. Holtz just stepped over the boards on a change and had to chase down Pettersson, who had several feet on him to start for his score. Even if Holtz did something obvious on both GAs, it is still 2 out of 20 that he saw on the ice. Even if Holtz’s backchecking or defensive play could be better, it has not cost the Devils on the scoreboard. Holtz has not been a liability in that respect and the tape shows it.
Oh, by the way, Holtz has a point on 19 of those 23 goals by the Devils in 5-on-5 play when Holtz takes a shift this season. Again, he has provided more value than he has allowed. That is consistent with a player who has been working harder and playing better off the puck in order to contribute more to the team.
What Alex Holtz Reveals of Lindy Ruff
Let me summarize the current situation. Holtz was presumably given the message of “shape up or ship out” at the end of last season. Holtz shaped up to a point where he is notably quicker on and off the puck, he backchecks, he competes for pucks on the boards, and he is not taking lazy penalties. Holtz has been kept to bottom-six minutes and a secondary power play unit in terms of usage. Yet, he leads the Devils in goals at 5-on-5 with 10, has 11 goals total, and has more goals and points than several players who play more than him - like Michael McLeod - by both raw counts and per-60 minute rates. He has been producing at a good pace since he has played in 21 of his 42 games with fewer than 10 minutes in 5-on-5 play this season.
His on-ice rates could be better in 5-on-5. However, they are better than what they were in 2022-23. Plus, we have evidence that he has performed with players who are active on the team and far better than the ones he has played with in recent losses to Boston and Montreal. On top of that, Holtz has not been creating the vast majority of the 20 goals against the Devils he has been on the ice for in 5-on-5 while he has been very involved in the 23 goals by the Devils that he has witnessed.
I may not be a NHL head coach and, most likely, neither are you. But all of these signs point to a player who is playing and contributing way above his role. In spite of his limited usage, Holtz has shown real improvement. He has developed and has produced for a team that could use more production. Ruff’s job is to manage the team to wins and Holtz is a guy who can score points to get said wins. Why not give him more minutes then? Especially on a team currently short on offensive talent due to injuries and now has seven straight periods of no goals in 5-on-5 play?
Those answers are simple: Lindy Ruff and his staff does not want to and so they do not. The question about Holtz’s ice time was asked to Ruff in a rather benign way by Ryan Novozinsky after the Montreal loss and Ruff’s answer began with “You don’t watch the game very well.” It is absolutely on Ruff why Holtz has not been rewarded for his actual improvement.
Why does Ruff treat Holtz in this way? I am not in the locker room so I can only speculate. We can rule out age as Ruff has given a lot of minutes to Simon Nemec and Luke Hughes, three players younger than Holtz. Not to mention starting the recently-turned-23 Nico Daws in three straight games. It is not as if Ruff is averse to under-25 year olds playing on this team. We can rule out Holtz’s European background as Ruff has given significant minutes to Nemec, Jesper Bratt, and Jonas Siegenthaler - all of whom have developed in Europe. (Aside: Ondrej Palat, Nico Hischier and Timo Meier were drafted out of the QMJHL; Erik Haula was out of Shattuck-St. Mary’s and went to Minnesota.) We can rule out attitude unless Holtz has been a total hidden pain behind the scenes. I doubt that given how his teammates celebrate his goals and points. Surely, Novozinsky or another reporter would have seen or heard something.
My conclusion is that Lindy Ruff still sees the Alexander Holtz he had for 19 games last season (and even the 9 games before that) instead of the Alexander Holtz he has now for 42 games. Despite the evidence that Holtz has improved. Despite the observations you and I and others who may or may not watch the game very well where Holtz has been more involved and contributing more. Despite the fact that Holtz could even score an important goal in a game, he is kept on a far tighter leash despite several other players playing worse and/or doing more harm to the team. And admitting that Holtz has improved would mean that Lindy Ruff would have to admit that he is wrong about something.
I know, I know, I am just guessing from a computer screen and Section 1 at The Rock. But it is the only conclusion that allows for Holtz to be a better hockey player than he was last season and tangibly provide more results than several other, more experienced and higher-paid Devils, but get treated like he is still some young guy who needs to learn to play The Right Way. Which is not consistent with the reality of the 2023-24 season. I may not have 1,877 games and counting behind a NHL bench but I do not think you need to have any to see a player contributing and think, “Why is he not playing more? Let’s try it.” But, again, doing so would be admitting that Lindy Ruff is wrong about something.
What makes this worse is that there is a winger who is known for his shot that is currently not competing all that hard, not skating all that swiftly, not putting in a ton of effort, and not contributing all that much unless he puts a puck in the net or helps someone else do so. That would be Tyler Toffoli. For the last two months, he has been playing and producing a lot more like a not-hot Michael Ryder. Toffoli is playing more like 2022-23 Holtz than Holtz is now. Yet, Toffoli had that hot October, he is a veteran, and so he continues to get big minutes despite not contributing much. I will say it again: Holtz could probably do a lot of what Toffoli does now for a lot less money. Especially given how Toffoli is playing as of late.
That perception is the bigger and more significant problem with Lindy Ruff as the Devils’ head coach that this whole Holtz situation reveals. Not just in this season but ever since he joined the organization in 2020. It takes a big man to admit that he is wrong and we are finding out that Lindy Ruff may not be as large was we expect him to be. Especially given his 26 years or so of being a NHL head coach.
The Stubborn Head Coach, Lindy Ruff
This is not to say that Ruff is entirely unable to change anything. He can change lines and defensive pairings. He can take people in and out of a lineup. However, look at the Devils this season and compare them to his other three seasons behind the bench. The style of play and the general tactical philosophy is pretty much the same with not much of an adjustment.
Consider: The Devils’ primary play in their own end is to overload on the puck and have the defensemen swarm the puck carrier. True in 2021 and true today. The Devils look for transition plays to a point where a forward frequently flies out of the zone to be an option for a breakout pass - even if possession is not yet won. True from his first season and true now. The high-low approach in the offensive zone; defensemen of all skillsets encouraged to activate on offense; forwards dropping back to the point to account for said activation; a 1-3-1 power play formation; and a passive box on the penalty kill. A lot of Devils hockey today is similar to how they played in Ruff’s first season. While other assistant coaches have worked on specific parts of the team, Ruff’s fingerprints are all over the team’s tactics. My apologies for tagging Alain Nasreddine for the overloading - it clearly is Ruff given that it has continued for better and for worse under Ryan McGill.
These tactics and the sticking to them would be fine if they were successful. They have helped the Devils tilt the ice in their favor more often than not. However, they have also been exposed by other teams, increasingly so this season as opponents are exposing the weakside in New Jersey’s defensive zone coverage. Want to slow down the Devils’ attack? Set up in a neutral zone trap or work hard on the forecheck to deny the exit pass (or both). Want to render their power play useless? Go hard after the ones with the puck and wait for the slingshot drop pass in the neutral zone. See a defenseman pinching? Win a puck and send guys off to the races for the odd man rush. See a swarm happening? Have a defenseman activate or a forward go weakside to be an option for a pass if the swarm fails. Every tactic has a risk but some teams try to adjust or throw some kind of wrinkle to keep it interesting. Not the Devils.
The Devils have been predictable. Which, again, would be fine if it was leading to plenty of wins. Something we can only say about one of Ruff’s four seasons with New Jersey. While most teams know what other teams do, the difference is that the Devils have been solved by other teams more often and Ruff does not change too much from these concepts. What’s this? The goaltenders are getting hammered? Let us not consider how the Devils can adjust their style of play to make life at least a little easier for them. Just let Dave Rogalski do his thing and act as if goaltending is like the weather and therefore cannot be dealt with. (Aside: A lot of supposedly smart hockey people think this about goaltending. Weirdly incurious!) That was Ruff’s plan in the past and it is his plan now for his team. Ruff is loyal to his strategies and tendencies even if they are not getting goals, stopping goals, and/or getting wins. For example, look at their most recent loss. Marino pinched in deep that led to Nemec covering no one in a 2-on-1? Marino kept on activating as if nothing was learned. And why would that change? After all, Ruff dropped to three lines in the Montreal game in the second period because of some blink-and-you-miss-it error by Holtz. That it was a 2-2 game in the third and the team was not doing so well did not compel him to change that decision either.
I would argue this also applies to how he motivates and prepares players. How many times have we seen the Devils come out in games and basically do very little on offense for the first 7-12 minutes? Several times this season the Devils have come out slow. Ruff has called them out on it before and yet it continues to happen. It certainly did in Boston and against Montreal in recent games. And it will continue to happen since Ruff is certainly not going to change his methods of preparing players. He’s loyal to that. After all, the Devils make all of these come back efforts and have so many come back wins. Just ignore the fact that the Devils have to comeback from something so often to do that as often as they do.
And so Ruff remains loyal to his impressions of players. This ties into his accountability. Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec started off great in the NHL. Therefore, they both get plenty of slack if/when they make an error. John Marino and Jonas Siegenthaler were great last season so maybe they can play their way back to their form (they were not even prior to Siegenthaler’s injury). Sure, Marino got to sit for a while for a period or two in October, but nothing since even given his rollercoaster of a season. Vitek Vanecek getting used regularly? The coach said they are going to build a statue of the man last March; it took three months of 1980s-level save percentage play to have Nico Daws take his spot for the moment. Going back to Holtz, he did not impress right away and needed a lot of improvement. Ruff is now at a point where he has to justify not giving more minutes to a goal scorer because of a minor turnover in the second period that led to absolutely nothing. Despite legitimately improving and getting on the scoresheet, Ruff is loyal to his thoughts on the player to a real fault. This leads to players not being put in a position to succeed. This leads to players not being motivated or elevated by the coaches. It also means Lindy Ruff is not watching Alex Holtz very well at all.
This stubbornness to his ways of coaching, his ways of getting players ready to play, and how he sees players has held the team back. This season and, arguably, in past seasons. How many times have the Devils lost a game that left you thinking, “Surely something has to change?” I regret to inform you that one of the people who can do something about it does not appear to make any changes.
For the eventual Ruff defenders in the comments, I ask you: How is this working out for the 2023-24 Devils? The team is 9-10-2 at home. A bad record in a league where the median home team takes 60-65% of the points. They currently stand at 22-17-3, which does not seem so bad except they are currently seventh in the division, sit behind multiple teams in the wild card part of the standings, and now sit just two points ahead of the Montreal team that just beat them. A 56% points percentage is not so bad for a team looking to be on a playoff bubble. The Devils coming off a 52-win season is not a team that should be settling for just playing some valuable games in March. Tom Fitzgerald did not spend and commit over a hundred million dollars of his bosses’ money (namely $70.4 million to Timo Meier, $9.45 million to Erik Haula, $63 million to Jesper Bratt) to miss the playoffs. Definitely not after last season’s success and playoff victory. This season is not working out well for the Devils. Certainly not unsalvageable, but definitely not good enough. But why expect Ruff to change anything? He does not even want to change his views and usage about Alexander Holtz.
Again, I get that it is hard to admit when you’re wrong and have to change things when it is not working how you would like it. I would think a coach as experienced as Ruff would know this. Instead, his stubbornness is a key reason why the Devils are looking up from the wrong end of the standings; why the Devils have lost games to the likes of Montreal, Columbus, St. Louis, San Jose, Anaheim, and others; and why I have little reason to expect things to get better. Short of Jack Hughes coming back and pulling a Taylor Hall-level carry job in the second half of this season, of course.
I am not arguing that Ruff putting Alexander Holtz in the top six would fix everything with the Devils. I would agree and argue Holtz deserves a whole lot more trust and minutes than getting kept to fewer than 10 minutes and stuck with quad-A linemates. But Ruff and the staff will not do that. Why Ruff’s seeming inability to treat Holtz based on how he is actually performing on the ice speaks to Ruff’s absolute stubbornness. Which is something that is holding the team back when it comes to how he coaches the players, how he prepares the players for games, how he responds to performances, and how he utilizes the players.
This is a big reason why Holtz is talked up as much as he does among the People Who Matter and has become noticed by Ryan Novozinsky and others. Holtz has revealed Ruff’s nature and how that has been a real problem for the 2023-24 Devils. Whether you think it is enough for the organization to move on from Ruff and go with someone else, I will leave that to you. Whether you think that is a reason that Ruff and I have the same number of Stanley Cup rings, I will also leave to you.
As one final thought, I want to make one thing clear. Coaching absolutely makes a difference and how it is done is crucial. Here are some examples:
John Tortorella has a well-earned reputation for being tough. But he is largely fair in his toughness and so a Philadelphia team many thought would be fighting Columbus for last is currently in second place. Carolina has a team save percentage at 5-on-5 only a little bit (0.01% today) above the Devils. They have had goaltender issues too on top of injuries to that position. Rod Brind’Amour and his systems are a big reason why the team sits in third, six points ahead of the Devils, and own a positive goal differential with 17 fewer goals allowed than the Devils. Tampa Bay has also become a bubble team what with Andrei Vasilevskiy missing so much time and Vasilevskiy not being all that good upon returning. Like Carolina, they have a team 5-on-5 save percentage not much better than the Devils. That Lightning team still has a better record than the Devils with a strong home record due in part to Jon Cooper. Edmonton has come back from the brink of a disaster of start with a coaching change; it appears Kris Knoblauch is getting more out of his team than Jay Woodcroft and to great success in spite of, again, sub-league-median goaltending. That includes two wins over the Devils, by the way.
No, a coaching change is not going to be a perfect cure - see John Hynes in Minnesota. But anyone who tries to tell you that coaching is not important or the coach does not have an important role for a team’s success is not being serious. Beware of those takes.
Allow me to reiterate my main points one more time. For Holtz himself, I think the case is pretty clear that he is much, much more worthy than fourth-line duty. He has improved over his prior season as requested by the team, he has played better, and he has tangible results to show that improvement. It could even be better if his head coach treated him properly. Especially while Tyler Toffoli is playing more like the player that Ruff (and I guess those annoyed that Holtz is thriving despite Ruff?) thinks Holtz still is.
And that is the bigger thing about Alexander Holtz. How Lindy Ruff has treated him has revealed the flaws in Ruff as a coach. He does not trust him even with all of this evidence showing that Holtz is not some young guy just on the team because management wants him to be there. That came out in public when Ryan Novozinsky asked him a question about his usage and the experienced head coach told the beat reporter he does not watch hockey well. And that stubborness, his loyalty to his perspective and tactics and approaches to the game, fits in line with the other issues with the Devils as a team this season. Sure, Lindy Ruff is not stopping pucks. And the team is currently set back by injuries - like a many other teams, but set back all the same. The problem is he does not appear to be willing to change many of other things that he does have some control over. That has been to the detriment of the 2023-24 Devils. I take no pleasure at this, as I am a New Jersey Devils fan. But I must face and accept reality - unlike Lindy Ruff and his supporters.
Now I turn it to you. How impressed are you with Holtz this season? Why is Ruff so stubborn? With and without Holtz? What would be wrong about admitting - through actions - that something has to change beyond a line combination on this team? Does Tom Fitzgerald have to step in and sort Ruff out to make some changes happen to improve this season? Does Holtz even have a future here or, like Valeri Nichushkin before him, have to be moved somewhere else for his own career to blossom? Please leave your answers and other Holtz and Ruff related thoughts in the comments. All NJ.com linked articles are for subscribers, so be aware of that. Thanks to Ryan Novozinsky for giving Ruff a legitimate question after a loss. Thank you for reading.