Yesterday, the NHL announced they will postpone Tuesday’s game between the New Jersey Devils and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Devils have five players on the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol list, but the good news is that Nico Hischier, Ryan Graves, and Jesper Boqvist were all on the ice Monday afternoon for practice. During his press conference, general manager Tom Fitzgerald confirmed that this was the first time in 10 days that Hischier and Graves were on the ice. Worried about the safety of his players, he emailed the league and received the break his team needed.
“We’re not deemed a COVID postponement. It’s because of the wellness of all our players,” said Fitzgerald. “The sicknesses we have along with the COVID cases.”
In addition to the players in protocol, several others are dealing with the flu, bronchial issues, and colds. Fitzgerald believed he was putting those remaining players battling non-COVID related illnesses at risk having them play longer minutes and not being able to call up reinforcements from their American Hockey League affiliate, the Utica Comets. He did confirm the team attempted to call up two players over the weekend, but one tested positive, and the organization felt the other was in close contact with him. This explains the confusion after the Comets tweeted and then deleted their post that Reilly Walsh and Nikita Okhotyuk were called up.
During the press conference, Fitzgerald also discussed more than the team’s health. He answered questions about the team’s inconsistencies, veteran leadership and touched on head coach Lindy Ruff. Here are some takeaways from yesterday’s presser.
Inconsistencies Hurting New Jersey This Season
Fitzgerald was happy with the performance of his team early in the season. Their record in October was 4-2-1, and they earned three of a possible six points on their California road trip in early November. There were inconsistencies in their first 15 games, but overall, they did more right than wrong. Their last fifteen games have been a different story. Glaring individual mistakes and poor decisions with the puck have led to a series of losses.
During the press conference, Devils reporter Sam Kasan asked the GM what has been missing in the last couple of weeks that’s prevented the team from connecting.
“That’s a great question because we are all asking ourselves the same one,” said Fitzgerald. “I was really, really happy with the team we saw coming out of training and the first 15, 16 games of the season. We were rewarded for our structure and our commitment to structure, our commitment to details, our commitment to each other. I think that’s slipped. We don’t defend like we were defending earlier in the year. We don’t come through the neutral zone like we were coming through the neutral zone. I think there’s been a slip in our play.”
The same team that scored seven goals against the Florida Panthers and came back to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning are now on a five-game losing streak. Of course, injuries have been a challenge this season. The Devils lost goaltender Jonathan Bernier and forward Miles Wood, both on injured reserve with hip injuries. Jack Hughes missed time with a shoulder injury, and MacKenzie Blackwood is dealing with a neck injury.
Devils General Manager Stands Behind Lindy Ruff
Did Fitzgerald say these exact words? No, but at no point did he hint at searching for a new head coach. We know It is easier to replace one guy than an entire team and sometimes a change is what a team needs to turn their season around; Vancouver is a perfect example. Other times, it doesn’t solve a team’s problems, and Ruff is not on the hot seat. Fitzgerald noted how available and open Ruff is with his players.
“Like I’ve always said from the get-go, the communication from Lindy Ruff to his players is second to none,” said Fitzgerald. “His door is always open, and he is so approachable. Players feel no issues walking up and talking to him. He is out and about. He doesn’t just hide in his office. He is eating lunch with the players. Yeah, it is visibly frustrating, and he takes a lot of this and puts it on his shoulders.”
Players have often mentioned that Ruff has had a positive impact on their careers. Last season, Wood appeared in 55 games and finished with 25 points, and tied Pavel Zacha for the team lead with 17 goals. His shooting percentage in 2020-21 was 13.4, a career-high for the Buffalo, NY native. During media day, he spoke about Ruff’s system and how it has helped his game.
“John Hynes was much more structured in the defensive zone. I’m not saying Coach Ruff is not structured, but it gives the forwards more freedom to play with more speed,” said Wood. “That’s certainly part of my game. I guess you could say the best part of my game is my speed. Playing in a faster system like Coach Ruff has certainly helped me out a lot.”
New Jersey Needs Leadership from Veteran Players
Mike Morreale of NHL.com asked Fitzgerald point-blank if he wants to see more from his veterans, a group that likely includes Nico Hischier, Zacha, Damon Severson, PK Subban, and the newly acquired Dougie Hamilton. Fitzgerald didn’t hesitate to say yes.
“I need to see the experience gained over the years they’ve played and parlay that into consistency,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re the leaders. The young guys follow the older guys. We don’t have a very loud room, and I respect that but saying the right things and then doing the right things are what tight teams do.”
Fitzgerald has stressed the importance of accountability since training camp. He believes the solution to the Devils’ recent struggles are in the locker room and it is up to the players to turn things around. At this point in the season, he wants to see the team push themselves and be committed to each other. He admitted that until the players do that he isn’t sure if we are going to see any change.
New Jersey’s next game is scheduled for Dec. 27, 2021, against the St. Louis Blues. The team has not played since Sunday night and will have a handful of days to rest up and prepare for the second half of the season. It’s been a difficult time for the team, and I couldn’t imagine trying to play a game with chills, a fever, or bronchial issues. I commend those unnamed players for showing up and trying to compete. Hopefully, the pause will give the team time to mentally and physically hit the refresh button so they can right the ship before it’s too late.
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Kristy has been contributing to The Hockey Writers since March of 2021. She is thrilled to be putting her journalism degree to use and is a credentialed correspondent covering the New Jersey Devils. Kristy is also a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. You can follow her journey on Twitter @InStilettos_NHL and Instagram SkatingInStilettos.