The New Jersey Devils’ coaching search appears to be in its final stages, as they’re down to five candidates. Among the list are Peter Laviolette, Gerard Gallant, John Stevens, and incumbent Alain Nasreddine. They also made a strong push for ZSC Lions’ head coach Rikard Gronborg, though his out-clause will prevent him from taking an NHL job for 2020-21.
But that still leaves us with one mystery candidate, at least until yesterday when Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman revealed it to be New York Rangers’ assistant coach Lindy Ruff.
Ruff has been an assistant with the Rangers since 2017. Before then, he was the Dallas Stars’ head coach from 2013-2017, where he compiled a 165-122-41 record but was let go after four seasons. Whether he’s one of the Devils’ top choices from who’s left in the field is unknown. But it’s still worth seeing what the team would be getting in the veteran coach.
Ruff’s Stars Were Run-and-Gun, High-Event
The Stars made the playoffs twice in four seasons under Ruff and had 50 wins in 2015-16. But a 34-37-11 record in 2016-17 was the final straw in what was a mixed bag of results as their head coach. Though his stint ended with him getting fired, the team’s five-on-five, on-ice stats were not too shabby. And they were even among the top three in some cases:
|Corsi share (CF%)||51.33%||8th|
|Expected goals share (xGF%)||51.6%||10th|
|Corsi per 60 minutes (CF/60)||59.72||2nd|
|Expected goals per 60 minutes (xGF/60)||2.43||1st|
The Stars controlled a majority of the shot attempts (CF%) and expected goals under Ruff, which is always a plus. But what stands out the most is their per 60 minutes rates that show they were among the fastest-paced teams, if not the fastest, in the NHL under him.
The Devils, on the other hand, had been one of the slowest-paced teams under John Hynes, who they hired as head coach in 2015. From the beginning of his tenure until his firing on Dec. 2, the Devils averaged 49.53 CF/60, ranked last in the NHL, and 2.09 xGF/60, ranked fifth to last. So there’s no denying Ruff’s system would be a complete change in style of play.
On the flip side, the Stars’ defense under Ruff was not one of the league’s best, as it ranked in the lower half of most important statistical categories. They gave up the ninth-most shot attempts per 60 minutes (CA/60), as well as the eighth-most expected goals against per 60 minutes (xGA/60).
But that comes with the territory of playing high-event hockey, and the Devils have some pieces to play that way. Leading the way up front are Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, two centers that excel in controlled zone entries and exits. The same is true of Jesper Bratt and Nikita Gusev on the wing, although they’re a bit less efficient than Hischier and Hughes.
The real question comes on defense. But if the Devils make some improvements to their blue line by adding mobile defensemen who can move the puck effectively, Ruff’s run-and-gun system could give them results. That said, hiring him wouldn’t come without some concerns.
Ruff’s Work With Rangers Raises Major Questions
When hired by the Rangers in 2017, Ruff took over as an assistant in charge of their defense and penalty kill. But it hasn’t gone all that well, as their defensive stats metrics have been some of the worst in the NHL.
We’ll start by examining things at 5-on-5, where the Rangers have struggled immensely with Ruff overseeing things. They’ve given up the second-most CA/60 (61.38) in the league, trailing only the Ottawa Senators. They’ve also given up the second-most xGA/60 (2.58), trailing only the Chicago Blackhawks.
Things haven’t been great on the penalty kill, either. The Rangers have given up 101.44 CA/60, ranked eighth-worst in the league. And they’ve given up the most xGA/60 in the league, even more than the Detroit Red Wings, who have been an NHL bottom-feeder for a few seasons.
What’s most concerning about the Rangers’ defense is there’s not a lot of positives to take away. Because not only are they giving up a ton of quantity, but they’re also allowing a ton of quality shots and chances. Fortunately for them, they’ve been bailed out because of some incredible goaltending from Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev. And it’s hard to imagine they’d be in the 24-team playoff without them.
It’s also worth noting a couple of Rangers’ defensemen have struggled in recent years but have gone on to find success elsewhere. Kevin Shattenkirk was bought out by them last summer but enjoyed a rebound season with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2019-20. Neal Pionk was part of the trade that brought Jacob Trouba to New York. But it’s Pionk who had the best season of his career with the Winnipeg Jets, while Trouba struggled in his first with the Rangers. Does all the blame fall on Ruff? Not necessarily. But it’s not a ringing endorsement of him when two defensemen who were supposed to be core pieces of their rebuild immediately rebounded less than a year after leaving the organization.
From the Devils’ perspective, their defense is already in need of a major overhaul. And some of their top prospects (Ty Smith, Kevin Bahl, Reilly Walsh) who’ll shape their blue line in the next couple of years could struggle under Ruff’s defensive system. So they’ll have to consider if he’ll help their development.
Is Ruff Worth the Risk?
Knowing what we do about Ruff, it’s become apparent what the Devils are looking for in their next coach. We can debate whether or not Laviolette would upgrade their offense, but his Nashville Predators’ teams were one of the faster-paced ones in the league. Gallant’s Vegas Golden Knights’ teams also played a similar, high-flying style.
And given the current makeup of the Devils’ roster, it makes sense to head in that direction. If they’re intent on building around Hughes and Hischier, they should be looking to play a more offensive style of hockey. Does that mean Ruff is the best fit of the bunch? Far from it, because they’d have to bring in the right assistants around to him to get the defense and penalty kill in order. That’d be a risky bet, and given how the Devils have fared over the last five seasons, it’s something they’ll have to give serious thought.
* * *
Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017