In 2019, New Jersey Devils‘ head coach, John Hynes, was fired only 26 games into the season, leaving Alain Nasreddine as the interim head coach for the remainder of the year. Nasreddine did a decent job during his limited time behind the bench as head coach, accumulating a 19-16-8 record with a last-place team, however, he ultimately served as a placeholder until the organization hired Lindy Ruff, just prior to the start of the 2020 season.
The Devils organization has a recent history of hiring coaches who haven’t been able to get the job done (Peter DeBoer, Hynes, etc.). That said, the expectations for Ruff and his staff of assistants are not to win now, but rather to simply develop the young roster over the course of the next couple of years so that the team can eventually contend for a Stanley Cup once again. Only time will tell if Ruff, Nasreddine, and the rest of the coaching staff are fit to accomplish that goal.
A Brief Look Into Ruff’s Playing & Coaching History
Ruff has been around the game of hockey at the NHL level for quite some time now. He was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in the second round of the 1979 NHL Entry Draft, and after a few seasons with the team, he eventually earned the captaincy. He wasn’t by any means an outstanding NHLer, but by the time his career had reached an end with the New York Rangers, it was clear that his teammates and coaches had respected him, and that he had a great deal of potential as a head coach someday.
Six years after his retirement, Ruff accepted a head coaching position with the Sabres. He spent over a decade behind the bench there, and he coached the team to an Eastern Conference Championship in 1998-1999. Unfortunately, Buffalo lost to the Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup Final that year. The team largely remained competitive in the playoffs for several years after that, but Coach Ruff and his squad never managed to achieve the ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup. In 2013-2014, he ironically left Buffalo for the Dallas Stars. Dallas once again had some decent regular-season success during his four-year stint, but never managed to reach their ultimate goal of lifting the Stanley Cup.
A New Face Behind the Devils’ Bench
The Devils brought Ruff in as head coach for the 2020-2021 season in hopes that he could help develop their young core of Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Ty Smith, and so on. The organization surrounded him with assistant coaches Mark Recchi, Nasreddine, Rick Kowalsky, and Chris Taylor. As of right now, Ruff seems to be in decent standing with the Devils fanbase. Hughes has taken steps forward, and the young players are getting the ice time they need to improve.
The results in the standings are not there as of yet, but a season like this should have been expected, for the most part. The roster is full of holes that need to be patched up and fixed by general manager Tom Fitzgerald in the near future. As of right now, the coaching staff’s only job is to help players like Hughes and Smith work towards realizing their potential.
While Ruff is not to blame for New Jersey’s struggles this season, it is important to address the scrutiny he faced as an assistant coach with the New York Rangers from 2018-2020. During his short stint with the Rangers, the 61-year-old was responsible for coaching the defensemen. New York was generally disastrous in their own end while he was there, and that has once again been reflected during his first season with the Devils. It should also be noted that the Rangers’ defense and penalty killing has significantly improved this season after replacing Ruff with Jacques Martin.
As the trade deadline concluded on Monday, the Devils currently rank last in the entire league on the penalty kill at 71.9%. The penalty kill has been much better lately, but overall, the team has given up 128 goals so far this season, which is 10 above the average of 118 league-wide. Their expected goals against (xGA) are higher than the league average, as is their high-danger scoring chances against (HDA). There are some things to be concerned about with Lindy Ruff going forward, given his bad reputation as a defensive-minded assistant coach for the Rangers. He doesn’t have much to work with defensively, in all fairness, but his recent track record does not bode well for the future of New Jersey’s defense.
A Disastrous Power Play
Recchi, a Hall of Famer and three-time Stanley Cup Champion was mostly brought into the Devils organization to help coach the power play and forwards alongside Ruff. Again, much like the struggles on the defensive side of the ice/penalty kill, it is hard to blame the coaches for all of New Jersey’s offensive struggles. The power play is simply abysmal, though. The team ranks 29th in the league with a troubling 13.9% conversion rate on the power play. The team struggles to score at even strength as well. The special teams are a disaster and their performance at 5v5 is poor at best. It is a perfect recipe for a bottom-feeding team that is destined for yet another lottery pick.
Ruff and his staff of assistants have not inherited an easy job with the current makeup of the roster. It’s hard to do much when your leading scorer has 25 points in 39 games, and when your top-pair at one point consisted of Dmitry Kulikov and P.K. Subban. Younger players like Pavel Zacha and Hughes have progressed nicely, and Janne Kuokkanen, Ty Smith, and Yegor Sharangovich have all played well under the coach’s first year behind the bench. There is plenty of reason for optimism going forward for New Jersey, but the real question is whether or not Ruff, Recchi, and the rest of the staff can figure out how to correct the defensive side of the game, as well as the team’s poor special teams.
It seems like the current coaching staff is going to serve more to the development of the younger players, rather than a staff that will bring a championship back to New Jersey any time soon. Regardless of the expectations, Tom Fitzgerald must accumulate more talent on both sides of the ice before the Devils and their fans can even think about which coach will lead them to the promised land.
My name is Matt Makuta. I’m a writer for the New Jersey Devils here at The Hockey Writers.