The next time the New Jersey Devils step onto the ice for a meaningful game it will have been eight-to-nine months since they last appeared back on March 10. A lot will be different when they finally do skate again. In a way, I kind of think the long layoff is a silver lining of sorts.
Here are three reasons why the extended layoff isn’t such a bad thing for a franchise that is trying to re-establish its identity as a playoff team rather than an annual NHL Draft Lottery participant.
Sorting Out Front Office/Coaching Mess
Done. That was easy!
From the time John Hynes was fired in December the Devils have been in the market for a new head coach. Sure, interim head coach Alain Nasreddine did a nice job when he was thrust into the role without any head coaching experience. But the team doesn’t need someone to do a nice job. They needed someone who wasn’t a disciple of the leader of the previous regime.
They also needed to find themselves a new GM after Ray Shero was let go hours before the team was scheduled to play a game on Jan. 12. After taking over for his mentor and navigating his way through the NHL trade deadline, Tom Fitzgerald earned the right to have the interim tag removed, and finally, on July 9 it was.
That same day it was also announced that Lindy Ruff was going to be the 19th Head Coach in team history. He wasn’t the popular choice, but he’s someone who Fitzgerald knows very well and someone who has a resume that is hard to question. Ruff is an extremely successful coach who has come close but has yet to reach the top of the NHL mountain. Sort of like when Pat Burns took over as the Devils bench boss, for those of you reading who are old enough to remember.
Ruff’s 736 wins is sixth all-time in NHL history, and third amongst active coaches. He has nine 40+ win seasons and three 50+ win seasons during his time with the Buffalo Sabres and Dallas Stars. He won the 2006 Jack Adams Award, the Eastern Conference in 1999, and following the 2005 lockout he was able to field one of the NHL’s best teams for consecutive seasons in Buffalo.
He also aided in the development of Jamie Benn during his tenure with Dallas, helping to mold him into one of the NHL’s top talents. All you have to do is look at Benn’s point totals with, and without, Ruff behind the bench. Benn’s post totals regressed and dipped significantly once Ruff was let go by the Stars. Honestly, did you know who Benn was before Ruff got to Texas?
Ruff also helped to develop Tyler Seguin’s game, again molding him into one fo the NHL’s top talents. The hope is that he can use his guidance to turn the same trick in New Jersey with players like Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier.
The duo of Fitzgerald and Ruff will now be looked upon to rescue this franchise from the doldrums and they have a decent chunk of time to get this right. Plenty of time to evaluate the roster as presently constructed and decide who should stay and who should go. Plenty of time to evaluate the prospects for the 2020 NHL Draft and zero in on the player(s) that best fits their plan going forward.
Perhaps the biggest silver lining for the Devils when the entire sports world shut down is that Hughes gets some time to build up his strength now that he knows what it takes to go through the rigors of an NHL season. At times this past season, Hughes looked like, well, an 18-year-old, which is what he is. Or was. Hughes turned 19 on May 14 and after 21 points (7g-14a) in 61 games a reset button isn’t the worst thing in the world.
As his brother Quinn Hughes from the Vancouver Canucks explained on a recent conference call with media, when Jack finally does get back on the ice for the Devils he will be almost a completely different player.
“I think this is maybe the best thing that could ever happen to my brother, if I’m being completely honest. I think that he’s an unbelievable player and the only thing that was holding him back was how young he was and just being an 18-year-old kid, you’re just not as strong. I think there’s a huge difference between 18 and 20-years-old, and there’s still a lot of development that he can do,” said big brother Quinn.
“He’s been really working out and getting stronger, and I can already see his body has three or four more pounds of muscle mass. So I think when you see him again in seven months or whenever – he’s going to be a different player and different person. It’s a really good opportunity for him.”
Also, a good opportunity for the Devils and their new coach to find a plan of attack that suits everyone involved. Just like Ruff did with Dallas when he unleashed Benn and Seguin, and just as Ruff did in Buffalo when he unleashed Danny Briere, Thomas Vanek, and Chris Drury.
Opportunity to Nail (All Three) 1st Round Picks
You might need a degree in trigonometry to figure out how many first-round selections the Devils will have at the 2020 NHL Draft in October. But one thing is for certain – they will be picking seventh overall and there is a chance that they could add a real player who can contribute in the near future to the team.
They can’t mess this up though, even with the safety net of possibly having two other first-rounders (from Arizona, and Vancouver via Tampa Bay). They have to find a player (or players) that can make an impact unlike some of the recent early selections. If there is one criticism of Shero’s tenure to make it would be that the drafting wasn’t particularly up to snuff other than having Hischier and Hughes fall into their laps.
The hope and belief is that Fitzgerald has a different way of thinking than Shero, despite being his right-hand man until recently. There’s no doubt the two men have different personalities and different ways of thinking, and that’s why they worked so well together. They balanced each other out in a sense and were able to freely bounce ideas off of one another.
Get It Right
New Jersey has all the time in the world to get this right. To find and target players in the draft, in free agency, and via trade that will be assets and primetime players for the franchise. The roster needs a shot of adrenaline, and the sands in the hourglass for the new devilish dynamic duo leading and molding the group have started. Will they get it right? Only time will tell, but they have more time than they usually would have and hopefully, that counts for something.
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.