The wayward New Jersey Devils took major steps to chart a clearer course on Thursday — for better or worse. Tom Fitzgerald saw the “interim” tag lifted, making Fitzgerald their established GM. In tandem with that decision, the Devils hired veteran bench boss Lindy Ruff as their head coach.
Ultimately, we only know so much about Fitzgerald’s vision. He’s certainly put in his reps, especially as an assistant GM (first with the Penguins starting in 2009, then the Devils in 2015). Beyond that, we can only speculate regarding how Fitzgerald wants to rebuild New Jersey. Aside from what we can occasionally parse through buzzwordy quotes.
But is Lindy Ruff really the best fit for Devils head coach? Considering Ruff’s decades of experience at head coach and assistant coach levels, we have a lot of evidence to sort through.
Let’s tackle the Ruff – Devils fit question by looking at it three ways: the good (experience), the bad (recent results), and the neutral (some underlying stats and arguments).
The Good: If nothing else, the Devils gain experience with Lindy Ruff as head coach
Ruff served as an NHL head coach for 19 seasons, with his 1,493 games coached ranking seventh all-time. Ruff’s 736 wins place him sixth in league history, which will be a sexier talking point than a middling .561 career points percentage.
You can debate how well Ruff changed with the times, but he’s absolutely been employed as the style and pace of the NHL game twisted and turned over decades.
It’s worth noting that Ruff coached some very different teams. His early Sabres tenure revolved around forming a defensive shell around Dominik Hasek, without a lot of offensive support around him (sorry, Miroslav Satan, etc.). Yet, in that same market, Ruff presided over the “Buffaslug” era of the Sabres, when a run-and-gun team starring the likes of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury contended and even topped the NHL in scoring with 308 goals in 2006-07.
That wasn’t the only Ruff team that led the NHL in scoring. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn helped his Dallas Stars accomplish that feat with 267 goals in 2015-16.
So, for myself and others, the most reasonable best-case scenario with Ruff is for the Devils to emulate some of those high-flying teams. It’s not totally outrageous to imagine Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Kyle Palmieri, and others getting rejuvenated by throwing caution to the wind.
The Neutral: How much did any of it hinge on Ruff?
Sure, when you zoom out, it’s easy to see how experienced Ruff is. That might make the Devils feel like hiring Ruff is the “safe” decision.
But it gets harder to hammer the upside when you look at recent results, or even his larger resume. Ruff comes out looking a lot like an older Paul Maurice: a lot of volume, yet about as many lows and “mehs” as highs.
(And the highs were limited. That one 1999 Stanley Cup Final appearance, a handful of deeper runs, and three division titles over 19 seasons. Ruff doesn’t look awful, yet it’s hard to understand why the Devils wouldn’t be more excited about, say, Gerard Gallant, Peter Laviolette, or Bruce Boudreau. Maybe Ruff’s a lot cheaper?)
Averaging out between the brightest and bleakest scenarios, what if Ruff ends up being merely neutral — not good or bad, mainly replacement level? Is that really what the Devils need right now?
Ruff gives off the impression of being pliable, maybe versatile, if nothing else. There could be value in a pragmatic coach who will zig and zag depending upon the makeup of upcoming Devils teams. Considering how much turnover could happen with the Devils, that could be a useful attribute.
The Bad: Ugly recent results for Ruff with Rangers don’t scare off Devils
Don’t expect Ruff to wave a magic wand and make the Devils a top-10 defense, though. Not based on recent results.
The Rangers brought Ruff in ostensibly to help run the defense and their penalty kill units. Ruff … didn’t exactly solve their problems.
That’s not to say those issues were all Ruff’s fault. For one thing, Ruff merely served as an assistant. He didn’t necessarily get a full say in certain strategic decisions.
Even considering those caveats, the underlying numbers generally look somewhere between neutral to flat-out bad for Ruff. Devils management doesn’t have much of an argument for Ruff beyond bleating out “experience!”
Really, this duo of Devils decisions makes me feel dubious about the direction of the franchise.
For years, the Devils made progress on the analytics front. Hiring bright minds like Matt Cane seemed quite promising.
With these recent decisions in mind, I can’t help but wonder what Cane and his cohorts think. It’s possible they’re on board with this decision, but it doesn’t really seem as innovative as they’d likely prefer.
When the Rangers hired Ruff as an assistant in 2017, Adam Herman wrote about hockey’s “cronyism” problem. It’s difficult to shake the feeling that the Devils are merely leaning on “200 hockey men” and other antiquated ideas. A rebuilding situation gives teams opportunities to innovate, and set the foundation for future glories.
Maybe Ruff and the Devils will prove such feelings wrong, but as of now, it sure looks like these decisions are rooted in the past.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.