Nikita Gusev

Devils hire Lindy Ruff as head coach, retain Fitzgerald as GM

Lindy Ruff is back in charge of an NHL bench after he was hired as Devils head coach on Thursday. The team also announced that Tom Fitzgerald is taking over the executive vice president and general manager role.

“We are proud and excited to have Lindy Ruff join our organization as Head Coach,” said Fitzgerald in a statement. “He is one of the most successful and respected coaches in the NHL, not only today, but in League history. His personality, experience, knowledge, work-ethic and focus will provide a calm presence in our locker room. He is the right coach at the right time for our organization. Lindy has a proven track record of getting the absolute best out of his players across the board- stars, role players and everyone in between. His teaching ability, and communication skills will be well-suited for our team, especially our young, developing players. Throughout his career, his teams have been greater than the sum of their parts. I look forward to working together with Lindy as the organization moves forward.”

(AHL Hartford assistant Gord Murphy will take Ruff’s spot on the Rangers’ bench for the Stanley Cup Qualifying round.)

Ruff, who’s been a Rangers assistant since 2017-18, has been involved in professional hockey since entering the NHL in 1979 as a player with the Sabres. After a 15-year career he entered the coaching ranks and later was named Buffalo’s head coach in 1997. He’d hold the head coach position for 15 seasons before moving on to the Stars for four years.

Those Stars teams played high-event hockey considering the personnel at Ruff’s disposal. Over his final three seasons in Dallas they were a top-10 team in possession, expected goals for, and led the NHL in expected goals/60, as per Natural Stat Trick). It helped have the likes of Tyler Seguin, John Klingberg, Jamie Benn, and Jason Spezza on the roster. The quality may not be at that level for the Devils, but it could head in that direction with Jack Hughes, Nikita Gusev, P.K. Subban, Nico Hischier, Will Butcher, plus those in the pipeline.

[MORE: Good, bad, and neutral: Breaking down Ruff’s hiring]

After David Quinn’s hiring, Ruff’s experience was something the young coach said he’s benefited from. Though Ruff has handled a Rangers defense and penalty kill that struggled this season.

It remains to been what will happen with Alain Nasreddine, who took over as interim head coach in December after John Hynes was fired. During the NHL pause, Nasreddine interviewed for the position along with Gerard Gallant, Peter Laviolette, and John Stevens.

Fitzgerald drops “interim” tag

Fitzgerald took over as interim general manager in January after Ray Shero’s dismissal. He’s been with the organization since 2015 as assistant GM after following Shero from the Penguins. 

As with many hirings, there’s always a connection. The one here is that Ruff was a Panthers assistant during Fitzgerald’s first four seasons in Florida.

“When Tom took over the role of GM in January, we were committed to moving the organization in a new direction,” said Devils managing partners Josh Harris and David Blitzer. “Having gone through the process of interviewing various candidates, including Tom, and reviewing his work in the interim, we feel that he is the best fit for the New Jersey Devils moving forward. Our decision was solidified by his ability to stabilize the organization, get solid returns at the trade deadline, make impressive plans for player development and hire a new coach in Lindy Ruff. We are very optimistic about our future and know we have great deal of talent, both on and off the ice. Together, we are excited to start a new chapter and are committed to becoming a consistent contender, which our fans deserve.”

As the Devils went through the search process Fitzgerald worked as if he was keeping the job. He handled the trade deadline, last month’s draft lottery, and has continued preparing the draft and free agency in the fall.

MORE:
A look at the Eastern Conference matchups
Final standings for 2019-20 NHL season, NHL draft lottery results

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Nasreddine looking forward as Devils’ coaching search continues

The Devils know that if they NHL resumes play later this summer, they will not be part of the 24-team fun.

Sitting 13 points out of the last Eastern Conference wild card spot, New Jersey had very slim hopes they would be part of any season resumption that didn’t include playing out the remaining regular season schedule. Now they can look towards the 2020-21 season … whenever that will take place.

As the franchise looks forward, there are still two big decisions that need to be made: Who will be the full-time general manager and head coach?

Both Tom Fitzgerald and Alain Nasreddine have had “interim” in front of their titles since the in-season dismissals of Ray Shero and John Hynes. As the off-season begins, both remain in those roles as candidate conversations have continued.

“Right now it’s status quo,” said Nasreddine during a Tuesday media Zoom call. “I haven’t heard anything.”

“The organization’s been fantastic to me,” Fitzgerald said last month. “They allow me to be the general manager of this team, and that’s all I’m doing. Whether it has an intern tag on it or not, I wouldn’t be doing the job any differently, that’s for sure.”

Mike Gillis reportedly interviewed for the GM job in February.

The coaching search

In the head coach role, the Devils have been speaking to different candidates about the position. According to Pierre LeBrun, a list of 8-10 names has been narrowed down to four. Names like John Stevens, Peter Laviolette and Gerard Gallant have come up, but it’s unknown who made the final cut. Rikard Gronborg is another name that was discussed. The ZSC Lions coach confirmed he did have conversations but will honor the final year of his contract in Switzerland.

LeBrun added that the search, for now, is on pause.

After a forgettable start to the season, the second half saw some positive signs, like Mackenzie Blackwood in goal, and Nikita Gusev, Pavel Zacha, and Nico Hischier taking steps forward. There’s a potential to add three 2020 first-round picks to a burgeoning prospect pool, which will add to Nasreddine’s enthusiasm for his group, especially if he ends up getting the job.

“I think we’re very close [to being a playoff team],” he said. “I think at least competitive enough to be battling for a playoff spot … I’d say next year, for sure. You look at the progress of some of the young guys in the last two months of the season, and it’s very promising.”

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Revisiting biggest NHL trades from the 2019 offseason

Big trades of 2019 NHL offseason Subban Miller Kessel
via Getty Images

Upon reflecting about his first season with the Maple Leafs following a trade featuring Nazem Kadri and Tyson Barrie, Alexander Kerfoot admitted that he wasn’t as consistent as he would have liked. Indeed, people don’t look back favorably for the Maple Leafs’ side of one of the biggest trades of the 2019 NHL offseason.

(There’s some interesting insight from Thursday’s Kerfoot conference call, which you can peruse via reporters including TSN’s Kristen Shilton.)

As interesting as it is to hear about the highs and lows of Kerfoot’s season, this also gives us a chance to revisit the biggest trades of the 2019 NHL offseason as a whole. Some teams made enough momentous trades to earn their own categories, such as Kerfoot’s Maple Leafs.

Misadventures for Maple Leafs in 2019 offseason NHL trades

When judging a trade, it’s crucial to consider context. Even when you grade on a curve, the trades didn’t always pan out for Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas.

Following another ugly postseason suspension, many believed the Maple Leafs needed to trade Nazem Kadri. They also were feeling the cap crunch, so getting a discounted Tyson Barrie provided a nice replacement for outgoing Jake Gardiner.

While the gap between Kadri and Kerfoot might be a bit exaggerated …

Big NHL 2019 offseason trades Kadri Kerfoot comparison Evolving Hockey
via Evolving Hockey

… the bottom line is that the trade didn’t meet expectations for the Maple Leafs.

The oddest part, really, revolved around how adamant Dubas was about Cody Ceci being better than people believed. Instead, Ceci was kind of a disaster.

If the Maple Leafs divest themselves of Ceci after 2019-20, then it was still worth it. Zaitsev’s contract was bad, and much longer. But it was a funky situation that rounded out an all-over-the-place offseason. Maybe there were shades of appeasing an eventually outgoing Mike Babcock?

To some extent, Toronto’s flexibility was limited. They didn’t fare as well as some of the other savvy teams, though.

Deals with the Devils not scorching teams as much

Is it “poetic” that you could say trades did Ray Shero in as Devils GM?

OK, that’s not totally fair. If we’re being sober, the wheels came off of the wagon thanks to some mix of atrocious goaltending and questionable coaching.

Even so, the Devils made aggressive moves to improve, and splashy trades set the stage for disappointments and dysfunction. The headliner that went horribly, horribly wrong was, of course, the P.K. Subban trade.

While it still feels like the Predators could have gotten more for Subban, they did clean up space to sign Matt Duchene, and in a more abstract sense keep Roman Josi. Even those with tempered expectations didn’t expect this season from Subban. Consider that Subban ranked dead last on the Devils according to Evolving Hockey’s GAR metric:

Big 2019 offseason NHL trades went poorly for Devils Subban
also via Evolving Hockey

Yikes. Yikes.

While there’s hope that Subban may rebound, the extended collapse of his game played a big role in the front office upheaval in New Jersey.

Nikita Gusev‘s situation wasn’t nearly as dramatic, and while Gusev performed reasonably well, he didn’t light the hockey world on fire. The Golden Knights probably aren’t losing much sleep over his departure … at least yet.

The Devils recouped some of their draft capital by trading the likes of Taylor Hall during the deadline, but coughing up four significant draft picks for Subban + Gusev didn’t work out so well.

Pondering other teams making one or more noteworthy trades

Vegas Golden Knights

No, the Golden Knights didn’t parallel the Maple Leafs in every way. They didn’t have the same enormous RFA headaches, and the uncertainty that surrounded those situations.

But they still needed to shed some salaries. While I can’t say I loved every move and thought process, things worked out reasonably well for Vegas in the grand scheme of things.

They managed to land something for Gusev’s rights in the form of a second and third-round pick. They also landed a second-rounder for Colin Miller, who couldn’t seem to stay out of the doghouse, and who didn’t have the greatest season in Buffalo. Nicolas Roy may just make them break even (or better?) in the Erik Haula trade.

Again, not sure about every decision — all of this straining, yet spending so much on Ryan Reaves? — but the Golden Knights got a lot right. Toronto might even feel a little jealous.

Fascinating Miller trade between Canucks, Lightning

Speaking of desperate situations, the Lightning didn’t have much of a choice but to trade J.T. Miller. So, to get a first-round pick (and third-rounder) for their troubles? More Lightning wizardry.

On paper, it looked like the Canucks might be overreaching in much the same way the Devils did. Miller cost more in assets, after all.

But … Miller ended up being a tremendous player; he was a legitimate first-line winger for Vancouver. Subban, well … yeah.

So this was a rare deal where you could make a strong argument for both sides. I think the Lightning were more shrewd, especially considering limited options (Dubas grumbles again), but the Canucks received big returns from their risky investment (now Shero’s grumbling).

Penguins, Oilers often busy making trades

You might not top the steal the Penguins pulled off in nabbing splendid rookie defenseman John Marino for just a sixth-round pick from the Oilers.

That ended up being the best move during a summer where they unloaded some problems. That included the staggering Phil Kessel trade, and also convincing someone to take on Erik Gudbranson‘s contract. With Kessel mainly offering “meh” in Arizona, and Alex Galchenyuk being part of the Jason Zucker trade, the Penguins have to feel pretty good about their latest series of dramatic decisions.

The Oilers likely received a decent confidence boost from seeing James Neal start so much hotter than Milan Lucic that it became a punchline. With Lucic being a better possession player, that gap narrowed when Neal cooled off.

Really, the true winner might not be crowned until we see if the Oilers can wiggle free from the Neal contract and/or the Flames get rid of Lucic’s deal. Really, that might be the key takeaway even after all these assessments: we may not yet know the final “winners” of the biggest trades of the 2019 NHL offseason for some time.

Quick thoughts

  • My issue isn’t and wasn’t with the Blues trading for Justin Faulk. Instead, handing him a pricey extension looked risky, and he hasn’t really soothed those concerns with middling play. Hmm.
  • Would it be fair to lean toward “TBD” on the Andre Burakovsky trade, at least when realizing things were going sour between Burakovsky and the Caps? That’s the way I lean.
  • Speaking of TBD, the intriguing Henri JokiharjuAlex Nylander trade remains unsolved.
  • The Canadiens really got the best of the Blackhawks by nabbing a second and third-round pick for Andrew Shaw.
  • You’re forgiven if it slipped your mind that Carl Soderberg and Jimmy Vesey were traded.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

What is the Devils’ long-term outlook?

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the New Jersey Devils.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

With Taylor Hall and Blake Coleman now playing elsewhere, the Devils’ long-term outlook is in the hands of recent No. 1 overall picks Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier.

The Devils thought so highly of Hischier’s development — and potential — that they signed him to a seven-year, $50 million contract that pretty much makes him the new face of the franchise. While his offensive numbers may not be eye-popping, there is a lot to be said for a 21-year-old forward that’s already established himself as a 55-60 point player while also playing a complete two-way game.

Hughes is the player that has the big-time offensive upside.

Beyond those two, Kyle Palmieri and Nikita Gusev are very productive top-six wingers and would make an impact on any contending team. The problem, though, is that both players are unrestricted free agents after next season, and while the Devils should have the salary cap space to retain them if they wanted to, it is worth wondering if such a long-term investment would be wise, especially when it comes to Palmieri who will be 31 years old when his next contract begins.

P.K. Subban has the biggest salary cap hit on the roster, carrying a $9 million salary for each of the next two seasons.

Damon Severson and Will Butcher are also signed long-term on the blue line.

Goaltending was a question mark at the start of the season, but MacKenzie Blackwood has had a very promising start to his career (.916 save percentage in his first two years, well above the league average) and is still only 23 years old.

Long-Term Needs

When you have missed the playoffs in seven of the past eight seasons and been one of the league’s worst teams over the past two seasons there are obviously a lot of long-term needs.

Goaltending has been the big Achilles Heel recently due to Cory Schneider‘s decline, but Blackwood has shown a ton of promise and provided some optimism that he could be the long-term solution. But they still lack depth behind him in the short-and long-term.

The addition of Subban was supposed to give them a top-pairing, No. 1 defenseman to lead their blue line, but he will be 31 next season, is in the middle of the worst season of his career, and has almost certainly already played his best hockey. They not only need depth on their blue line, they need somebody to be a difference-maker.

Will Butcher is an underrated player while Ty Smith has a ton of potential, but there are more questions than answers when it comes to the long-term outlook of the blue line.

The other big need is that they need Hughes to be the superstar, franchise player they hope he can be.

Long-Term Strengths

You can not win in the NHL or compete for the Stanley Cup without impact players. The best place to get impact players is at the top of the draft. Fortunately for the Devils they have two of the past three No. 1 overall picks playing for them.

They may not be superstars quite yet, but Hischier is on track to being an outstanding player while Hughes is still only 19 years old and full of potential. Do not even think about writing him off just because he struggled at times as an 18-year-old.

Along with those two, the Devils are looking at the possibility of having three first-round picks in the 2020 class, including their own lottery pick. The other two picks are conditional as a result of the Taylor Hall trade (Arizona) and Blake Coleman trade (Tampa Bay, which sent Vancouver’s pick to New Jersey). The Arizona pick is top-three protected, while the pick from the Coleman trade will move to 2021 if the Canucks miss the playoffs this season. Still, those are a lot of quality assets — and potentially another very high pick — to add to the Hischier and Hughes core.

The Devils also have very few long-term commitments at the moment and as a result have a ton of salary cap space to work with. That could help with the potential re-signings of Palmieri and/or Gusev, as well as adding pieces around their new young core Hischier, Hughes, Butcher, and Blackwood.

More:
Looking at the 2019-20 New Jersey Devils
Devils biggest surprises and disappointments so far 

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

New Jersey Devils: Biggest surprises and disappointments so far

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the New Jersey Devils .

P.K. Subban‘s tough season

The addition of Subban (via trade with the Nashville Predators) was one of the highlights of the Devils’ offseason. He is a big name, a superstar player, and even if he was starting to hit the downside of his career he was still an impact player as recently as last season.

Add in the fact he fit a huge need (a top-pairing defender) and that Devils gave up almost nothing of significance to get him, it seemed like a no-brainer move.

It just did not work out.

At least not for this season.

In his first year with the Devils Subban struggled through what is certainly the worst single-season performance of his career. Everything across the board for him is not only down, but is also pretty much at a career-low for him. A lot of things backfired for the Devils this season and did not go as planned, and Subban’s year is at the top of that list.

He is still signed for two more seasons at a salary cap hit of $9 million per season.

Nikita Gusev was exactly what they hoped he would be

This was the one big offseason move that worked as they hoped it would.

The Devils acquired Gusev as a restricted free agent from the Vegas Golden Knights and hoped he could provide some much-needed skill and production to their forward group. And he has.

At the time of the NHL’s pause Gusev is the Devils’ second-leading scorer (just one point back of Kyle Palmieri) and has already proven to be an outstanding playmaker.

Of the 334 forwards that have logged at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time this season, Gusev is 20th in the league in assists per 60 minutes (1.66) and sixth in the league in primary assists per 60 minutes (1.32). He has not only been the Devils’ best playmaker this season, he has been one of the best playmakers in the entire league. He only cost a couple of mid-round draft picks to acquire and has a very manageable $4.5 million salary cap hit through next season.

The end of the very brief Taylor Hall era

There were a lot of reasons for optimism this season for the Devils, from the drafting of Jack Hughes with the top pick, to the offseason additions of Subban, Gusev, and Wayne Simmonds. But one of the biggest reasons was the hopeful return of a healthy Taylor Hall.

Two years ago he was the league MVP and helped single-handedly carry the Devils to a playoff spot.

A year ago his season was decimated by injury, limiting him to just 33 games and the Devils just didn’t have the depth to overcome that.

Getting him back, plus all of the offseason additions, seemed as if it could have helped fix that.

It didn’t.

The Devils didn’t do enough to solve their goaltending issues, Subban had a down year, Hughes struggled through some rookie growing pains, and the team itself just wasn’t anywhere near as good as it was expected to be. Their dismal start — driven by an inability to hold onto multi-goal leads early in the year — put them in a position where they had to make a decision on Hall. From the very beginning of the season there was uncertainty about his future with the team given his contract status as an unrestricted free agent after this season. The decision was eventually made to trade him to Arizona in December, igniting an in-season fire sale that also saw Andy Greene, Blake Coleman, and Simmonds all be sent elsewhere.

Hall ended up spending three-and-a-half years in New Jersey, and while he lived up to expectations the Devils were never able to consistently build something around him.

Cory Schneider‘s strong finish

It is not much, but it is worth at least mentioning the way Schneider returned to the Devils’ lineup in February and put together what was probably his best four-game stretch in years.

At his peak Schneider was one of the NHL’s best goalies and one of the most overlooked top-tier players. But things had started to fall apart for him the past couple of years.

The way he finished the season after returning to the lineup was a brief reminder of what he once was and a small bright spot in an otherwise dismal season for the Devils.

More:
Looking at the 2019-20 New Jersey Devils
What is the Devils’ long-term outlook?

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.