Nico Hischier

Good, bad, neutral of Devils hiring Lindy Ruff as head coach
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Good, bad, and neutral: Breaking down Devils hiring Lindy Ruff as head coach

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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.

Yikes!

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 phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL Power Rankings: Top Draft Lottery memories

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Hockey fans will get something to obsess about on Friday, June 26, as the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery will air on NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET. If one of the NHL’s bottom seven teams wins the first draw, we might know where Alexis Lafrenière is headed (assuming, reasonably safely, that he goes first). As promising as Lafrenière is, history shows that winning a draft lottery isn’t the only part of putting together a championship team — if you even get that far.

I mean … don’t get me wrong, as this list shows, it often helps. A lot.

The latest PHT Power Rankings list breaks down top memories that have come from draft lotteries. Sometimes we’ll see big winners, losers, or both. Sometimes there will be tragic comedy, or incredible luck (*cough* or both).

The experience of seeing your team’s luck swing on the bounces of lottery balls can be agonizing. It also makes just about every experience a personal one. So, if you have draft lottery memories that didn’t make the cut, absolutely share them.

Try not to ruin your day going over such memories, though.

[How the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery will work. It could get complicated.]

1. Penguins land Crosby in strange 2005 NHL Draft Lottery

You know it’s an odd, memorable draft lottery when Sports Illustrated gives it the oral history treatment.

Sidney Crosby also ended up justifying the hype, making the 2005 NHL Draft lottery possibly the most pivotal since the format began.

On one hand, the Penguins received some of the best odds to win. They received three of the 48 lottery balls in the NHL’s strange setup, ranking among four teams with the most. Even so, they had a 6.3 percent chance to win the Crosby sweepstakes. (Somewhere, Brian Burke is still fuming about this.)

You can probably set off a brushfire of hockey debate by asking how much the Penguins’ success hinged on luck — not just landing Crosby, but Evgeni Malkin second in 2004, and a bucket of other high picks — and how much hinged on solid management. There’s no debate that the Penguins came out of the lockout with two enormous additions.

You can also entertain yourself with some Ducks alternate history. What if they did land Crosby? Imagine if Burke’s alleged aims to trade for Joe Thornton worked out? Would Burke still be challenging Kevin Lowe and others to barn brawls as Ducks GM to this day?

*Loosens tie over the whole thing*

Also:

  • The Canadiens only received one lottery ball, yet eventually drafted Carey Price fifth overall.
  • The Sabres had three lottery balls, but chose (*moves imaginary glasses from forehead to eyes*) … Marek Zagrapan? Oof.

That 2005 NHL Draft tops the list of lottery memories. There are plenty of other dramatic swings to mull over, however.

2. Blackhawks lose big in 2004, then win big in 2007

It’s easy to zero in on the top pick of a draft versus the second when you look back at draft lottery swings. But don’t sleep on the third pick, and on, because that’s where the deepest belly laughs and cringes often lurk.

Consider 2004. The Capitals rocketed back to relevance thanks to Alex Ovechkin. Malkin served as the first of the Penguins’ two superstars (but far from the only high picks, as the Penguins marinated in those during a run of profound ineptitude).

The Blackhawks? They chose Cam Barker third overall. Brutal.

Luckily, the Blackhawks ended up trading Barker for a future building block in Nick Leddy. Amusingly, fourth overall pick Andrew Ladd also helped Chicago down the line.

But most luckily, the Blackhawks landed the top pick in 2007 despite having the fifth-best chances (8.1 percent). Chicago selected Patrick Kane, pairing him with Jonathan Toews on their way to three Stanley Cups.

The Flyers suffered through a miserable season, yet instead of drafting Kane, they ended up with James van Riemsdyk. There’s a kinship, oddly, between JVR and Bobby Ryan: two New Jersey natives, who were second overall picks, and enjoyed bumpy-but-productive careers that probably didn’t soothe the wounds of those who were mad about draft lottery results.

Did we mention they were from New Jersey? (Crowd boos.)

[NHL Mock Draft: Lafreniere head of the 2020 prospect class]

3. The Oilers land McDavid, McDavid makes classic McDavid face

Compared to the Sabres’ 20-percent chance, the Oilers were underdogs to land Connor McDavid with the third-best odds (11.5). But the Oilers’ rain and reign of first overall picks continued.

As you may remember, McDavid looked thrilled.

There’s a sound argument for this rankings second, not third, among draft lottery memories. After all, McDavid ranks as the biggest star to emerge first overall since Crosby.

He also made that face.

But the other factor that looms large is the deep failure of the Oilers and the Sabres. Edmonton achieves borderline art in poor development (Nail Yakupov, first in 2012) and poor decisions (trading Taylor Hall, first in 2010) to squander so much good fortune. Only now are the Oilers flirting with the success they were practically gifted, and that hinges a ton on McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

The Sabres have been a mess for about a decade. They can’t pin that on getting Jack Eichel instead of McDavid, even if they clearly tanked for McDavid.

Hockey fans might want to attribute the success of teams like the Penguins and Blackhawks to premium picks alone. Yet, the Sabres and especially Oilers show us that you can squander such riches.

4. Taylor Hall, lottery ball specialist

Taylor Hall, one-time MVP and himself the top pick of 2010, became a good luck charm for his teams — at least when it came to draft lotteries. The biggest win came when the Oilers won the McDavid sweepstakes in 2015, while the Devils also landed Nico Hischier and most recently Jack Hughes in lotteries with Hall in the fold.

Hall hasn’t just shown a good sense of humor about it. He’s done so multiple times.

In 2015, McDavid:

After 2017, when the Devils eventually added Hischier:

Hall still provided some great barbs in 2019, though he wouldn’t spend much time with Jack Hughes:

So, a question: do we gauge Hall’s continued lottery ball dominance based on where the Coyotes draft, or if he signs with a different team in free agency? This is important, I think.

[PHT Roundtable: Draft Lottery format reactions]

5. Flyers make biggest jump ever

Heading into the 2017 NHL Draft Lottery, the Flyers held the 13th rank. Despite that standing, they jumped all the way to the second pick. Philly had a 2.4 percent chance to do that.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem like a Blackhawks Barker-to-Kane flip. Early in his career, Nolan Patrick has been some combination of inconsistent and injured (his career outlook is still foggy because of migraines).

Patrick’s health issues make it seem way too harsh to throw the word “bust” around. But that jump to No. 2 definitely didn’t deliver for the Flyers quite like they dreamed.

The next three picks turn the knife deeper for Flyers fans. The Stars drafted a defensive pillar in Miro Heiskanen. Then the Avalanche got a pillar of their own in Cale Makar. Finally, the Canucks might have drafted the “real” top pick in Elias Pettersson.

Ouch.

Honorable mention NHL Draft Lottery storylines and memories

To reiterate, good draft lottery luck doesn’t always translate to the standings. Sometimes it doesn’t even mean you’ll choose the right player.

  • The Thrashers (Patrik Stefan) and Islanders (Rick DiPietro) followed back-to-back blunders, and made blunders around those moves. Trading Roberto Luongo, giving DiPietro a ruinous contract, and so on showed that winning the lottery isn’t everything. Granted, Atlanta eventually struck gold with Ilya Kovalchuk (2001) — at least for a while.
  • Buffalo suffered some bad luck, but they need more than lottery wins. Rasmus Dahlin (2018) looks legit, yet he hasn’t been able to solve the Sabres’ problems. That takes multiple shrewd moves … and, yes, some luck.
  • You could rank the Canucks among the teams that have been burned by bad draws. Even so, some of their best recent picks came outside the true no-brainer range. They selected Elias Pettersson fifth in 2017, and he’d probably be the top pick in a re-draft. The Quinn Hughes pick (seventh in 2018) looked smart then, and brilliant now.

MORE POWER RANKINGS:

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.

Devils’ Hischier spending NHL offseason in Swiss army

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With the New Jersey Devils missing out on the NHL’s 24-team return from the pause caused by the novel coronavirus, center Nico Hischier is putting his extended offseason to good use.

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft is fulfilling his military obligation to Switzerland, which has a mandatory 18-week service for men followed by three-week stints over the next six or seven years.

Hischier had thought about fulfilling it during the season, but with the Devils uncertain when they would return from the pause, it turned out to be the perfect option.

“One reason I did it was I needed to stay in shape,” Hischier said Saturday on a Zoom call. “I didn’t know where to go because gyms weren’t open and I couldn’t just work out at home. I just didn’t have the tools for a good workout there. For a couple weeks it worked, but I felt like I needed to go somewhere to be prepared when we had to go back and play again. Then the army came and they had a great solution because where I’m working right now, that’s a great building. They have everything there you need.”

The 21-year-old Hischier is in a special program for athletes, although the first four weeks of classes were held remotely because of the virus. He is now attending classes to learn emergency medical techniques, among other things, in the mornings and working out with fellow athletes in the afternoon, including some hockey players from the Swiss national team.

He is not learning how to march or drive a tank, and he’s not heading to the firing range to shoot an automatic weapon. The soldiers in Switzerland’s professional army do that.

Hischier does get a uniform and there are rules to follow. He works five days, goes home and returns the following week. He does not have a rank – yet.

“We didn’t do much army stuff yet,” Hichier said, although he expects jt will increase by the time he finishes in mid-August.

Hischier is coming off what he considers a disappointing season. Like most of the Devils, he played well after a bad start led to the firing of coach John Hynes and general manager Ray Shero. He finished with 14 goals and 22 assists in 58 games. New Jersey posted a 28-29-12 record, finishing 12-5-4 in the last 21 contests under interim coach Alain Nasreddine.

“Obviously, it wasn’t a year that we expect,” Hischier said. “A lot of things happened, obviously, with all those changes. It wasn’t easy. I think the biggest thing for us was that we had a really bad start. It’s always frustrating and not easy when you’re down in the standings and you have to catch up.”

Hischier felt he took a few steps forward in his third season, but the team’s lack of success took away from that.

With the late-season trade of defenseman Andy Greene, Hischier is open to the idea of replacing him as the Devils’ captain next season. He was an alternate captain this season.

“At the end of the day, I’m still a young player,” Hischier said. “I still got a long, long way to go, a lot of things that I don’t know yet. I need to learn.”

It’s like learning to be in the army in some ways.

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.

NHL Power Rankings: The most underrated players

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we shift our focus to individual players. Specifically, the most underrated players in the NHL right now.

We are trying to keep this to players that are legitimately underrated, overlooked, and do not get the proper amount of attention they probably deserve.

So we are just going to put this out here at the front front: You will not see Washington Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom or Florida Panthers forward Aleksander Barkov on this list. They are staples on every underrated list or ranking that is compiled and both have reached a point where everyone knows exactly how great they are (pretty great).

Who does make this list?

To the rankings!

1. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers. While everyone falls all over themselves to talk about how underrated Barkov is, the Panthers’ other star forward is actually still fairly overlooked. Especially when you consider just how productive he has been, and for how long he has played at that level. Huberdeau has been a monster offensively for four seasons now and one of the league’s top scorers. Since the start of the 2016-17 season he’s in the top-15 among in points per game among all players with at least 100 games played, and has climbed into the top-10 over the past two seasons.

2. William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs. There’s probably a lot of people that would put him at the top of a most overrated list, and it’s truly one of the more baffling narratives in the league right now. Nylander is a constant lightning-rod for criticism and is always the first player that gets mentioned as being dangled as trade bait. What makes it so baffling is that he is an outstanding hockey player. Outside of the 2018-19 season (disrupted by his RFA saga) he has been a possession-driving, 60-point winger every year of his career, is still only 23 years old, and is on pace for close to 40 goals this season. Here’s a hot take for you: His $6.9 million salary cap hit will look like a steal before the contract expires. 

3. Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets. The Jets have a pretty good core of players that get their share of recognition — Patrik Laine, Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler specifically. Even Conor Hellebuyck is getting the proper level of respect this season and is going to be a Vezina Trophy front-runner. But Connor just quietly slides under the radar casually hits the 30-goal mark every season. His pace this season would have put him close to the 45-goal mark.

4. Ryan Ellis, Nashville Predators. Ellis is underrated in the sense that he seems to be generally regarded as a really good defenseman and another in a long line of outstanding defenders to come through the Nashville pipeline. He is much more than that. He is actually one of the best all-around defensemen in the entire league.

5. J.T. Miller, Vancouver Canucks. Over the summer I thought the Canucks were insane to trade a future first-round draft pick for Miller given where they were in their rebuild. It is not looking all that crazy right now. If anything, it is looking pretty outstanding. He was always a good player with upside in New York and Tampa Bay, but Miller has blossomed in Vancouver and become a bonafide top-line player.

6. Anthony Cirelli, Tampa Bay Lightning. As if the Lightning were not already dominant enough, they had another young talent come through their system to make an impact. Cirelli is only 22 years old and is already one of the league’s best defensive forwards while also showing 25-30 goal, 60-point potential.

7. John Klingberg, Dallas Stars. Klingberg is an interesting case because he’s received some serious Norris consideration on occasion (sixth-place finish two different times), but he still probably doesn’t get enough recognition for how good he has consistently been in Dallas. He is one of the top offensive-defensemen in the league and is much better defensively than he tends to get credit for. Heck, he’s better in every area than he tends to get credit for.

8. Jaccob Slavin, Carolina Hurricanes. Slavin might be starting to get into that Backstrom-Barkov area of underrated where he’s referred to as “underrated” so often that he is no longer underrated. But he is not quite there yet. He’s not going to light up the scoreboard or put up huge offensive numbers, but he is one of the best pure shutdown defensemen in the league.

9. Brendan Gallagher, Montreal Canadiens. Gallagher is generally viewed as a pest, but he is also on track for his third straight 30-goal season, is strong defensively, and is always one of the best possession players in the league. You may not like him when he plays against your team, but you would love him if he played for it.

10. Nico Hischier, New Jersey Devils. He is a recent No. 1 overall pick and just signed a huge contract extension so there is a certain level of expectation that comes with all of that. Maybe you think he has not matched it. But that is probably setting an unfair bar. Not every top pick is going to immediately enter the NHL and become a superstar at a Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid kind of level. Sometimes it takes a few years. In the short-term, Hischier has already proven to have 20-goal, 50-point ability while playing a strong defensive game. There’s a lot more upside here, too. Don’t let the draft status and contract term trick you into thinking he hasn’t been good. He has been. He is also only going to get better.

Honorable mentions: Jeff Petry (Montreal Canadiens), Brian Dumoulin (Pittsburgh Penguins), Evgenii Dadonov (Florida Panthers), Tomas Tatar (Montreal Canadiens), Roope Hintz (Dallas Stars), Conor Garland (Arizona Coyotes), Jakub Vrana (Washington Capitals), Torey Krug (Boston Bruins), Ben Bishop (Dallas Stars), Jared Spurgeon (Minnesota Wild)

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.