Tom Fitzgerald

Devils GM on hiring experienced Ruff: ‘The group needs a teacher’

As with many teams trending toward youth, a head coach with experience would be at the top of the list for any general manager. That would explain why the Devils were interested in bringing Lindy Ruff on board.

The 60-year-old head coach has plenty of NHL coaching experience. Only six coaches in league history – Scotty Bowman, Joel Quenneville, Barry Trotz, Al Arbour, Paul Maurice, Ken Hitchcock — have coached more regular-season games than Ruff (1,493).

As GM Tom Fitzgerald went through the interview process he said that Ruff “continued to step to the forefront.” Ruff fit the criteria: NHL coaching experience, has a “presence,” a “personality,” and is “believable.”

“[T]he group needs a teacher, someone who’s going to come in and teach, and messages are going to be extremely clear, no break at all in the messaging,” Fitzgerald said.”

The Devils have a young core led by Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, and Mackenzie Blackwood. In the pipeline are prospects like Nolan Foote, Janne Kuokkanen, and Ty Smith, who could reach the NHL soon. In the team’s current state, Fitzgerald is banking on Ruff’s experience and educator-mindset to pay off down the line.

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

“As we kept going deeper into that process, the infectious personality that Lindy Ruff has is a big part of who he is,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s a light-hearted person. He’s played the game. He’s coached young talent, another criteria. Being able to coach young talent and watch them develop into budding stars like he did with the core young players in Buffalo and core performers right now in Dallas. … As the process continued, Lindy continued to grow and grow and grow to the point where I felt relationship-wise, which is a big thing for a manager, it was there already. So as far as teamwork, I felt Lindy Ruff was the best person for this job.”

How Ruff goes about coaching young players and getting the best out of them is simple: constant communication. You can’t develop players without proper, constructive feedback. He feels that will serve his players best for sustained improvement.

 “I think a lot of times you can tell [young players] what you want to do, but most times they want to know why,” he said. “‘Why do I have to do it?’ I think that’s a question you’ve got to answer the most. … ‘Why do you need me to do this?’ And most times, the answer to that is, ‘For the team to be successful.'”

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

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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.

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

Good, bad, neutral of 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.

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

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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.”

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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.

Devils interim coach Alain Nasreddine on pause in NHL season

New Jersey Devils interim coach Alain Nasreddine is focusing on a having his team ready to play should the NHL resume games after a pause caused by coronavirus pandemic rather than whether he will have a job next season.

Speaking in conference call Wednesday, Nasreddine said he is aware of reports that Devils interim general manager Tom Fitzgerald has interviewed candidates for the team’s head coaching job.

The Devils have not commented on the report.

”To be honest, we’re still in the (20)19-20 season,” Nasreddine said. ”As far as I know, I was the head coach on March 12th, you know, and I’m the head coach of the New Jersey Devils. Now, I’ve heard what’s going on with interviews and stuff like that. But to be honest, I’m just focused on this season.”

The 44-year-old Nasreddine has a 19-16-8 record since replacing John Hynes on Dec. 3. The Devils were 9-13-4 under Hynes and they have played much of the season with one of the NHL’s youngest teams.

Nasreddine didn’t expect to become a head coach this season and he admitted his anxiety increased when he was elevated to the top job. He said it’s one thing to be an assistant coach for almost a decade and offer advice. Everything changes when you suddenly have to make the final decision and not every decision turns out right.

Nasreddine had taken pride in his work ethic and his preparedness.

”I really grew,” he said. ”You know, I mean, three months felt like a year, but I felt like I got experience 10 years worth and I felt really comfortable in the end. You know, I feel like and I know it’s only a 40 or 50 games, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot. I’m ready.”

While the NHL has not announced plans, Nasreddine said he has heard the rumors if the league does resume play. It would be a 2-to-3 week training camp and the season might extend into June and July.

Whether that happens, we’ll see.

Nasreddine said he talks with Fitzgerald a couple of times a week and has contact with his players. He talks to goaltender Cory Schneider and forward Kyle Palmieri more because they are the team’s union player representatives.

”Right now, I consider if we come back, almost be another new year,” Nasreddine said. ”We’re gonna have a training camp. We have time to make some adjustments. Well, there are a few tweaks, a few things we’re going to look at. And I think that will give us the perfect opportunity to work on them, whether it’s seven games, 13 teams, whatever that is. So we’re definitely going to look to to make some improvements.”

Nasreddine said he has not done player evaluations for the season, saying that’s something that will happen once the season ends.

While he called the pandemic horrible, Nasreddine said the time off has given him more time with family than he has had in years. They eat together every day and he laughs about watching his children learn on-line.

”You know, I declare myself the school principal here at home,” he said. ”Well, they didn’t like that too much. But we had a structure. We had a schedule in place. It’s been going real well with the school, with them. And then you have to know we’ll all get a little workout. Well, we’ll be active. So we have a routine that’s worked really well.”