In a season of unpredictability and unprecedented circumstances, the New Jersey Devils simply just cannot catch a break. Over the course of the season, the Devils have had to deal with, replacing GM Ray Shero and Coach John Hynes, a disastrous rookie campaign for 1st overall pick Jack Hughes, the decline of new acquisitions P.K. Subban and Wayne Simmonds (who was later dealt to Buffalo), not qualifying for the NHL’s 24-team playoff after having high playoff aspirations prior to the season, and dropping from #6 to #7 in the draft lottery due to a play in team winning the #1 pick.
On July 9th, the Devils replaced Interim Head Coach Alan Nasreddine (who actually led the Devils to a winning record in his short tenure), with former Sabres and Stars head coach Lindy Ruff. Ruff was Head Coach of the Sabres from 1997-2013. His tenure included eight trips to the playoffs and an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final in 1999. In 2013 he joined the Dallas Stars and had 165-122 record for two playoff appearances before being fired. His career record is 736-554-78 through 19 seasons. On paper this looks like the kind of hire the Devils needed to right the ship, however, in Ruff’s most recent coaching stint as an assistant coach of the New York Rangers, he amassed a large amount of scrutiny over the team’s lackluster defense. The hardcore participants on Rangers twitter are arguably more excited about this hire than Devils fans, and that made us wonder, why?
Ruff spent three seasons with the Rangers (2017-18, 2018-19, 2019-20) The following table consists of AB scores for all notable Rangers defensemen we have data for throughout Ruff’s tenure. We will show their number from the earliest season without Ruff’s influence and compare it to their numbers with his coaching. Yellow bars indicate time under Ruff, while green bars indicate years without Ruff’s coaching.
|Player Name||2016-17||2017-18||2018-19||2019-20||AVG With Ruff|
|Brendan Smith||-4.52||-3.61||-3.78||-3.11||-3.5 (3 years)|
|Kevin Shattenkirk||-3.02||-8.53||-4.27||+1.89||-6.4 (2 years)|
|Brady Skjei||-1.00||-7.48||-3.86||-4.33||-5.22 (3 years)|
|Tony DeAngelo||-5.09||-4.29||-1.10||-1.44||-2.27 (3 years)|
|Marc Staal||-0.17||+1.60||-5.11||+0.09||-1.14 (3 years)|
|Neal Pionk||N/A||-3.09||-3.52||+0.19||-3.30 (2 years)|
|Jacob Trouba||-0.78||-0.50||-2.15||-4.42||-4.42 (1 year)|
|Adam Fox||N/A||N/A||N/A||+1.87||+1.87 (1year)|
|Ryan Lindgren||N/A||N/A||N/A||+3.76||+3.76 (1 year)|
|Libor Hajek||N/A||N/A||N/A||-1.91||-1.91 (1 year)|
As you can see by the table, these numbers are woefully unimpressive, and we can now see Rangers fan’s perspective. In his three seasons with the Rangers, not one defenseman averaged a positive score with his coaching. In the case of Neal Pionk, his only season without Ruff was his best at +0.19, while his other two seasons with him were both -3 or worse. Jacob Trouba’s score also dropped by almost twice the amount (-2.15 in 18-19 to a -4.42 in 19-20). Kevin Shattenkirk’s only positive AB score in the last four years came the season after he played for Ruff. In three seasons, excluding this year’s Rangers rookie defense class, there were only two positive AB scores from Rangers defenseman, and both were from veteran Marc Staal (+1.6 in 17-18 and +0.09 in 19-20).
This ought to be very concerning for Devils fans given the fact their defense group is not exactly as stable as they would like. In fact, their prized offseason acquisition, defenseman P.K. Subban, registered a career-low point total (18), and a -21 +/-, which was also the worst of his career. AB wise P.K. followed up three consecutive negative AB seasons with the worst number of his career (-7.97). The Devils defense group also consists of Damon Severson (-5.95 career AB in 6 seasons), Will Butcher (-2.17 career AB in 3 seasons), Mirco Mueller (-1.99 career AB in 5 seasons), Connor Carrick (-3.77 career AB in 6 seasons). Another concerning fact is that the Devils have close to $20 million invested in this defense group, with Subban’s contract not expiring until 2022-23, Severson’s until 2023-24, Butcher’s until 2022-23, and Carrick’s not expiring until 2021-22. When we look at the Devils’ prospect pool, the only help that appears to be on the way defensively is 2018 17th overall pick, Ty Smith. This season with the Spokane Chiefs, Smith played 46 games. In these 46 games, he scored 19 goals and registered 40 assists for 59 points. Outstandingly, Smith was +49 +/- wise as well, while registering 42 penalty minutes. The defense certainly has to be an area of improvement for New Jersey and should be the main focus for new official GM Tom Fitzgerald this offseason.
Due to his successful trade deadline, we have voiced our support for Fitzgerald throughout our last several Devils related articles, and have lobbied for him to become full-time GM. His deadline moves consisted of dealing Captain Andy Greene to the NY Islanders for a 2nd round pick and a prospect (read here), getting a haul for Blake Coleman from Tampa Bay (read here), and trading Wayne Simmonds to the Buffalo Sabres for a draft pick (read here). We thought he significantly improved the team’s chances for the rest of the season as well as for the future by making those moves and considered the Devils to be one of the biggest winners at the deadline this season. The Devils could also have up to three first-round picks in the NHL’s October 9th entry draft, as they have their own pick (confirmed 7th overall), Arizona’s pick (unless the Coyotes lose to the Predators in the play-in round and win the 1st overall selection), and Vancouver’s pick (unless the Canucks lose to the Wild in the play-in round and win the 1st overall selection). As we addressed throughout this article, the defense appears to be a weak spot for the Devils, and we believe this should be a top priority in the draft for them.
With their 7th overall pick, we believe the Devils should select Jamie Drysdale of the Erie Otters (OHL). Drysdale is the consensus top defenseman in a forward heavy draft and should be available for them to select at their spot should they choose to do so. In 49 games with the Otters this season, Drysdale scored 9 goals and registered 38 assists for 47 points. This season, he was also +9 +/- wise and only registered 24 penalty minutes. He is an 18-year old, right-shot defenseman who is 5’11 and weighs 170lbs.
Speaking of the draft, we would like to reiterate that we encourage Devils fans to be patient with 1st overall pick Jack Hughes, as there is certainly something to build off from there. Hughes faced a rather large amount of adversity for a #1 pick in his rookie season, as the Devils went through two coaches, lost their captain, traded their best player, and struggled performance-wise in a short time span. In a recent Zoom call, Jack’s brother and potential 2020 Calder Trophy winner Quinn Hughes said some pretty interesting things regarding his younger brother. Quinn stated he believes this long layoff is the best thing that could ever happen for Jack, and that his age was the only thing holding him back as he obviously was not as strong as older players. Quinn also said that Jack has been working out and getting stronger in response to this, and his body has gained 3-4 lbs. of muscle mass. Lastly, Quinn says that he fully believes Jack will be a different player and a different person the next time we get to see the Devils play. Due to everything going on in the world, we believe this news significantly fell under the radar and should be talked about more, as this development could be game-changing for the Devils next season.
Although we do not believe that the Lindy Ruff hire is a good one at the moment, with Tom Fitzgerald in the fold permanently and the potential development of Jack Hughes occurring under the league’s nose, we believe the Devils are headed in the right direction. Much more to come, as the play-in round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin on August 1st from the hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto. More to come.