For months now, Devils fans have been calling for Lindy Ruff to be fired. Is that the right move for the franchise right now?
In my last blog, I laid out the reasons for Lindy Ruff to be fired. However, there is also a compelling case for the Devils to stay the course and keep Lindy Ruff behind the bench. Ruff has been getting a lot of blame for the Devils place in the standings this year, but is that really fair? Today I will argue that no, it is not fair and Lindy Ruff should not be fired.
First and foremost, the Devils goaltending was an absolute catastrophe this season. They used 7 different goalies, and none of them had a save percentage above .902 or a goal against average below 3.06. Of the three goalies who played at least 19 games, none of them had a save percentage higher than .893 or a goals against average lower than 3.11. Having your top two goalies, Blackwood and Bernier, battle injuries for pretty much the entire year is tough, but then playing five more goalies who can’t stop the puck, including two who were in their first season of pro hockey in North America, and you are pretty much screwed. Would average goaltending have made a difference in this season? Without question yes. The Devils would have won several more games if they had a respectable NHL caliber goalie in net all year. Would it have made them a playoff contender? Probably not, but it still is lazy to just blame the head coach for poor results when on most nights the goalies available to him couldn’t stop a beach ball shot from the stick of a 10 year old.
The second tweet in that thread is what is most important here. The development of Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt into absolute superstars this season along with the growth of Nico Hischier into an elite offensive threat that can lock down the D zone is all the hope the Devils have. Two elite centers and super star winger can do a lot for a team. All three, Hughes, Hischier and Bratt, had career years this season under Ruff and given the Devils hope that they can start winning soon. Aside from just those three players, 2018 fifth round pick Yegor Sharangovich had a strong rookie season under Ruff in 2021 and built on that to be even better, despite a slow start, in 2022. Sharangovich has proven to be a reliable top six winger that can score by ripping shots from all over the ice, or by having a strong net front presence and tipping pucks into the net. A threat t score any time he touches the ice. Not to be forgotten is 2020 first round pick Dawson Mercer who, in his rookie season this year, was the only Devil to play all 82 games. He had a very strong, yet inconsistent rookie year. Mercer had 17 goals and 25 assists for 41 points, a very promising start to what will hopefully be a long and productive career for Mercer in New Jersey. He did struggle to produce consistently however, having a a 17 game goal drought in the last weeks of the season. Hughes, Hischier, Bratt, Mercer, and Sharangovich are all 23 years old or younger and all have grown into becoming better players since they started playing for Lindy Ruff. The Devils are the youngest team in the NHL and Ruff is helping those young players develop into stars.
Jack Hughes, Dougie Hamilton, Mackenzie Blackwood, Johnathan Bernier. What do all four of these players have in common? Not only were all four expected to play a major role in helping the Devils win a lot of hockey games this year, but all four missed at least 20 games with injuries. Hughes dislocated his shoulder in October and then sprained his MCL in early April. Dougie Hamilton took a puck to the face that broke his jaw in January. Blackwood battled a heel injury all season and Bernier had hip surgery that held him out of all but 10 games this season. Those are four very significant injuries that kept the Devils from being at full strength from pretty much day one of the season all the way until game 82. You could also factor in the absence of Miles Wood, who suffered a hip injury in the preseason that kept him out for almost the entire season. Wood scored 17 goals in 55 games in 2021 and as one of the fastest skaters and most aggressive guys on the team fills the role of a power forward that no other current Devil really can. Every team deals with injuries, but both of your goalies being out, or playing hurt all season, added to your best forward and best defenseman having serious injuries is going to negatively impact the positions in the standings of any team.
You can write the injuries off as a cheap and easy excuse while saying every team deals with injuries if you want, but I think that is overly simplistic. These were major injuries to several major pieces of the roster. If Michael McLeod or Pavel Zacha were the injuries we were talking about, that argument would hold more weight. But this wasn’t McLeod and Zacha. Both goalies, best forward, best defenseman all missing long stretches of time is near impossible for any team to overcome, regardless who their coach is. You certainly can’t blame Ruff for the fact that on many nights his best option in goal was a 21 year old rookie that obviously wasn’t ready for full time duty in the NHL (Nico Daws). Despite these injuries and poor goaltending though, you cannot deny that the Devils young core of players has developed well under Lindy Ruff. If he is allowed to coach the third and final year of his contract with competent goaltending, and GM Tom Fitzgerald can add some scoring depth, I think it is more than possible that Lindy Ruff can lead this team to the playoffs like he has 10 times in his long career with Dallas and Buffalo.