NJ Devils firing of Lindy Ruff won’t do them much good now
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NJ Devils firing of Lindy Ruff won’t do them much good now

It was only slightly over a year ago that New Jersey Devils fans were apologizing en masse to Lindy Ruff. They had called for his head early last season, and then when the Devils caught fire they all were ready to admit they had egg on their face. New Jersey would go on to the second round of the playoffs with seemingly the most promising team in the league, poised to take another step or two this campaign.

And now Ruff is out on his ass, but it’s probably too late for the Devils.

There are only 21 games left, and the Devils trail both the Tampa Bay Lightning for the last wildcard spot and the Philadelphia Flyers for the last spot in the Metro by eight points, though they have two games in hand on both. To put it in perspective, both the Lightning and Flyers are projected to collect 95 points at the moment, per Moneypuck.com. For the Devils to top that, they’d have to win 16 of their last 21 games. It’s a long shot, to say the least. Perhaps carrying the burden of being the Stanley Cup pick of a certain charming and handsome writer was just too much for them.

There’s no question that the Devils have underperformed this season, and whenever that happens the coach is usually going to wear it. But there are a lot of factors to the Devils that a coach can’t do much about. Injuries are always top of the list, and the Devils have been hit hard by them. Dougie Hamilton has missed most of the season. Jack Hughes missed 16 games. Nico Hischier missed 11. Timo Meier missed 13 and hasn’t really looked like his San Jose vintage for larger chunks of the season. That’s the No. 1 d-man, the top two centers and a top-six winger.

Moreover, there are few levers a coach can pull when any goalie he throws into the crease looks like they’re being attacked by bees most nights. The Devils have rotated through three goalies all year, and none of them have been able to produce a save percentage over .900. Take the latest crippling loss as a prime example of what’s been the Devils’ season, Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles. The Devils took the lead 16 seconds in thanks to a freaky bounce off the glass, were carrying the play at a tough place to win against a tough team to play. But then first the Devils lose Phillip Danault on a breakaway, and then this goes in:

Devils @ Kings 3/3 | NHL Highlights 2024

The Devils never recovered, which has happened a lot this year. A bad goal just deflates them.

That can be put on the coach for lack of gumption or the like, but there’s only so many floaters or hopeful bombs from the blue line that a team can watch or not watch the big saves they never see before they think they’re just ice skating up too steep a hill.

Metrically, the Devils are where they’d want to be. They’re sixth in the league in both Corsi percentage and expected goal percentage at even-strength. The penalty kill sucks, but no PK can survive with this goaltending. In fact, by xGA while on the kill, the Devils are the fourth-best team in the league. They don’t give up a ton of chances while a man down, it’s just all those chances are finding twine. Perhaps they should have looked at firing goaltending coach Dave Rogalski and doing so much earlier than this, as the league continues to undervalue goaltending coaches. There’s a reason whatever team Mitch Korn is on gets plus goaltending. Same goes for Benoit Allaire in New York, Corey Schwab in Arizona, or Jimmy Waite in Chicago, just for a sample.

Still, that doesn’t mean Ruff is guilt-free. The Devils haven’t been a good defensive team (18th in xGA/60 at even-strength), and Ruff bounced between defensive systems during the season, which led to at least some confusion and at worst a feeling amongst the team that he didn’t really have any answers. Based on his quotes today, GM Tom Fitzgerald hasn’t been thrilled with the handling of some young players the Devils needed for depth, at least. The power play has gone in the tank of late, which is the worst possible time, and considering the talent they have on it they really need it to be a doomsday device.

Still, with 21 games to go, there’s little interim coach Travis Green can do. He certainly can’t replace the goalies, and even if Fitzgerald is successful in his now months-long crusade to bring Jacob Markstrom in this season, there’s little he can do with 20 games or so. It was obvious in November that the crease was going to be a trouble spot for New Jersey, and yet here we are in March watching them cycle through a hydra of piss-poorness. Too much time has passed and there’s too much ground to make up.

Time is on the Devils’ side in the long run. With the right answer in goal over the summer, and the right coach, the youth of the roster almost guarantees a bounce-back next season. But this was also a year to take a step from the previous season, with the Canes having similar problems in net and their playoff hiccups, leaving only a Rangers team that the Devils kneecapped last spring in the division. They’ve missed it while getting passed by the Flyers (though that’s probably not long-term).

If you’re looking boned in January, probably should do something about it before March.

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