Lindy Ruff, the Devils’ new head coach, has 736 career wins over 19 seasons but he still concedes that what worked for him in the past may not apply in today’s N.H.L.
The average age of the Devils’ roster when this season opened was 26.5 years old — the ninth youngest in the league — and the team counts among its stars the N.H.L.’s youngest player, Jack Hughes, 19, whom it drafted No. 1 over all in the 2019 draft. In a season in which the sport has confronted hazing and abuse scandals with new initiatives, Ruff acknowledged that the old days of barking orders at players is long gone.
“They want to know the ‘why’ part — why do we need to do it that way?” Ruff, 60, said of players during a conference call Thursday.
Ruff, a former head coach of the Buffalo Sabres and the Dallas Stars who spent the last three years as an assistant coach for the Rangers, was hired as the Devils simultaneously made Tom Fitzgerald their permanent general manager after six months in an interim role.
The duo takes the helm of a Devils team recovering from an organizational demolition, having traded Taylor Hall, the league’s 2018 most valuable player, and fired Coach John Hynes and General Manager Ray Shero by January of this year. After drafting Hughes and acquiring the star defensemen P.K. Subban in a trade over the off-season, the Devils had expected to both contend and entertain. Instead they started with a 9-14-4 record, fell to 15th place in the 16-team Eastern Conference in the season’s first two months and abandoned Shero’s blueprint for the future.
The Devils are one of only seven N.H.L. teams that will not resume play on Aug. 1, when the league is set to begin its expanded, 24-team playoff. The Devils, who had a 28-29-12 record when play was suspended in March, have qualified for the postseason just once in the last eight seasons, losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games in 2018. The losing seasons have netted them the No. 1 overall draft pick twice in the last four years, which the team has used to take Hughes and forward Nico Hischier.
Fitzgerald and Ruff will preside over this year’s draft process, when the team will have the seventh pick and two undetermined picks from potential play-in losers, Arizona and Vancouver. The position of those picks will be determined in a second draft lottery held between the play-in and first rounds of the postseason.
“My negative on Tom was that he didn’t win the lottery,” David Blitzer, one of the team’s owners, said jokingly.
The Devils will also be more than $30 million under the salary cap heading into the 2020-21 season, which will enable them to sign a few top veteran free agents to supplement a young core of players that Blitzer said is going to be “very exciting for a very long period of time.”
Fitzgerald ran the coaching search that landed Ruff, after having assumed the interim role when Shero was fired. He said Thursday that Ruff, who played 12 seasons in the N.H.L. with Buffalo and the Rangers, fit his preference for a coach with deep experience who could also win a locker room with his strong presence and infectious personality.
“The more we kept digging, the more Lindy kept rising,” Fitzgerald said.
Martin Brodeur, the Hall of Fame goaltender who is now an executive vice president and an adviser with the Devils, compared Ruff with former Devils coaches Jacques Lemaire and Claude Julien, who were considered teachers.
“We have such a young team,” Brodeur said, in a video interview. “We wanted to get kind of a father figure a little bit, a guy who’s been around the league.”
The Dallas Stars fired Ruff after they failed to make the playoffs in the 2016-17 season, but Alain Vigneault, the Rangers’ former head coach, added him to his staff to focus on the team’s young defensive corps. Ruff knew he wanted to be a head coach again after just one year.
He said that his Devils teams won’t ignore playing defense, but he still largely believes in a “superfast, possession-type game,” a style that should particularly help to develop Hughes, who had only seven goals and 14 assists in 61 games this season.
Blitzer did not want to say how he thought the Devils would fare as they regrouped under Ruff, saying of the process, “The players will tell us that.”