Even more so than my Wargames clip, the more fitting symbol of what the Devils franchise has become is the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day, where his character re-lives the same day over and over and over again. Only instead of living the same day as Devils fans, we’re living the same year over and over and over again. Yet I’m not sure I can remember a time where I’ve been this annoyed with the direction (or lack thereof) of the franchise as I am right now. It was one thing to be struggling when we were supposed to be rebuilding in the first few years of the Ray Shero regime, or when he tried to move towards a win-now approach and it blew up and then Tom Fitzgerald had to start rebuild 2.0. I’m not even asking for much as a fan at this point, despite all their additions this offseason pretty much my goal was just to have ‘meaningful games in March’ for only the second time in the post-Lou Lamoriello era.
This year should have been the time to see improvement from the younger players, especially with Fitz augmenting the core with a few vets this offseason. Instead, we have younger players stagnating or going backwards and an entire team that seemingly doesn’t know what to do on the ice, especially when special teams gets into the mix. Excuses have been the order of the day around here – Lou left the organization in bad shape, COVID screwed up seasons, the coaching sucks, yadda yadda yadda. When do we get to the day where we start to hold the players themselves accountable? Or better yet when does ownership start re-evaluating its whole process which clearly isn’t changing jack for the better?
If you go by the saying a fish rots from the head out, you gotta start with ownership and the general laissez-faire way they approach winning and losing both here and with the Sixers. I can’t even necessarily complain about who they’ve been hiring here as much as I do just the whole idea that every little thing has to be run as a democracy rather than just hiring people, letting them do their jobs and evaluate them on their own merit. Instead, we know that one of the reasons Shero was fired was that he wanted more autonomy and ownership wanted more of a collaboration. We have reports of upper management having input into the power play (like it’s helped) and other facets of daily coaching. And I loathe the fact this organization is making me call for Lindy Ruff’s head after like eighty-five games, but in the coach’s defense it’s not like he was really given any autonomy here, starting with his own staff. Was PP guru Mark Recchi really Ruff’s hire or Fitz’s? Given the Pittsburgh connection with Fitz and no other prior connection with Ruff, it seems obvious what the answer is. We know doggone well Alain Nasreddine was foisted on Ruff, which was even more ridiculous given that Nas had run his course both as an assistant under John Hynes and as the interim after Hynes’ firing.
I guess in a sense it’s fitting that Nas was kept from a prior administration, since after all Fitz himself was kept from a prior administration. Albeit a guy who was highly thought of and probably would have gotten his own GM job outside of New Jersey eventually, but still when you replace one coach and then foist his assistant on the next coach, while ownership promotes the assistant of the last GM it’s getting a bit…incestuous for lack of a better word? I’m just waiting for some organizational accountability to be shown and I don’t just mean firing a figurehead coach who has no real authority anyway. I’ve been a bit skittish about bringing in John Tortorella cause of the rationalization that his style with our finesse team would be an oil and vinegar match but at this point bleep the players. I’d bring him in just to light a fire at this point cause it doesn’t seem like we have anyone else in the organization willing to do it.
Ruff talks a good game but in the end just defaults to the same shuttle in and out fourth liners and run a few bag skates that most coaches do (with some of those moves making little sense, like scratching physical Nathan Bastian who can play for Mason Geertsen who can’t play the other night…like really now), without doing anything to even address the failing strategies on the ice. Ironically the one time he really put the hammer down on a key player, it worked – Jesper Bratt is one of the few players thriving in this mess of a season. But where’s a similar level of accountability for Ty Smith continuing to stink up the ice? He was named by the GM as someone just outside of core player status last year, but has shown to be anything but this season. And as much as I like the guy and think he does care, the fact this organization rushed to give Nico Hischier the C as quickly as they did before he fully established himself may well prove to be a mistake. It’s one thing to be a good person and try but that doesn’t give you stature or make you a good leader. Not that anyone else outside of maybe Dougie Hamilton is capable of wearing the C on this roster, but I can’t even make that claim with this season going up in smoke. Pretty much everyone needs to be called on the carpet for two dead-fish efforts in a row against the Islanders and Flyers.
Where is the realization by Ruff, ‘his’ staff or the higher-ups above that this so-called power play system just isn’t working? When even a gold standard player like Hamilton can’t run this system, the problem is usually with the system itself. It doesn’t seem like even now the coaching staff gets it, after nearly a monthlong stretch where the team’s literally given up more shorthanded goals than scored on its own power play (to be exact three PP goals scored in our last 36 attempts, with four shorthanded goals given up during that time).
Although finally admitting personnel changes could be made is a start, how about admitting that maybe this system itself needs to be re-evaluated? Or the process of it being more streamlined rather than Ruff, Recchi, Fitz and the analytics people all sitting in an office gaming out what, exactly? A different way of standing around and trying to thread the needle for a perfect pass in front? How about on a bigger level figuring out why quite a few guys when they first get here perform great, then stagnate after 15-20 games in this so-called system (yes I mean you Dougie, and your d-partner Ryan Graves)? Even a kid like Dawson Mercer has been pulled into the vortex of suck, with just one goal and a -8 in his last eight games.
This isn’t to absolve the players by any stretch, especially when you have a culture that for years has excused losing and blindly peddled a ‘better days are ahead’ mantra, the younger the roster gets without any real plan for developing all your younger players other than…they’re young, they’ll develop all on their own! At a certain point, our ‘captain’ or someone in the room needs to stand up and say this bleep is no longer acceptable around here, it shouldn’t be entirely up to the coaches and upper management to enforce accountability in the room. A good franchise breeds accountability both from management and peers. When the Devils were winning it wasn’t always Pat Burns and Jacques Lemaire giving speeches or pulling guys aside in the locker room. Sometimes it was Scott Stevens and Claude Lemieux letting players know their bleep isn’t gonna fly here. Right now as a franchise we’re missing a collective accountability both from above and from within. There’s too many milquetoast personalities who go with the flow and not enough guys who are willing to spice things up to get everyone going.
Part of my longing for some accountability comes from seeing other teams make coaching changes and immediately benefit from them, including the team that smoked us tonight – the Flyers, who’ve now won three straight not long after losing ten in a row. Vancouver was mocked for acting like a win-now team, hiring Bruce Boudreau but they’re winning now too. Both teams saw their season going up in smoke and did something about it, while we’re likely going to wait too long again just like we dragged our feet weeks after we should have fired Hynes in 2019. Not that I trust Fitz or ownership to do the right thing and bring in a name coach with some autonomy or even promote Kevin Dineen, who would seem to be the obvious in-season replacement with what he’s been doing at Utica this season – and get this, they actually have an elite power play down there! Think we could use some of whatever he’s brewing down there?
Apparently ownership (and/or Fitz) didn’t want guys like Gerard Gallant and Peter Laviolette during the 2020 offseason because they wanted more of a say in things than we were willing to give them. Gee, I wonder how their teams are doing now? Oh right, they’re so far in front of us we need a damn telescope to find them! Maybe it’s time to rethink the importance of coaching and not just trying to treat an NHL coach like a baseball manager, a guy who runs everything by the numbers and blindly does what management wants. No moneyball system on its own has been shown to win without any regard to talent or coaching yet. Maybe instead of just having a group of finesse youngsters you occasionally try to add in a couple of physical vets who aren’t outright useless goons?
Before we even talk about a philosophy change though, this organization needs to take a good hard look in the mirror and use one of its own corporate terms…self-evaluate. After eight years of two rebuilds I see zero evidence that our process is, or will work anytime soon. I’ve already gotten to the avoid watching games and dread going to games part of my yearly cycle of life. I didn’t watch a minute of the last two games and was better off for it, when the inevitable result happened Saturday with the fossilized remains of Lou’s ex-Devils (Andy Greene and Zach Parise) both scoring on us as if it was 2012 again. I don’t even want to hear about people being sick tonight at this point – when you do nothing but peddle excuses for years I’m sorry, I have no patience left for you even if this excuse has some truth to it in all likelihood.
It’s time to act like you’re in St. Louis and SHOW ME improvement, show me accountability. Give me a reason to watch your product again other than the games I’m self-obligated to go to, and a reason to keep my tickets after this season rather than just taking a bath on the ‘value’ of tickets for the sake of seat location and having playoff rights – god knows when we’ll ever get back to them.