NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Lindy Ruff is taking on the job of getting the New Jersey Devils back to the playoffs.
It’s no small task. The Devils have missed the postseason the past two seasons and seven of the past eight. Making things tougher in this COVID-19 season, they will be playing in a division where six of the eight teams made the expanded postseason.
The Devils (28-29-12) just missed that group after a 10-5-2 finish under interim coach Alain Nasreddine. They have some talent with goaltenders Mackenzie Blackwood and Corey Crawford, left wing Kyle Palmieri and young centers Nico Hischier and a bigger Jack Hughes. The defense is the concern.
“I want to create hope and the hope is that we have some unknowns, we have some young players that nobody has seen,” said Ruff, who spent the past three seasons as an assistant with the Rangers. “There’s an opportunity for these young players to step in and be difference-makers. We’ve added a couple of really good defensemen that I think can make our team better. We’ve we’ve added another goaltender which has given us two goaltenders. So I’m going to talk about the hope.”
If you look at Ruff’s career, he took over the Dallas Stars in 2013-14 and ended a five-year playoff drought in his first season. New Jersey last made the postseason in 2016-17 under John Hynes, who fired in December.
The players will definitely enjoy Ruff’s up-tempo style if they can remember to be responsible on defense.
“I think there’s excitement,” said center Travis Zajac, who is entering his 15th season in New Jersey. “We’re ready to get off to a good start and prove some people wrong, maybe surprise some people. I think when you look at our team, we did get better. We had some pieces. We have some younger guys that have had a year under their belt that they’re going to improve. So I think we’re a team headed in the right direction.”
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft had a tough rookie season. He finished with seven goals and 14 assists and was a minus-26.
Hughes has immense talent. He created a lot of opportunities. He just didn’t find the net. His other problem was he was teenager playing with men. They knocked him down repeatedly.
Hughes bulked up in the long offseason and should improve.
Believe it or not, the 22-year-old Hischier is entering his fourth season after being taken No. 1 overall in the 2017 draft. He had 14 goals and 22 assists in 58 games last season. His faceoff rate improved to a career-best 52% last season.
The Devils are hoping Hischier will be ready for the opener. He sustained a leg injury working out in Switzerland before camp and probably won’t participate in training camp.
The Devils can’t afford another start like last season, when they opened 0-4-2 and never recovered.
The first game set the tone. They led Winnipeg 4-0 with less than a minute left in the second period and lost 5-4 in a shootout.
Palmieri said the start showed how fragile the team was.
“We have to find a way even if the game doesn’t go well,” Palmieri said. “You’re going to get another shot at it a day or two later the way the schedule works, probably against the same team. So being fragile as a group isn’t something that we have an option for this year.”
Lots of new faces, with the most well known being the 36-year-old Crawford, who was signed as a free agent along with defenseman Dmitry Kulikov. New Jersey also picked up forward Andreas Johnsson and defenseman Ryan Murray in trades. Young forward Janne Kuokkanen, who was picked up in the deal that sent Sami Vatanen to Carolina, appears headed for the opening-day lineup. Ruff retained Nasreddine and Rick Kowalsky from the old staff and hired Mark Recchi, Chris Taylor and Dave Rogalski.
The Devils are in a brutal division with the Bruins, Sabres, Islanders, Rangers, Flyers, Penguins and Capitals. The season gets underway with consecutive home games against Boston on Jan. 14 and 16.
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