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Ruff embraces Devils youth after being hired as coach

Fourth-oldest in NHL takes over youngest team in League

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

Lindy Ruff is the fourth-oldest coach in the NHL taking over its youngest team, and he has a plan to make that work.

"My philosophy (in coaching young players) is constant communication," Ruff said after being hired as coach of the New Jersey Devils on Thursday. "It's really building a role, and a responsibility, knowing that all players are bringing different skills to the table and inside the way we want to play the game, a puck-pressure game, on top of the puck, try to keep possession ... that some players bring greater assets than other players.

"It'll be that constant communication and feedback from practices, games, to get them a really good feel for where they're at and where I think they're at or where I think they can get to. I think a lot of times you can tell [young players] what you want to do, but most times they want to know why. 'Why do I have to do it?' I think that's a question you've got to answer the most. ... 'Why do you need me to do this?' And most times, the answer to that is, 'For the team to be successful.'"

 

[RELATED: Ruff hired by Devils as coach, replaces Nasreddine]

 

Ruff replaced Alain Nasreddine, who took over when John Hynes was fired Dec. 3. Ruff coached 19 seasons in the NHL, 15 with the Buffalo Sabres and four with the Dallas Stars, before he was hired as an assistant by the New York Rangers on July 10, 2017. He is sixth in NHL history in wins (736) and seventh in games coached (1,493), and guided the Sabres to the Stanley Cup Final in 1999.

Ruff said he's always enjoyed teaching young players.

"I think sometimes that a young guy wants to get to that finish line faster than it's possible," Ruff said. "All the things as coach you instill as a player, whether it's your work ethic off the ice, practice habits and even sleeping and eating habits, get to the point where you can perform at an optimal level.

"There's a lot of things that go into being a good NHL pro especially when a young player steps in, is not really developed physically and now playing against grown men who are twice your size and twice as strong. You have to get him to a point where they're comfortable."

The Devils have seven players age 23 or younger on their roster: forwards Joey Anderson (22), Jesper Bratt (21), Nico Hischier (21), Jack Hughes (19), Michael McLeod (22), and Pavel Zacha (23), and goalie MacKenzie Blackwood (23).

Then there are forwards Jesper Boqvist (21), Nolan Foote (19), and Janne Kuokkanen (22), and defensemen Kevin Bahl (20) and Ty Smith (20), who each will be looking to earn a full-time NHL role next season.

New Jersey also could be adding significant young players. It has the No. 7 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft and could receive the first-round picks of the Arizona Coyotes and Vancouver Canucks.

Hughes, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, scored 21 points (seven goals, 14 assists) in 61 games this season.

"That first year is a hard year, but it's just measuring in growth to get to that next step and you can take off from there," Ruff said. "It was no different than [forward Kaapo] Kakko (with the Rangers). He had the same type struggles. With Jack, he's at the point where you just have to find the right guys for him to play with ... [help him] get stronger and quicker."

Kakko, the No. 2 pick in the 2019 draft, had 23 points (10 goals, 13 assists) in 66 games.

Tom Fitzgerald, who will remain Devils general manager after being promoted when Ray Shero was fired Jan. 12, said he was looking for someone with experience as an NHL coach and "someone with a personality ... the group needs a teacher. Someone who's going to come in and teach, and whose messages are going to be extremely clear. No gray at all."

Devils executive vice president Martin Brodeur said, "We have such a young team. We wanted to get a father figure, a guy that knows the League, that's been around the League a lot to really help our young players moving toward the right direction and try to get us into the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs and having some success in the near future. Lindy kind of checked a lot of those boxes for us."

New Jersey has the youngest average age in the NHL at 26.0 years. Three NHL coaches are older than Ruff: Rick Bowness of the Stars (65), John Tortorella of the Columbus Blue Jackets (62), and Joel Quenneville of the Florida Panthers (61).

"For a younger team, it's always nice to have someone who's been a head coach in the League for such a long time," Zacha said of Ruff, who won the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year in 2005-06 with the Sabres, "and I'm just excited to meet him and see where it goes."

The Devils (28-29-12, .493 points percentage) finished 14th in the Eastern Conference this season and are not among the 24 teams competing for the Stanley Cup under the NHL Return to Play Plan. They would miss the playoffs for the seventh time in eight seasons.

"You look at his track record and what he's done in this league and how many wins he has," forward Travis Zajac, who at 35 is the oldest and longest-tenured member of the Devils (14 seasons), said of Ruff. "... He's someone who can help this team out a lot."

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