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Devils can build on second half to make playoffs next season, Ruff says

Coach also discusses starting new job, goalie plan, thoughts on Hughes, Hischier with NHL.com

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

Lindy Ruff said that he believes the New Jersey Devils can get back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs as early as next season.

The 60-year-old, who was hired as Devils coach July 9, said creating a belief is the first step in that process. New Jersey, which has the youngest average age in the NHL at 26.0 years, has qualified for the playoffs once in the past eight seasons.

"I think any coach believes they're going to make the playoffs," Ruff said. "We play the game for one reason and that's to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I think there was really good play the second half of the year (by the Devils) and I think if we can elevate that just a little bit, we have an opportunity to be in the playoffs and honestly, if you can get in, anything can happen."

Ruff coached 19 seasons in the NHL, 15 for 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).

He's reached the postseason 10 times as coach and led the Sabres to the 1999 Stanley Cup Final, a six-game loss to the Stars, in his second season. As an assistant to Doug MacLean, Ruff helped the Florida Panthers reach the Cup Final in 1996, when they were swept in four games by the Colorado Avalanche.

"I'm going to guarantee [Devils fans] that we'll be an extremely hard-working team and going to be very competitive," Ruff said. "I've been around young teams and coached young teams. You have to build a foundation with these young players in this system and how we want to play. [Players] are going to have to have a lot of trust in what I'm going to try to implement, and I have to have the same trust in them. Each player brings a different ability, and I'm going to put them in a position to succeed."

Ruff discussed his thoughts on coaching and the Devils in a wide-ranging interview with NHL.com.

 

What's been your focus since being named coach? 

"Trying to get acclimated, reaching out and trying to say hello to everybody. This week is going to be busy with just trying to converse with all the people. A lot of people have reached out inside the organization. I'll start with the staff and get to the players as quickly as I can. I have no immediate timetable [to name assistants]. I would say sooner than later because that's important to me to get that in place. We have this extra time and want to use it wisely. We're going to start on the inside talking to the people that that are here but do a thorough job of looking around for the best available people that fit the way we want to play and the way we want to coach."

Video: Lindy Ruff joins NHL Tonight

 

Did your experience with the Rangers change your view of coaching or players in general?

"I think the coaching part has really changed. You still have to have hard conversations, but there's conversations where you can sit down and they don't even have to be hockey related, but just to know the young man you're dealing with. Most of these highly skilled young players come from a situation where they've been the best player wherever they've been and that transition sometimes isn't as easy as you think it is. I think sitting down and listening ... sometimes to their concerns and sometimes what they're upset about, whether it's ice time or whatever. Getting to know them on a personal level helps the situation."

 

What are your thoughts on coaching young players today? 

"I think the pace you have to play with, the schedule you have to deal with, makes it tough. You're dealing with, sometimes, four games in six nights and the energy level isn't quite there. When you're a young man, you don't have the strength or the endurance that some of these players have gathered over their 5-to-10 years. Those first two or three years are really building years when it comes to strength and endurance for young players. I always found that they give you some good spurts but sometimes they just don't have the physical strength to really motor through some of these tough stretches that as a team, schedule-wise, you have to go through."

 

Can you easily spot when a young player is struggling? 

"A lot of times it's very evident when you're watching them play. During a game, you can say, 'Boy he just doesn't quite have it tonight.' I think that's kind of a shared responsibility between the amount of work that the player has to do off-ice and to maintain those conversations with your strength people. A lot of times you put a lot of trust in the strength people in your organization to give you a good feel of where individuals and the team are at. These last couple of years I've spent with the Rangers, I've had our strength and conditioning people step in and say, 'Listen, you've got a fatigued group here.' So, you probably don't practice or maybe go easy on the guys so they have energy for the upcoming game."

 

What's your philosophy regarding line combinations?

"I think the evolution of lines has really changed because I don't know if, when we're playing an opponent, I ever get to see the same lines. I don't know if night to night last year with the Rangers that we ever had the same lines. I think there's a philosophy now that you find pairs ... two guys that go well together and there's always a third guy that kind of rotates in and out. In Dallas, I found pairs of guys that played well together. On some nights, if you needed a more physical player with your skill players, you put that guy in. If you need a checker or a really good two-way centerman against the top line, you did some flipping and flopping to adjust to what you're playing and how the players are going. Sometimes you'll find a line that may play together for a month, sometimes two guys will play together for almost a whole year. But there's not a lot of lines in the League that stay together for a whole year where you have groups of three. When you start thinking about lines, you obviously think this will work or that will work but as soon as you get to training camp and start playing some games, you find out that there's pieces that will fit together. That's usually where you make a lot of decisions."

 

Do you believe Jack Hughes is a future star at center in the NHL?

"I do. I think sometimes you try to use a player as a right winger that'll also play left. Sometimes he'll play center. I think most players will succeed; center is a tough position for a young player. I think it's a position [Hughes] can get back to and excel. I liken it to when I got Daniel Briere from [the Phoenix Coyotes at the 2003 NHL Trade Deadline]. I still remember the first conversation with Danny, where he thought he wasn't going to be able to play center. When he came back into his own end, he figured it best to go to left wing and let somebody else play down low. I told him inside the system we play in Buffalo, which I think will help Jack too, he'll be able to play center and be able to flourish. I look at my top three centers at that time (with the Sabres in 2002-03) and they were all smaller ... Briere (5-foot-9), Chris Drury (5-10) and Derek Roy (5-9). It wasn't that we had a big, physical team down the middle, but I think the way we played helped and I think defending is a five-man job. That's a long answer for the question about Jack, but I do think he'll be able to get back to his position. That doesn't mean there won't be times that if I can get Jack an extra shift, he might go on the ice in the offensive-zone face-off as a right wing or left wing. But those are the options a coach has."

Video: FLA@NJD: Hughes nets wrister from circle for PPG

 

Which players on the Devils have you previously coached?

"The two recent players were (defenseman) Damon Severson and (goalie) Mackenzie Blackwood when I was coaching the defense for Canada at the 2019 IIHF World Championship. We spent a lot of time over there, you have a month with players. I had a lot of conversations [with Severson] and did individual video work. I really enjoyed Blackwood; we got along good. We had him and (Philadelphia Flyers goalie) Carter Hart. There was a little pingpong challenge where Hart and Blackwood thought they could beat me, but it was no contest. I think I even switched to my other hand at one point. I spent quite a bit of time with them; [Blackwood's] a competitor. I also had (center) Travis [Zajac] when I was coach at the 2009 World Championship."

 

Do you anticipate a goalie competition between Cory Schneider and Blackwood in training camp?

"I have a belief that you really need two goaltenders in this league. The amount of time you play, the games you play inside a week ... a goalie's job is physically demanding. It can get pretty mentally demanding too. I think the days of playing 60 to 70 games is fewer and fewer. We're going to need two good goaltenders to play well to be successful."

 

How impressed are you by center Nico Hischier?

"He's a great competitor; a good all-around player. I think there's just a lot to like; you know where his game is at because it's a game that suits how every young player can start off, how they can develop and where they can get to."

 

Are you opposed to naming a young player captain?

"I'm not opposed but I think that's a conversation that I'm so far away from right now. First, it's getting to know these players. A lot of that is going to fall on the shoulders of the people around me. I'm going to rely heavily on (Devils general manager) Tom [Fitzgerald] and have conversations with him. The people inside the organization, who know the character of the players best, are way ahead of me. So that's a decision that's a long way away."

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