Beyond Lindy Ruff Firing, New Jersey Devils Desperately Need Morale Boost

New Jersey Devils continue to embody defeated spirit as the team struggles on Western road trip.
Detroit Red Wings v New Jersey Devils
Detroit Red Wings v New Jersey Devils / Jared Silber/GettyImages

The New Jersey Devils are down 4-1 against the Los Angeles Kings. Head coach Lindy Ruff pulls goalie Nico Daws with a little under six minutes to play in the third period. A visibly frustrated Jack Hughes signals to the bench because there are only five Devils players on the ice. The Devils have pulled their goalie and not placed an extra forward on the ice, effectively playing 5-on-5 without a goaltender for no apparent reason other than a lack of awareness by the coaching staff.  Unsurprisingly, the game ended in a 5-1 win for Los Angeles, as Phillip Danault scored on an empty net to finish off his hat trick (he had no goals at home going into the game).

No, Devils fans, unfortunately, this was not just a bad dream. It was the crash-and-burn ending to a mostly miserable Western road trip for this struggling team. The Devils desperately needed as many points as they could muster out of this stretch of away games and instead lost in regulation in two out of their three California matchups.

The Devils now return home with an important decision to make. Will they spend the little over a month that’s left of the regular season wallowing in disappointment, or will they continue to fight, maybe not for a playoff spot at this point, but for the sake of ending a season full of lows on a higher note?

The Devils front office already made a move toward the latter, firing Lindy Ruff on Monday evening. GM Tom Fitzgerald said the results weren't good enough, and it was time to try something else.

Many might blame this season’s failures on coaching staff decisions, bad moves or a lack of moves by management, injury, illness, or goaltending inconsistency. And while all those things have played a role in the Devils' descent, there’s one noticeable difference between this year’s team and teams of previous years. The almost palpable sense of demoralization that comes through in interviews, on-ice play, body language, and actions by the Devils players has been increasingly apparent as the season has trudged on. No one’s expecting these guys to be smiling about losing games or players, but fans want to see perseverance and heart. They want to know that the players care about winning just as much, and hopefully more, than they do.

The Devils have looked defeated long before their record ever said they were. reporter Ryan Novozinsky even noted during a Bratt Pack Twitter Space that the atmosphere in the locker room seems different this year, and the team has not been playing music in the locker room after wins. A small thing, but with interesting implications for the team’s mindset.

Captain Nico Hischier has particularly come across as someone who has tried to maintain a sense of positive morale for his teammates. Though he has never provided any outright criticism, it's been widely speculated that Hischier has more to say about Ruff as head coach. While Jack Hughes usually has nothing but nice things to say in public, Hischier has always been a little more direct. Now, they can see how the Devils deal with the roster post-Ruff.

Regardless of what he may or may not think about Ruff’s coaching decisions or managerial decisions coming from Fitzgerald, he has approached each game with effort and a desire to win.  That’s the attitude the Devils need to finish the season strong. Whether they agree with Lindy Ruff’s coaching decisions or not, whether they think Tom Fitzgerald has made the right moves for the team or not, whether they want more ice time or to play a different role, they must approach every game with the desire to win in spite of any less than favorable circumstances.

If the Devils prove that they can keep fighting even when they have so many things working against them, the future may look more like the playoff-caliber locked-in team of last year and less like a team wallowing in self-pity.