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Nichols: Devils Division Rival Proving Changes Should Have Come Sooner

The New York Islanders have won six straight games and regained playoff position as Patrick Roy coaches the Devils division rival back to the postseason.



New Jersey Devils

General manager Tom Fitzgerald took too long to make changes for the New Jersey Devils. One of the Devils’ division rivals is proving exactly why New Jersey’s GM should have acted sooner.

On Friday, the Devils sold their leading goal scorer, Tyler Toffoli, to the Winnipeg Jets, and sent defenseman Colin Miller up north with him. Although he traded two key pieces on the roster, Fitzgerald also brought in two goaltending upgrades for the remainder of the season, and at least one will remain on the roster next season.

At the end of the day, it was decent business by Fitzgerald to acquire Jake Allen who will likely be the Devils’ 1A for the remaining 18 games this season and will be part of the tandem in 2024-25. Buying Kaapo Kahkonen to dump Vitek Vanecek’s contract with one year remaining on the latter’s contract is an excellent move.

However, could these acquisitions not have come sooner?

Fitzgerald explained that he understood the circumstances his team was in by Friday’s deadline. He wore the grunt of the blame in terms of not acting sooner and why he approached the deadline the way he did.

“When you’re at a 13 or 18% chance of making the playoffs, that’s a big bet,” Fitzgerald explained Friday evening. “And that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in my team, but it’s a big bet. So to give up future assets with a low percentage bet at that time meaning like, geez, we’re going to need to put some wins together. At the end of the day, it’s all about winning and we haven’t been putting two points on the board to catch teams.

“So, to give up those assets, that to me wasn’t smart asset management even though I believe in the team. We’ve got a good team, we’ve got some good players. It hasn’t gone well. You know underperforming players, whether it’s structure and coaching, whether it was goaltending, my undoing and not making moves earlier, we are here. This is where we are so to just give up assets for you know, kind of low bets, it just didn’t make sense to me.”

Looking within the division, the New York Islanders are proving where the Devils could have been.

Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello is no stranger to making coaching changes. On Jan. 20th, it wasn’t a surprise to see the sputtering Isles relieve former head coach Lane Lambert of his duties. However, they shocked the world by hiring Patrick Roy as Lambert’s replacement, bringing one of hockey’s legends back to the NHL.

One of Roy’s first messages, when he was hired behind the Islanders’ bench, was clear. Playoff hockey now, and always.

“It’s what we’re going to do from now on that matters,” Roy said at his first conference as Islanders head coach. “We know that we put ourselves in a bit of a hole, and we need to win games. It’s playoff hockey for us. Sometimes, you win some ugly ones. Tonight was not the perfect way we wanted to play, but we found ways to win. That’s what a good team does.”

It was a bit of a rocky start. Roy had some kinks to work out in the Islanders’ system. However, after the Islanders defeated the Anaheim Ducks on Sunday night, they etched their sixth W in the win over their last six games. As a result, the Islanders have jumped the Detroit Red Wings, regaining playoff position in the second wildcard slot in the Eastern Conference.

Certainly, Lamoriello’s old-school methods are outdated. He’s stood pat at four trade deadlines in a row at this point, although has provided the Isles with upgrades at different times (i.e. Bo Horvat, Alexander Romanov). However, even Lamoriello was able to read the room and recognize his previous head coach’s time was up and it was time for change behind the bench.

The result? A fighting chance.

The Islanders’ victory on Sunday plummeted the Devils’ chances of getting back into playoff position even further. Are their loss on Saturday to the Carolina Hurricanes, the Devils’ chances of making the playoffs were ~13% according to MoneyPuck. Now, they’re down even more at 6.6% following the Islanders’ victory.

The Travis Green era is off to an OK start. In three games New Jersey is 1-2-0, although there have been some signs of progression. The Islanders weren’t shot out of a cannon at the beginning of Roy’s tenure either. However, it appears they’ve turned the page and are in the mix.

If the Islanders’ success tells us anything, the Devils waited too long to salvage their season. If changes were made sooner, perhaps we’d be having a different conversation right now. However, Fitzgerald explained inconsistencies between wins and losses made it difficult for him to make a decision behind the bench.

“Were there times during the season that I was looking at how we played and was unhappy? Yes, for sure,” Fitzgerald said. “Did that mean it called for heads the role? No, not at that time. You know, he’s the same coach that got 112 points last year. And with myself, my recommendation to extend him and ownership believing in him, (extending Ruff) was the right thing to do. But I started to see certain things that I value as a team that wasn’t changing. But then you saw a change. You saw the good game. You saw the details and some of the way we played. And then you wouldn’t see it the next game. The inconsistency started to creep up. And like I said, it was this final straw on the camel’s back for me that I felt I needed to make the change.”

Technically, the season isn’t over, nor are the Devils mathematically out of the playoffs. However, Green’s message was a bit different than Roy’s when he stepped in as interim head coach. The Devils are evidently still in a development stage for the remainder of the season, and the playoffs are more of a hope than a wish.

“I believe in the group,” Green explained in his first conference as interim head coach. “They’re a young group and they’ve gone through a little bit of adversity. I think pointing out certain things in certain areas that you want to play and how you want to play can bring back some desperation. How you practice and how you prepare, that’s all part of coaching. Sometimes a different voice is needed. I’ve been fired before. A lot of great coaches have been fired. Lindy (Ruff) was one of those coaches and that doesn’t mean that he did a bad job either. But now it’s up to me to make sure they are desperately playing. I talk about playing to win. I like players who love winning. And when you love winning, you can do a lot of desperate things.”

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