NHL.com recently caught up with Ruff to discuss the Devils and his thoughts on the upcoming season, as well as the passing of his friend Rick Jeanneret, the voice of the Sabres for five decades.
You spent 10 seasons as a player (1979-89) and 15 more as a coach in Buffalo (1997-2013) and got to know Rick Jeanneret very well. What memories do you have of Rick, who died Aug. 18?
“Just the way he called the game … there were so many unique calls that he came up with. I mean, he truly was a Buffalo person. Just through the years of talking to him in the team hotel, we would talk a little bit about the game before and in those conversations, I used to bust on him about, ‘Oh come on, you’ve been waiting to say that for about 30 games now.’ And he would say, ‘No, it just comes to me.’ He was just such a great guy to be around. I’ve always said this about Rick … even after a game that you thought went bad and really didn’t like, by the time you’re done talking to Rick you’re thinking, ‘Well maybe we didn’t play as bad as I thought.’ He was a very positive guy, focused in on a lot of the good parts of the game.”
What did you learn about the Devils during last season’s run in the playoffs?
“I think the fact we were able to play under a lot of pressure. We got down two games to the New York Rangers in the (Eastern Conference First Round) right away, came back with three really solid games and pushed it to seven games. And what I really liked is how well we played in Game 7 (a 4-0 win). We played a solid defensive game, exhibited patience, stayed with it and got rewarded.”
You mentioned Luke Hughes as a key part to the defense this season following the departures of Damon Severson and Ryan Graves. Who else will need to step up along the blue line?
“We felt we got a good year out of Kevin Bahl last season and we’re looking at him as being Graves’ replacement, possibly. Look, there’s no guarantee. He’s got to have a good camp, he’s got to play well, but I thought he gained a lot of confidence during the season. He also had a couple of hiccups, like any young defensemen.”
Are you concerned at all with the goaltending entering this season? Do you anticipate a battle for the No. 1 spot between Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid?
“Look, it was [Vanecek’s] first year playing a lot of games (NHL career-high 52). Undoubtedly the physical strain and maybe more the mental strain of going through a year like that, caught up to him. I think there’s a point to be made about almost every team needing two good goalies. I don’t know if you can tag a guy at No. 1 or you can you say you have a 1A and a 1B. By the end of the year, they might have to be within 10 games of each other, but I thought we got a good year out of ‘Vee.’ I know he was disappointed (in the playoffs). Akira stepped in, gave us what we needed to get through that first series against the Rangers, but you got to put that behind you, look at it as a growing year. You need to put the negative behind you and focus on all the positives throughout the year.”
What will associate coach Travis Green, who was hired June 22, add to your staff?
“He’s going to focus a lot on the offensive side of it. I think he did a lot of great things when it came to handling his players as coach of the Vancouver Canucks (2017-22), and his energy is just awesome. He wants to talk hockey … nonstop. He wants to understand how we play, wants to understand what every player can bring. At the same time, he’s already said, ‘I think we can do this better’ and I think anytime you bring a guy in that’s got head coaching experience, and has coached the number of years he has, he’s going to be a valuable asset for me.”
Timo Meier signed an eight-year contract to remain in New Jersey in June. How excited are you to have the 26-year-old power forward for a full season in the tough Metropolitan Division?
“He gives us a big strong guy who can physically dominate, that can get inside. When he came in (after being acquired in a trade with the San Jose Sharks on Feb. 26), he got a short taste of what it’s like to play the type of hockey we like to play. He was in on some great opportunities that, when you look at it, we played against one of the best goalies (Igor Shesterkin of the Rangers) in that first seven-game series and we knew it was going to be hard to score goals. Some guys found it hard, but I think that Timo gets to come in fresh and we know what he can bring. I think he knows what to expect now with the way we want to play the game.”
Will forward Dawson Mercer continue to play multiple roles within the lineup, or will you consider playing him more at center?
“I just see him being versatile … still. You look at what we have down the middle with Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, Erik Haula, and Michael McLeod. We have options and guys who can go to wing. Jack has gone to the wing and has played with Haula. He’s been that guy that, all of a sudden, if we need an extra guy in for the draw, we can slide guys around and can have [Mercer] out there. I just look at him to kind of play the same role that he’s been doing right now and where we’re at as an organization. Dawson will play some center and he’ll play some wing.”
Do you think the Devils will surprise anyone as they did last season?
“I don’t think there will be any surprises. I think around the League, there’s a lot of respect for the parity. I think there were five or six teams in the playoffs last year from the year before, so that just tells you that to remain consistent, you got to have your game in order. The thing is, we know that from day one we have to play well to get to where we want to go, which is the playoffs.”