Devils GM Fitzgerald says Lindy Ruff was fired because of team's struggles

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald ripped his underperforming team and himself for causing the firing of Lindy Ruff less than a year after the veteran coach led the franchise to its best regular-season record.

Speaking less than a day after relieving Ruff of his coaching duties, Fitzgerald said Tuesday he waited as long as possible for the team to turn things around but eventually fired his good friend after seeing the young team lose five of its last seven games and fall further behind in the race for a wild-card playoff berth.

“It’s on all of us,” Fitzgerald said. "This is on all of us. I just spoke to the team, and a good man lost his job because of an underperforming team. Like I said, it starts with me up here. I’m the one creating this team. I’m trying to build this team around the pillars that we have.

“It’s not good enough. It hasn’t been, wishing and hoping it would change is not a plan,” Fitzgerald said. “Individuals need to look in the mirror. All of us. Effort wasn’t good enough. It’s not good enough.”

The job of turning the Devils around in the final 21 games of the regular season now belongs to Travis Green, the former Vancouver head coach who was added to the staff this season. He addressed reporters before New Jersey dropped a 5-3 decision to Eastern Conference-leading Florida on Tuesday night.

Fitzgerald said there is a short runway for the Devils to get on a roll and return to the playoffs for a second straight season, provided they play the right way.

Green said he is not going to change everything at once, but he will be demanding and some players may sit if they are not playing with energy or they are not doing their jobs.

Rookie Simon Nemec, who has been in the lineup every game since Dec. 1, and veteran forward Ondrej Palat were not in the starting lineup,

“My job is to help make them play the best hockey that they possibly can,” said Green, who said he spoke with Nemec after practice.

The Devils had a 30-27-4 record under Ruff this season, a year in which New Jersey has not had a winning streak of more than three games and not posted a shutout. Injures to defensemen Dougie Hamilton (pectoral), Jonas Siegenthaler (broken foot), star forward Jack Hughes (upper body) and a sexual assault investigation in Canada involving center Michael McLeod have left the team without key pieces for long periods.

The Devils, who gave Ruff a new contract months ago, also have been forced to play two young rookie defensemen in Nemec and Luke Hughes. The problem has been compounded by the goaltending inconsistencies of Vitek Vanecek, Nico Daws and Akira Schmid.

Fitzgerald said he is looking to acquire a No. 1 goaltender before Friday's trading deadline, but he is not going to mortgage the future to get one.

“I believe we’re a very good offensive team, we’re generating chances,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re not getting as much off the rush because of the way teams play us, knowing they cannot exchange rush chances with us. But at the end of the day to win games and to win championships you have to defend well.”

The Devils have not been doing that as a team. The forwards are not coming back. Players are not managing the puck and staying with their man, and opponents are getting ahead of their defenders on the ice.

“That’s a commitment. That’s a will, it’s not a skill,” said Fitzgerald, who said firing Ruff was emotionally draining. “That’s a choice that you make when you’re out there. I need to see different choices being made by our team and our individuals.”