The New Jersey Devils have fired head coach John Hynes after a disastrous start to the season. The Devils are 9-13-4, their 22 points are second-fewest in the NHL, and they have the fourth-worst record over the past two seasons, at 40-54-14.
Assistant coach Alain Nasreddine will become interim coach while Peter Horachek, currently a pro scout for the team, will join the coaching staff as an assistant. Horachek was briefly an interim coach with the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs. They join existing assistants Rick Kowalsky, Mike Grier and goaltending coach Roland Melanson.
What does it all mean? NHL insiders Greg Wyshynski and Emily Kaplan answer the biggest lingering questions, including how this impacts Taylor Hall (and a potential trade), what the Devils are getting in Nasreddine, and whether the club can turn things around and make the playoffs.
What took so long?
Wyshynski: Because it was a slow slide to rock bottom. They started the season going winless in six straight games, including a series of embarrassing blown-lead losses on home ice. “We lost in every way imaginable,” said general manager Ray Shero, “[the start] set a lot of things back.”
Yet the Devils were 7-8-4 on Nov. 16 following an overtime win in Montreal. They went 2-5-0 after that, and the last two losses were the end of Hynes: A 4-0 defeat to the rival New York Rangers at home on Saturday, followed by a 7-1 shellacking at Buffalo on Monday night in which the Sabres scored three goals before the Devils registered their first shot. “The Buffalo game … I don’t even know how to describe it,” said Shero. “We couldn’t make a five-foot pass.”
Hynes was scheduled to coach the Devils against the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday, but his dismissal was announced hours before faceoff. Shero said he went to Devils ownership with the recommendation to relieve Hynes of his duties, and they signed off on it. The timing seems awkward, but not nearly as awkward as it would have been to have an arena of fans amplify the “Fire Hynes” chants that had started echoing through the Prudential Center. “It wouldn’t be fair to John,” said Shero.
How much of this mess was John Hynes’ fault?
Kaplan: I think ownership views the situation like this: We just won the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NHL draft and the right to draft generational (and very marketable) talent Jack Hughes. That sped up our window to contend. Our GM went out this summer and made big splashes, like trading for former Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban and signing veteran winger Wayne Simmonds to an expensive one-year deal. We have Taylor Hall, just two years removed from his MVP campaign, playing for us in a contract year. We have all the tools to win, and you gave us … a last place team?
That of course isn’t the whole story. GM Ray Shero bought some expensive concealer to dab on his roster, but there were still plenty of blemishes. There are too many weak links in the defensive group. There isn’t enough secondary scoring. There was too much faith put into 33-year-old goaltender Cory Schneider bouncing back from multiple ailments, and too much hope that 22-year-old prospect Mackenzie Blackwood would be ready. Hynes was able to squeeze the most out of his group in the 2017-18 season when they had no business making the playoffs, but that was a different team. Hynes works best developing young players and convincing them to buy in. There was a different makeup in that locker room. His message might have worn thin on this group.
Wyshynski: Analyzing Hynes is a real conundrum for me. By any measure, his term in New Jersey was a failure, with a .487 points percentage in four-plus seasons and a single playoff appearance. The team had become a pushover in the last two seasons, posting the fourth worst record in the NHL in that span (40-54-1). This season, the symptoms got worse: For example, the Devils have lost four games at home when they had at least a two-goal lead. That’s the outsider perspective.
Around the league, Hynes had the respect of his peers as a solid NHL coach who simply wasn’t given enough talent with which to win in New Jersey. That point can be argued, except when it comes to the Devils’ goaltending: The Devils started the season with Blackwood, who had 23 games of NHL experience, and Schneider, who had been among the NHL’s worst goaltenders over the previous three seasons and who the Devils hoped would regain his form because he had $18 million left in his contract through 2022. He didn’t: Before being sent to the AHL, Schneider had a negative-4.6 goals saved above average, by far the worst in the NHL.
Porous goaltending in front of a roster that was already defensively deficient was a recipe for this disaster. And frankly, despite his struggles, that’s not the coach’s fault.
Tell me about Alain Nasreddine.
Wyshynski: Nasreddine was hired in 2015 along with Geoff Ward, currently an interim head coach with the Calgary Flames, as Hynes’ assistants. He’s a familiar face for GM Ray Shero, having served as an assistant coach under Hynes with the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for five seasons.
The 44-year-old Montreal native played 74 games in the NHL from 1998-2008. His last season in the league as a player was with Pittsburgh in 2007-08 when Shero was the general manager, before he finished his career in Germany. His stint as Devils assistant is his only NHL coaching experience.
He coached the defense with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and on his watch the team allowed the AHL’s fewest goals four times. While the Devils had the fourth-worst goals against average in the NHL over the last two seasons (3.38), they were 10th in that span in expected goals against at 5-on-5 (195.91), a metric that takes shot quality into account.
One of the intriguing bits about his promotion is Peter Horachek moving over from the scouting staff to behind the Devils bench. Horachek himself was an interim coach for the Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs. Shero knows him well, and hired him for the AHL Milwaukee Admirals when he was an assistant general manager in Nashville. Horachek went on to be an assistant coach under Barry Trotz for 10 seasons. Shero called him a strong communicator with players.
How long either of them will remain behind the bench is anyone’s guess. Shero said he’ll compile a list of potential candidates for the next head coach, but at the same time seemed willing to give this staff (and his players) a chance to prove themselves. He might have tipped his hand on Tuesday when he said that “we know that at the end of the year there will be more possibilities” for the next Devils coach.
What does this mean for Taylor Hall?
Kaplan: Before Hynes was fired, I was convinced Hall was going to be traded before the Feb. 24 NHL trade deadline. Now that Hynes is fired … I am convinced that Hall is going to be traded before the Feb. 24 NHL trade deadline.
The Devils can’t afford to lose Hall for nothing — i.e., another John Tavares situation — and all signs point to Hall wanting to play for a different team. Firing a coach midseason usually doesn’t foreshadow immediate success. In training camp, I talked to Hall and I asked him if being on a Stanley Cup contender was his biggest priority when he becomes a free agent. “I think that’s probably the highest priority,” Hall said. “Lifestyle-wise, I’m not married or anything. I don’t have kids. I’m not really at a point in my career where location matters to me, if I want to be on the West Coast or East Coast or anything like that. You can make any city great if you’re playing well and you’re winning there. So that’s basically my priority.”
The Devils don’t look anything close to being a Stanley Cup contender. I think Hall wants a fresh start, and New Jersey should pave the way to make that happen (and get some draft picks, prospects or roster players in return when it does).
Will the Devils make any big trades in tandem with this move?
Wyshynski: Shero said that making a trade is like hiring a coach, that “you know one when you see it.” The Devils have $4.777 million in cap space per Cap Friendly, but Shero sounded like he wanted to spend some time with Nasreddine behind the bench to get a grasp on whether this roster is fundamentally flawed before making deals. Sitting 10 points out of the last wild-card spot on Dec. 3, there’s a much better chance the Devils begin selling players — like Taylor Hall — before they make a dramatic move to bolster the current roster. (And, for the record, Shero did evoke the name of Blues coach Craig Berube in discussing Nasreddine and his potential impact, for those dreamers out there.)
Can they turn it around and make the playoffs?
Kaplan: Everybody in the NHL loves “the Thanksgiving stat.” Since 2005, 76 percent of teams that are in playoff position on American Thanksgiving end up making the playoffs. So the odds are stacked against the Devils, and they have a lot of catching up to do — especially in a division that includes two very strong teams in the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders, a vastly improved team in the Philadelphia Flyers, and a plucky team in the Pittsburgh Penguins who just won’t go away despite enduring a plethora of injuries.
The Blues were in last place on Nov. 19 of last season when they fired their coach and went on to win the Stanley Cup (bucking the Thanksgiving trend), but they were also a team with Stanley Cup aspirations to begin the season and a veteran, seasoned roster. Goaltender Jordan Binnington came to save the day as well. The Devils are a much less cohesive group and I don’t believe they have a Binnington stashed away in the wings.
What was the highlight of John Hynes’ time in New Jersey?
Wyshynski: The run to the last wild-card seed in the 2017-18 season. On the one hand, it was a miraculous roll for the Devils, who went on a 7-0-1 run to secure the final spot in the postseason, highlighted by Taylor Hall’s Hart Trophy-clinching 17 points in nine games and an eight-game unbeaten streak for goalie Keith Kinkaid. On the other hand, the Devils needed a miracle to make the playoffs once under Hynes during his five seasons.
Kaplan: No doubt it was making the playoffs in 2018. The franchise hadn’t been to the postseason in six years — when New Jersey made it to the Stanley Cup Final — and the Devils were in the middle of a rebuilding phase. The roster was young (13 players 24 or under suited up that season) and there was a serious lack of secondary scoring behind Taylor Hall (he had 93 points, and the next closest player had 52). But somehow they got it done, finishing one point ahead of the Florida Panthers for the final Eastern Conference wild-card spot. It was a testament to Hynes’ potential as a coach.
The next season, the Devils awarded Hynes with a multi-year extension. “John is representative of who we are and what we look to become,” David Blitzer, Devils co-managing partner, said at the time. “His commitment to help create an organization that is respected by our competitors and admired by our fans is essential to us.” Oh, happier times.
Grade the decision
Kaplan: B+. It needed to happen. This team is a train wreck, and I’m not just talking about letting five goals in the first period to the Sabres on Monday night. I’m glad the Devils didn’t let the situation fester any longer, but it already seems like a lost season.
Wyshynski: C-. This is a move that should have been made well before the calendar flipped to December. They loaded up for a run this season, and instead fell on their collective faces out of the gate. It wasn’t working. Something had to change, and change before a debacle like the Sabres’ loss, the kind of pathetic effort the franchise hasn’t seen in three decades. The season is a lot less salvageable now than it might have been had a move been made sooner. It’s a season that seems relegated to being a months-long autopsy, with Shero saying, “I think they’re better than this, but we’ll have to see.” And it’s a season that’s likely to be Hall’s last in New Jersey, with just five playoff games to show for it.