clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A Comparison of First Year New Jersey Devils Head Coaches, Part 1 - MacMillan to Ftorek and Some Guy Named Lemaire

The New Jersey Devils have had 16 different head coaches in the 29 season history of the team. The most recent of which, Peter DeBoer, has just completed his first season. Falling just two games short of the Stanley Cup, I think it is generally accepted that Mr. DeBoer's inaugural effort in New Jersey was a successful one. But just how successful was he in comparison to his 15 predecessors? Has anyone prior in Devils history achieved better results right out of the gate? Is there any other way to measure a coach's success outside of wins and losses? By analyzing some of the numbers available, we will look at all 16 head coaches and how they stack up against one another. The details about DeBoer will have to wait until next week, as this task will be accomplished in two parts. Today we will analyze the first eight to stand behind the bench for the New Jersey Devils, from Billy MacMillan in 1982 to Robbie Ftorek in 1998. Please continue on after the jump for this look into some Devils history.

The first thing I want to point out as we begin this analysis is by nature of this comparison, the population sizes are all on the small side. They are, at most, 80 - 84 games, or one full season. In some cases, the populations are smaller, which is dictated by the nature of an in-season coaching change. Coaches 2 - 5 all replaced someone who did not log an entire season prior. Coaches 2, 4, and 5 all had a partial first season themselves. Since this is a look at the first season results of a head coach (and not the first 80, 82, or 84 games), I decided to use only the number of games coached in that particular season. Every first year coach is compared to his immediate predecessor. My reason for doing this was to try to take the closest variation of that same team and try to see if they improved or regressed with new leadership. Obviously, this does not account for player turnover, so it is not at all a perfect science. In a couple of instances, I also provided the coach's numbers relative to the previous total season for comparison.

In both charts, an asterisk next to the year indicates the Devils made the playoffs under the leadership of the coach in question for that particular season.

The first chart consists of Won - Loss records, point totals, and winning percentages. The breakdown of these should be pretty self-explanatory. The last two columns are for comparison of the mid-season coaching changes. They show the percentage of games coached in relation to the percentage of points acquired for that year in total.

The second chart is all about scoring. It consists of goals for and goals against totals for every coach, followed by the same totals for the prior coach (denoted by a "-p" in the heading). These goal totals are used to calculate a goal differential by coach, which is then compared to the goal differential under the previous coach, giving us a relative difference. The last column is the differential relative to the previous total season, again for frame of reference.

The Numbers :

All statistics are from

Please click on each chart for a better view of the data



The Coaches

Billy MacMillan
In 1982-1983 the Devils inaugural season in NJ took place. In 1982, Billy MacMillan was hired as the first head coach and general manager of the New Jersey Devils at the age of 39 years old. His prior coaching experience consisted of 1 full season coaching the Colorado Rockies in 1980-81 at the age of 37.

Like the talent level of this new team he was coaching, MacMillan's first season was not good. The season and history of the New Jersey Devils opened on a high note, however, with an opening night tie against the lowly Pittsburgh Penguins. In their second game, the Devils would go on to defeat Our Hated Rivals in what had to be one of the highlights of this season. Despite a 3 - 1 - 3 start, the Devils lost many, many games that year on their way to a 17-49-14 record. With Glenn "Chico" Resch between the pipes and Steve Tambellini as the leading goal scorer, these Devils got destroyed on the regular, posting a goal differential of -1.35 per game. This is the worst goal differential of any of the 8 coaches examined today. In fact, the only thing that kept the Devils out of the league's ( and their division's ) basement this inaugural season was the ineptitude of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

MacMillan certainly has to be considered one of the least successful coaches in NJD history. Granted his team was really bad, but not much worse overall than the Colorado Rockies of the previous season. In fact, the original New Jersey Devils finished with a virtually identical record and only 1 less point than the departing Colorado Rockies club. When the goal differential per game is compared to the entire previous season in Colorado, MacMillan actually shows a modest improvement of .16 per game. However, when compared just to his immediate predecessor in Colorado who coached the last 54 games, MacMillan's team had a -.39 differential per game, which is not very good.

MacMillian's second season was a brief but unmitigated disaster, and it brings us directly to his replacement, the second coach in NJ Devils history, Tom McVie.

Tom McVie
The Devils are in a pinch. They have just dropped a 13 - 4 decision to the Edmonton Oilers to fall to 2-18 on the year. To make matters worse, Wayne Gretzky has publicly lambasted the organization with some sort of Walt Disney themed comments. So, who do the Devils call on to replace the maligned MacMillian and his 2-18 record? Who else but a man who recently led the lowly Winnipeg Jets to a 1-20-7 start 3 seasons prior, Tom McVie. All kidding aside, at the time McVie was head coach of the Maine Mariners, the Devils top minor league affiliate. He was brought in on an interim basis to stop the bleeding, and to some extent that is exactly what he accomplished.

Next to MacMillan, the 48 year old McVie was comparatively a grizzled vet with 309 games already under his belt as a head coach in the NHL. Unfortunately, he had only won 69 of them for a career winning percentage of .281. By posting a .308 winning percentage in his first year with the Devils, you could say he was somewhat of a relative success based on the horrid 2-18 start to the season he inherited. While only coaching the team for 75% of the season, McVie acquired 90% of the points. Goal differential also improved dramatically under McVie. In fact, some of the relative numbers he posted show the biggest improvement of any Devils first year coach. It should be noted that just about all the metrics we are using dipped to an all-time low in the 20 games before McVie was hired. Still, he was coaching the same exact team as MacMillan before him, and doing much better by comparison.

When compared to the previous season, McVie's increases were modest. He basically succeeded in raising the Devils back to the slightly lesser level of futility they previously enjoyed in year one. He should be given some level of credit for this accomplishment of sorts. At the end of this season, McVie would be reassigned back to the Maine Mariners.

Aside: McVie would return to the Devils near the end of the 1989 - 1990 season and remained coach through the end of the `1990 - 1991 season.

Doug Carpenter
Carpenter had no previous head coaching experience when he took over the Devils for the 1984- 1985 season. He was the third coach in franchise history. Carpenter's first team was a marginal improvement over the previous season's results. His rookie season behind the bench was the first time the Devils broke the lofty 50 point barrier, and Carpenter brought the first bit of stability to the head coach position, remaining for 3 full seasons and part of a fourth.

Despite an opening night 7-2 victory over the talented New York Islanders, the Devils struggled out of the gate in Carpenter's first season. There was a brief flurry of wins just before Christmas, but the results overall were very similar to prior years. When compared to the previous season as a whole, Carpenter's first season shows an improvement. However, it is only a very slight improvement over the McVie lead Devils of a year before. This point is certainly up for debate, but I think the better comparison here is to McVie's tenure alone, and not the prior year in total. It's a more accurate reflection of the team's performance level when Carpenter took over. I'm not going to give Carpenter credit for an improvement that took place under McVie. In my opinion, McVie stabilized the team from the depths of the depths back to their prior level of futility, and Carpenter's first season was basically par for the course.

Aside: Carpenter is the first head coach I vividly remember standing behind the Devils bench following the team as a young child.

Jim Schoenfeld
The Devils of 1987 - 1988 were the most promising yet. They were above .500 virtually from the start, and found themselves in second place in the division just over halfway through the campaign. However, after a five game losing streak, part of a larger 6-15-1 slide, a fresh-faced novice general manager by the name of Lou Lamoriello thought it was time for a change. As a result, Jim Schoenfeld replaced Carpenter with 30 games left as the team's record dipped to a season low 3 games under .500.

Schoenfeld's previous coaching experience consisted of 43 games with Buffalo in 1985-1986. In his first year with New Jersey, he would lead the Devils to the first ever playoff berth in team history. Jim Schoenfeld was behind the bench for a remarkable 7-0-1 run that ended the season. This glorious string of success culminated in a miraculous come from behind victory in Chicago on the last night of the season. Needing an outright win, the Devils tied the game with just seconds remaining in regulation. In overtime, John MacLean put the puck past Darren Pang sending the Devils to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.

Not satisfied with merely being in the playoffs, the Devils notched their first ever playoff series victory on their way to an improbable run to the Eastern Conference Finals. A memorable moment of that playoff run was certainly the Don Koharski "Have another doughnut" incident.

Not surprisingly, some of the best results overall, and relative results of the first eight Devils coaches belong to Schoenfeld. He posted a .583 winning percentage (.113 higher than Carpenter), and also acquired 43% of the teams points in only 38 % of the games. He also led the team to a relative goal differential of nearly 1 per game (.98). This is a huge improvement considering he was working with largely the same team as Carpenter.

In this case, it seems more appropriate to compare Schoenfeld's 30 games to Carpenter's 50 rather than to the previous season. When compared to the previous season as a whole, the increases under Schoenfeld are even more dramatic.

Aside : The final night Devils victory vaulted our Heroes over none other than our Hated Rivals for the 8th and final playoff spot.

John Cunniff
The 5th head coach in team history continued the carousel of relative unknowns coming in with little to no prior NHL head coaching experience. Cunniff, an assistant with the team, took over for Jim Schoenfeld after only 14 games in the 1989-1990 season. He inherited a team that was considered talented enough to succeed, but by almost all accounts was underperforming. Cunniff finished this inaugural season 3 games over .500, which was good enough to qualify for the second playoff berth in team history. Unfortunately, the team was eliminated in the first round by the Washington Capitals in 6 games.

Cunniff's results in the win-loss column are only slightly better than Schoenfeld. While coaching 83% of the games, Cunniff acquired exactly 83% of the teams points this season. His winning percentage was very slightly better than Schoenfeld's, but not much. The one area than showed a decent improvement under Cunniff was goal differential. The team gave up almost a half goal less a game under Cunniff than they did under Schoenfeld, posting a relative goal differential per game of .36. When compared to the prior season the differential is .70. This is one area the team seemed to show an improvement under Cunniff.

This 1989-1990 season's results were a huge improvement over the very disappointing 1988-1989 season, and Cunniff's peripherals reflect that. However, I am going to argue that the numbers from the 14 games coached by Schoenfeld to start the 89-90 campaign are probably more indicative of this team's talent level at the time of the replacement. Schoenfeld had this team playing around .500 hockey, Cunniff just slighly above. The improvements under the new coach were not dramatic.

Aside: Cunniff never actually completed 1 full season with the club, after being replaced over ¾ of the way through his 2nd season by the resurrected Tom McVie, who had been out of NHL head coaching for 7 years.

Herb Brooks
Easily the most accomplished coach to join the Devils up to this point, Brooks' hiring was somewhat of a big deal. Although the run through the playoffs with Schoenfeld gave the team some credibility, this was the first coach they were able to attract who came in with street cred, so to speak. Besides achieving moderate success at the NHL level with the Villains across the Hudson, Brooks was best known as coach of the 1980 US Olympic "Miracle on Ice" Hockey team. He came to the Devils as an assistant coach first, after a horrid previous season leading the Minnesota North Stars to a total of only 51 points.

In a lot of ways, Brooks tenure with the Devils was disappointing. The season at a glance certainly does not show bad numbers in and of itself. The team finished in the same place in the standings as the year before. They achieved the exact same number of points (87) as the previous year, but in 4 more games, as the schedule expanded to 84. They exited the playoffs in the first round once again. Many things were just about the same.

But when looking at the relative numbers, the team seemed to regress from the previous year in some ways. Brooks' Devils had a relative goal differential of -.26 per game compared to the results of the previous season. Not only that, they were giving up .5 goals more per game than the Devils of 1 year ago. It is always tough to say what changes or injuries may affect the numbers from year to year , but this Devils team was expected to be around the same quality or better than the previous year's version. It was also no secret that Brooks did not mesh well in New Jersey and publicly feuded with members of the team. Although Brooks technically resigned after this one year, it is unlikely the Devils wanted him back, since he did not get along with key players on the team. I would have to rate his first and only season behind the Devils bench as unsuccessful.

Jacques Lemaire
On the heels of Herb Brooks came a man by the name of Jacques Lemaire. Lemaire had very little prior head coaching experience - just one full year behind the Montreal Canadiens bench in 1984-85, but a wealth of NHL experience and knowledge of the game. Lemaire had won 6 Stanley Cup Championships as a member of the Canadiens during the 1960's and 1970's. Most importantly, he had a system - a system he had complete confidence in, and that translated to the players. Lemaire, obviously, is well known for implementing the neutral zone trap and beginning an era of unprecedented success in New Jersey.

The effects of this stifling defensive system were immediately evidenced during his first season, as the Devils set franchise records in points with 106, and wins with 47. This Devils season included a remarkably successful playoff run, the deepest since the improbable success of Schoenfeld. The Devils survived a 4 overtime loss in Buffalo to advance out of the first round. In the second round, the Devils defeated the Bruins 4 - 2, advancing to face the Hated Rivals in the Eastern Conference Finals. Sadly, as we all know, this glorious run ended with a heartbreaking double overtime loss in Game 7. Regardless, what an amazing year it was for the boys in Red and Black.

Not surprisingly, Lemaire by all metrics used here puts up incredible numbers - the best of any Devils head coach to this date. The goal differential was at its highest, and the Devils for the first time in their history were scoring over a goal more per game than they allowed. They reduced their goals against by almost a goal per game, giving up 79 fewer than the previous season, while scoring virtually the same amount.

There were actually two prior coaches whose relative goal differential per game showed up slightly higher than Lemaire's when compared to their predecessors - Tom McVie and Jim Schoenfeld. McVie's numbers must be qualified to some extent because the team's production was so far in the negative overall. Schoenfeld's numbers should not be discounted, as he clearly had a successful run as well. Lemaire's 1.02 goal differential per game was much higher than the second best so far of .60 posted by Schoenfeld. Lemaire's winning percentage was also higher than Schoenfeld's (.631 vs .583), with the team finishing over .600 for the first time in team history.

Robbie Ftorek
Robbie Ftorek was the Devils top assistant coach when he replaced Jacques Lemaire. Lemaire resigned after a disappointing and somewhat stunning first round playoff defeat. Ftorek had very little prior head coaching experience, and had not been a head coach in the NHL since the 1988 - 1989 season, when he had coached the Los Angeles Kings.

Ftorek inherited a team that was loaded with talent, and the results on the ice indicated as such. Ftorek's Devils accumulated 105 points and a .640 winning percentage, best of any first year coach on our list. It should be noted, however, that the prior season the Devils were even better, posting 107 points and a .652 winning percentage. His .63 goal differential per game was second only to Lemaire, and slightly above than the .60 posted by Schoenfeld years prior. Again, it should be noted that the season before Ftorek joined, the Devils had a .72 goal differential per game, putting his relative differential into the negative.

From what we can tell, the team stayed relatively the same level, or was very marginally less successful under Ftorek's first year leadership. This is not to say he did a bad job. As we unfortunately found out in the 2010-2011 season, it does take some talent as a coach to maintain a level of excellence even with a talented group of players. Ftorek was able to keep this Devils machine humming at a high level. He didn't improve the team's results or take them to the next level in terms of playoff success. Still, his first season was successful overall. I would say he probably had the 3rd or 4th best first season of any Devils coach looked at so far.

Observations / Conclusions -

-If this exercise has shown me anything conclusively, it is how hard it is to analyze coaches performances.

-Looking at coaches in relative terms to each other is somewhat helpful as part of a bigger picture, but it is also problematic as well in several ways. Here are two examples:

- I'll bring up the point of McVie and his whopping 1.22 relative goal differential per game. Is McVie the best coach? Is this a better result than Lemaire's .90 or Schoenfeld's .98? No. If nothing else, it shows he looks better by comparison since he followed up one of the worst coaches in Devils history.

- Ftorek. replaced arguably the greatest Devils coach of all time. That's a tough act to follow and he looks worse by comparison for it.

- The team Schoenfeld coached all the way to the conference finals was far less talented than the Devils squad of 1993-1994, and the end result was identical. Schoenfeld did a great job that year, no doubt. Did he do a better job than Lemaire? The relative improvement of the team in terms of goal differential was slightly higher under Schoenfeld. But, I don't think this alone is enough to say Schoenfeld was the best. Both men had a winning percentage exactly .113 higher than the man they replaced. I'm going to give the nod to Lemaire, who coached a full season, but it is close. Much closer than I would have thought.

-It is really no surprise that both the actual and relative numbers of two coaches (Lemaire and Schoenfeld) stand out. They also happen to be the only 2 men on this list to win a playoff series. Cunniff, Brooks, and Ftorek all lost in the first round.

-Larry Herb Brooks, by my estimation, had one of the more disappointing first years of any Devils head coach in this comparison. The team seemed to regress under his leadership.

-When a coach is changed mid-season, , it seems to make for a most effective relative comparison to the previous coach. In these instances, they are generally dealing with as close to the same set of players as possible. The population sizes do tend to be at their smallest in these cases, however.

-All of the coaches who joined in mid-season out-performed the men they replaced to varying degrees. Some very minutely so, others more dramatically. None were worse than their immediate predecessor.

In closing, here is a highly detailed ranking system:

Great: Lemaire, Schoenfeld

Good: Ftorek, Cunniff,

Satisfactory: Carpenter, McVie

Disappointing: MacMillan, Brooks

Now I'd like to know what everyone else thinks. Is there any coach I am not giving enough credit to? Too much credit? How would you rate these early Devils coaches? Is there any more effective metric you would like to see used? Thanks very much for reading and please leave your comments below.