John MacLean was not a good coach. The results reflected his tenure perfectly: 33 games, 9 wins, 22 losses, 2 post-regulation losses. Jacques Lemaire is a legend within the New Jersey organization. He took over as interim head coach and the team went 29-17-3 with him behind the bench. While the team didn't make the playoffs, they were infinitely better to watch. Enjoyable at times. They even flirted with the playoffs at points, though the hole was just too high to fully scale.
The 2014-15 New Jersey Devils have been mired within the messy middle of the Metropolitan Division after a strong start. The team did manage to win more than nine games by Christmas. Yet, the performances have been ugly. Players of varying experience levels missing passes and/or throwing pucks away regularly, yielding more trouble from the opposition. Players of significance getting hurt, testing the team's depth amid their struggles. The team struggles to get leads and when they do, it's not a guarantee it's kept through the end of regulation. Like the MacLean Devils, the team is has become more of a challenge to watch as players make seemingly the same errors over and over. It's to a point where we must consider the question: should the Devils tank? (My answer is no.)
With all of this, the fans are understandably and increasingly restless. Particularly with head coach Peter DeBoer for one reason or another. It's tempting to think that a coaching change will yield something - warranted or otherwise. I wouldn't hold out much hope for one.
Thanks to War on Ice, you can get team stats based on a date range in addition to the traditional season-by-season. We know MacLean's last game as the Devils' head coach was on December 22, 2010; so I have split up some key even strength stats between MacLean and Lemaire. I put them along with the current team's stats prior to the Carolina game.
For all of MacLean's faults, he - and the team - really suffered some bad fortune. An even strength shooting percentage below 6% is really low. Below 5% is incredibly low. That wasn't going to last. In addition to that, the Devils were getting beaten in the net. That's a combination that's never good for any coach. Under Lemaire, the goaltending got better, the shooting percentage would rise, and . Curiously, the Devils were about the same in terms of possession. Possession speaks to how the play generally goes at even strength; although, MacLean's teams often had the benefit of score effects from being down in a lot of games. And possession without production means little.
Further, and somewhat related to the percentages, the Devils were suffering many injuries - particularly on defense. They finished the season with 13 defensemen playing at least one game. Mark Fayne was a great find, but most of the rest filling in simply weren't all that good. Bad times ensued when defenders like Matt Taormina, Olivier Magnan-Grenier, Matt Fraser, and Matthew Corrente were not only in the lineup but together. Nevermind whether they had to play significant minutes. Under Lemaire, more regulars got healthier and that helped matters.
This isn't to say that Lemaire did nothing. His jettisoning of Jamie Langenbrunner was good for the room. With the understanding that they had little to play for, the squad played like a team that had little to lose. Lemaire utilized the players available as he could, switching and setting match-ups accordingly like any other NHL coach. Unlike MacLean, he would make adjustments in-game based on how periods were going. Lemaire should receive credit for the team performing as well as they did after he went in charge (and after some time before that first win). However, it appears that the team was going to do better under most any other competent coach if only because the goaltending and shooting percentages weren't likely to stay so low for so low. A PDO of 94 isn't going to last forever.
So look at those same numbers under DeBoer. The Devils are shooting just below league median at even strength. The goaltending has actually been quite good at evens, largely due to the fact that Cory Schneider is quite good at stopping pucks. (Aside: He's also a key reason why tanking is a poor idea; he's too good.) A new coach isn't going to come in and get the benefit of some bounce from team percentages rising to more reasonable levels like Lemaire did in 2010-11.
This isn't to say a new coach can't possibly help the 2014-15 Devils. That the team isn't in the top-ten in possession is an issue. Improvements there would likely lead to better results, or at least far more competitive hockey from the Devils. I believe puck movement is the root cause of that and if the new guy can figure out some corrective actions, then that's a step forward. New ideas - or new assistants - can help special teams out such as establishing an actual plan going forward on power plays or a penalty kill that has a box formation that actually keeps tabs on what's going on in its vicinity. I don't think DeBoer is a bad coach but there's room for improvement.
But how much improvement is there really? The concept of "coaching up" isn't unheard of, but it can only go so far. If the Devils, player by player, aren't as talented, aren't as skilled, and plainly aren't as a good team would normally have, then what can the new coach do? As the numbers show, the team isn't due for some big surge from either percentage rising. While the team is suffering some significant players lost to injury, will the return make the team remarkably better? They'll have a first line and then...still not have a functional second line, a bottom six that's acceptable but won't do much more than chip in points, and a defense that's still quite young and therefore often an adventure to watch on the ice. Again, a new coach can only do so much.
This isn't necessarily an argument against firing Peter DeBoer. This is more or less a caution that a resurgence like the team had under Lemaire in 2011 doesn't appear to be in the cards. I would keep that in mind if DeBoer goes during this season and/or if you believe he should go before the 2015 offseason. Thank you for reading.