In the midst of another postseason-free campaign, Devils are a team still searching for a light at the end of the tunnel of their rebuild. After a 2015-16 season that exceeded expectations, feelings were mostly positive in New Jersey and confidence in the new regime of Ray Shero and John Hynes was relatively high. With the 2016-17 season now nearing its end, a lot of those positive vibes have soured a bit with the team treading water (at best) compared to a year ago and questions on whether this team is headed in the right direction are starting to swirl among the fanbase.
Ray Shero had a substandard trade deadline and has some things to answer for, but generally speaking has done mostly positive things over the past couple years, including the acquisitions of Kyle Palmieri and Taylor Hall as well as building up 19 picks over the next two drafts. For John Hynes, those tangible positives to hang his hat on are not as apparent. When the Devils had a better season than was expected in his first year as coach, he certainly had the support of the fanbase. The feeling coming into this season was that he was likely playing with house money in the 2016-17 campaign, as expectations still placed the Devils likely somewhere outside of the playoffs. Here on March 17th though, things don't necessarily feel so secure for the Devils' young head coach.
That those feelings are starting to creep in is a testament to how poorly things have gone for New Jersey this year. When one looks back at where the team was in mid-November, it's actually somewhat hard to believe. The Devils were 9-3-3, sitting near the top of the league, and figured to, at the very least, be a team on the rise that would make some noise on the fringe of the playoff picture. As we all know, things spiraled pretty quickly after that point and the Devils had perhaps one of the worst months in the history of the franchise in December and never really recovered. Of late, the team was riding a 10-game losing streak prior to beating the marginally less hapless Philadelphia Flyers at the Prudential Center. With the team now in the bottom five of the league standings, the team doesn't quite seem like one making progress toward contention anymore.
It's not just where the team is in the standings that makes things so frustrating, though. The team has looked utterly lost at times this season and has only been able to string together decent hockey for a couple isolated weeks in the past several months. The defense was not expected to be a strong point for this team, but the amount of miscues, blown coverages, and general poor play on the back end has been difficult to deal with at times. That would be a little more forgivable, though, if the team had shown marked improvement over last year’s league-worst offense. Instead, the team’s scoring is only marginally better than the 2015-16 offense that finished last in 5v5 goals for/60 by a country mile. The 5v5 scoring (via Puckalytics) has only seen an uptick from 1.67 GF60 to 1.80 and instead of last they are 29th. This lack of offensive improvement coupled with the team’s more predictable defensive issues has led to a team that can be miserable to watch a lot of the time. They are third to last in the league at 5v5 in both GF% and CF% this season, putting them basically in line with the 2015-16 numbers. This lack of improvement has to lead one to wonder if Hynes is the answer for this team.
At the same time, there are absolutely mitigating circumstances which muddy the waters. As was mentioned above, a look at this team's defense on paper before this season would not have led anyone to believe that this would be a rock solid unit. The team has arguably two top-four defensemen (Andy Greene and Damon Severson) and probably zero who are top-pairing level. It’s tough to expect a coach to wring a good defense out of that situation. Along with that defense, the Devils’ typically elite goaltender, Cory Schneider, has been uncharacteristically mediocre this season. And the forwards and offense, while definitely an improved unit on paper coming into this season, was not necessarily stacked. Put that all together, and it’s hard to pin all of the team’s woes on the coach.
So what is the verdict on Hynes? It certainly isn't a open-and-shut case. This roster had major shortcomings from the start and it's not like everyone was expecting playoffs in year two of a near-total rebuild. The team has had moments when it has looked good enough to hang with some of the league's better teams but those moments have largely been rare this season and a for lot of the time the team has been flat-out bad. It wouldn’t be entirely fair to pin that all on the coach but when looking at the Devils' performances this season, one could certainly wonder if the coaching is good enough for the team to take the next step.
We have seen many times around the NHL that the right coach can have a huge impact on team performance and when a team could very well finish in the league’s bottom three, it’s tough to argue that the coach is doing a great job. Before the recent 10-game losing streak, my expectations were that Hynes would be back for at least the start of next season. If the team continues to spiral toward the finish though, it becomes entirely possible (from my own outside perspective, at least) that Ray Shero’s hand is forced and Hynes is relieved of his duties. Looking at performance this season, I think its difficult to say that that would be the wrong call. And again, it’s not that the Devils problems start and end with Hynes, because they most certainly don’t. Given what we’ve seen from the 2016-17 team though, it’s fair to wonder if he can ultimately be a part of the solution.