To say the least, this season has not gone as planned so far for the New Jersey Devils. In the follow-up season to their first playoff appearance in six years, the Devils have disappointed significantly. What started as a promising season that hoped to build on the successes of 2017-18 and see a youth movement take another step forward has devolved into a nightly struggle to remain loosely attached to the periphery of the playoff picture. The Devils came into last night’s tilt with Los Angeles with just 5 wins in their previous 22 games. Needless to say, this has instilled a sense of frustration, anger, detachment, or all of the above in the fanbase. As with any disappointing season, the focus will rapidly swing around to who is to blame.
Goaltending has been an obvious culprit in New Jersey, with the Cory Schneider situation continuing to loom large for the team’s outlook and Keith Kinkaid sliding rapidly back to Earth. Grousing about the performances of various skaters, including Miles Wood, Pavel Zacha, Sami Vatanen, and plenty of others has also been common to this point. The crosshairs will always eventually make their way back to the people at the top though when things are going poorly. That means murmurs of firing the head coach or the general manager will inevitably come in a disappointing situation. This has been no exception for the Devils, where everyone running this show has gotten some heat from fans after the disastrous last month and a half. In particular, John Hynes and and his assistants Rick Kowalsky and Alain Nasreddine have each been starting to draw some ire.
The most obvious target for criticism of any team’s play is going to be the coaching staff and when a team is falling short of expectations, it is inevitably the head coach who has to shoulder a large portion of the criticism. Since the head coach is the one ultimately in charge of preparing the team to play each night, it makes sense that this would be the case. John Hynes has not escaped this criticism as the team has spiraled over the past 20 or so games. There have certainly been calls for Hynes’ job from various sections of the fanbase over these past several weeks, but are they fair?
On one hand, yes, it is absolutely fair that Hynes has received criticism for this season. It’s cherry-picking a bit, but lets take the 22 game stretch where the Devils went 5-12-5. That is over a quarter of a season’s worth of games at a 56-point pace. Only three teams have finished with fewer points than that since the 2004-05 lockout. For a team that made the playoffs last year, that is... not great. The roster is similar to last season and while you might say the team overperformed in 2017-18, this roster is certainly not a 56-point group. It’s fair to wonder if a coach getting that kind of return from his players over an extended stretch is losing the ear of his roster.
On the other hand, this was a coach largely raved about by his players and many fans alike after the season he guided the Devils to in 2017-18. The Devils results have been awful for much of the past two months, but a lot of that can be traced back to goaltending failures for the Devils. The old saying in hockey goes something like “show me a good goalie and I’ll show you a good coach,” but the reverse is obviously true as well. Over the aforementioned 5-12-5 run, the Devils had Schneider return from injury to post an .862 sv% in five starts and Keith Kinkaid posted an .895 in the other 17. That’s not going to get it done for any coach. I don’t want to heap all of the blame on the goalies when the defense has certainly put them in some bad positions over that run, but the reality is that Kinkaid has had a significant run of games in which he’s been bad overall, and Schneider has filled in the gaps with play that is even worse.
The Devils as a team have looked particularly bad on a number of nights this season which has fueled the criticism of Hynes. On Monday, I even stated over at the AAtJ Twitter account that the third listless blowout loss at the hands of the Lightning, this one at home, felt like the kind of game that can get a coach fired. The Devils are not the stalwart defensive team they used to be, obviously, but this season in particular has been a bad one for blowouts. This 2018-19 team has already yielded 6+ goals four times in 27 games and 5+ goals nine times. They are currently on pace for 12 games with 6+ goals allowed and 27 games with 5+ goals allowed. You have to venture back to the 1980s for a Devils team to allow opponents to light up the scoreboard that often. People don’t like to have their time wasted and, whether it is poor preparation, poor execution, or poor goaltending that is the cause, the Devils have seemingly wasted their fans’ time on a number of nights this year.
Specifically as it pertains to the assistants, their performance has been criticized as well, particularly Rick Kowalsky and, to a lesser extent, Alain Nasreddine. The Devils power play, generally the responsibility of Rick Kowalsky, which started very well earlier in the season, has looked very bad for the better part of a month now. Last night it looked effective against the Kings, but the previous weeks featured a unit that was completely lost and incredibly had just a +2 goal differential over the previous 17 games since the start of November. Geoff Ward, before his departure, was often maligned for a lackluster power play, but Kowalsky’s unit has proven just as inconsistent as Ward’s (if not moreso), and has been a big reason for the Devils recent woes. Nasreddine, ostensibly in charge of the Devils’ defense, ran a stellar penalty kill in 2017-18 and while it has maybe taken a half-step back, it remains a very good unit in 2018-19. At even strength, though, the Devils’ defensive woes have been well documented, particularly in transition where teams have made the Devils look bad a lot over the past month and a half. Where Nasreddine’s responsibilities end and John Hynes’ begin at evens is difficult to say, but as the defensive coach, he likely shares in some of that responsibility.
So what is the verdict on all of these coaches? I think they are all at least in some jeopardy right now. Ray Shero has been very patient with this rebuild (and has been conspicuous in his recent silence), but any NHL team in a spiral like the Devils is going to have a coaching staff with seats that are starting to creep up in temperature. The Devils temporarily stemmed the bleeding with a win over the Kings last night, but a win over the last-place team in the league isn’t going to win over a ton of people. If the Devils resume the freefall they have been in since around Halloween, everyone’s job is certainly in danger.
Personally, I don’t think John Hynes is completely to blame for what has gone on to this point. Many of the Devils’ underlying indicators still look good, an example of that being that the team’s score-adjusted xGF is up at 7th in the league overall. The Devils have also had a brutal schedule to start their season and their goaltenders have failed to provide a stable backstop for the team. That doesn’t mean that I think Hynes is doing a perfect job and any team that has been blown out of the water as often as the Devils have this season has some things to clean up. But I really think the goaltending situation has badly submarined everything this year, and it’s hard to pin the blame for that squarely on anyone in the coaching staff or management. If I were inclined to remove anyone from the staff, it would probably be Kowalsky, if only because I was never completely sold on the hire in the first place, but even he may deserve more time given we’re only about two months into his tenure. Ultimately, I think everyone is in some danger, whether it’s completely fair or not, and I think the remaining few weeks of 2018 could end up deciding if this group will be able to make it through the season.