The goal of the 2017-18 New Jersey Devils campaign has shifted during this season. At some point, it went from being a better team to make the playoffs. This is true based on the actions of the team in the last month or so. This is reasonable as the Devils have occupied a playoff position throughout most of this season. However, the Devils have struggled to get results in 2018 and whatever lead they had in holding their playoff position is all but gone.
Much has been written about the goaltending issues, secondary scoring, injuries, and other true-to-a-degree reasons for the Devils falling to where they are. I will offer one more: coaching. To what end is John Hynes accountable? If the Devils miss the playoffs, should Hynes stay as head coach - despite having an option year on his contract activated? It’s an easy question to ask - and a hard one to answer knowing where the Devils are coming from and what is ailing them. Let’s go deep into the situation as a whole.
Why Hynes Received Another Year as Devils Head Coach
On February 24, 2018, the Devils celebrated the career of legendary forward Patrik Elias. The Devils also beat the Islanders, 2-1, thanks to Kyle Palmieri in the third period. Amid all of the celebration and right before the game, some important team news came out. Devils head coach John Hynes got an extension. As per Chris Ryan on Twitter, Devils owner Josh Harris let it be known to media that Hynes had an option in his contract for a fourth-year and the team has activated it. In Ryan’s article at NJ.com about this news, which went up the next day, this decision was made earlier in the season. When that was is not known. The point is the same: Hynes is set to be the head coach for 2018-19.
And why not announce it then? In addition to the Devils receiving extra attention for the retirement ceremony for #26, the Devils were in a good position. They were about to enter the NHL Trade Deadline in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division and owners of the first wild card spot - with a five point lead over the second wild card spot owners if they won. (And they did.) For a team that many - including here at this site - thought the playoffs weren’t going to happen, that’s a big achievement.
The season as a whole can be seen as a step forward. As of February 24, the Devils had a record of 31-22-8 with 72 points. The Devils finished the 2016-17 season with a record of 28-40-14 with 70 points. That 72nd point was earned on February 18, so the team surpassed last season’s record with 23 games left to play.
The performances as a whole have been better too. In 5-on-5 situations: the Devils finished 2016-17 season with a score and venue adjusted 47.08% Corsi For% and a 46.78% Shots For% per Natural Stat Trick, both values ranking the bottom. The 2017-18 Devils are at 49% Corsi For% and a 50.06% Shots For%, which are big improvements. Given where the team was at the end of October to the end of February, and you can see some significant improvements in the team’s 5-on-5 play. Goals and goals against? Some progress can be seen there too: the Devils’ all-situations goals per 60 minute rate jumped from 2.17 to 2.84. All-situation goals against per 60 minutes remained stable from 2.9 to 2.91 - although their 2017-18 rate of 2.91 GA/60 is around league median as opposed to being one of the bottom ten in 2016-17. I could go deeper, but the initial look at the team stats shows that 2017-18 is a better team than 2016-17. So that’s progress.
So why wouldn’t the Devils extend Hynes? If the idea of re-building is to actually get better and the Devils have been better, then Hynes must be doing something right. Why not secure the head coach for another season of potential progress? Why not eliminate one potential departure for this summer? But, again, the goal for 2017-18 changed from getting better to getting into the postseason.
After the Extension was Announced...
After the extension was announced and the Devils won against the Islanders, Ray Shero acquired Patrick Maroon at the trade deadline. With Michael Grabner acquired days earlier, it was clear the Devils were buyers. While it’s questionable that they did not give up too much in value, moves like that are made to help push the team forward.
They did not go forward. Sure, the Devils put up a great performance and won in Pittsburgh. A great start after the trade deadline and a great win. Then came pain. They proceeded to get rolled over by Florida and Carolina in regulation losses. They failed to make a comeback (or tried as hard as they could) against Vegas. After beating up on a listless Montreal team, they fell to Winnipeg despite a legitimately strong third period effort. That’s two wins out of six games since Elias’ Night. Worse, that five point lead in the division vanished. Columbus and Florida both won where the Devils didn’t. As Saturday came, the Devils were in fifth place in the division and only a few points ahead of Florida, who had (and still has) three games in hand on them. Suddenly the Devils needed a win to re-take fourth place in the division as they were in two weeks ago. A win in Nashville, who won their last ten straight games.
They did it, but there is now no more cushion for the Devils in the standings. There is no real security for their playoff spot. The Devils will have to keep getting results and possibly need some help in what will be a very difficult remaining schedule.
The Underlying Issues
Mike hit on how the Devils have fell into their current situation after the loss to Winnipeg on Friday. While the Devils won in Nashville, that does not mean the Devils have fell into this spot. This point remains perfectly applicable:
So the slow-ish motion collapse the Devils have been engaged in is pressing them toward unprecedented territory. And aggravatingly, it’s not because the East is a total gauntlet, it’s just the Devils inability to win games that has landed them here. The projected playoff cutoff for the Eastern Conference is a meager 90 points right now. This is a so-so conference filled with okay-ish teams and the Devils are working on missing the playoffs from a position that no one has missed from before in spite of that. Basically this Devils team had to be NHL .500 after December 27th (not a lot to ask) and they’d be cruising into the playoffs. Instead, they’ve gone 12-17-3.
Make it 13-17-3 now, which is still below NHL .500. The Devils have slumped through January, finished up February with an 8-6-0 record, and then started March with a poor 2-4-0 record. Mike correctly points to goaltending issues and a lack of secondary scoring as being big reasons why this is the case. These are true issues.
They also haven’t been new issues. It’s questionable whether Hynes and his staff has done the best they could to mitigate them.
The Devils’ scoring in 2018 has been largely led by Taylor Hall’s impressive 26-game point streak and a few bursts here and there. Yet, the team’s GF/60 in all situations is 2.58 is the tenth lowest in the NHL. It’s a far cry from the 2017’s GF/60 3.05. Sure, the shooting percentage fell but it’s more than just sticks cooling off to see a GF/60 rate drop by near half-goal. Teams would love it if their best player was racking up an excessively long point streak. Yet, the Devils managed to not take full advantage of it. Only Kyle Palmieri - one of Hall’s common linemates - has scored at least ten goals since the new year began in addition to Hall. The only non-Hall or Hall-linemate to have average at least 2.5 shots per game in 2018 has been Miles Wood since the new year began.
While we have seen different lines for various reasons, we have not seen much in the way of different tactics. Whatever line Miles Wood is on still features plenty of dump-and-chase. Whatever the fourth line is will do the same. Regardless of line, the Devils still seek to build from behind the goal line and out - usually to the points. They only get into the slot if the play opens up that way or they’re able to get in on a rush play. While the numbers show that it’s working in general, it begs the question of whether it’s working given the opposition. Defenses against the Devils just have to do the same thing - win the puck along the boards or corner, outlet to the middle, and there’s your exit. For a team that’s lauded for their speed, you’d think they would use it for more than just trying to break through the defense or have at least half of the forwards play dump-and-chase hockey.
We’ve also seen the team stick to what they know on defense. As with what oppositions do to the Devils, they look for passes towards the middle of the zone instead of chipping it out. Does it work? It does. But in games where the opposition’s forecheck is aggressive or an extra player pinches in for support, they force turnovers and put the Devils in bad positions on defense - nevermind denying the exit entirely. Even on breakouts, the Devils still get into the habit of leaving the defensemen on islands, only giving options for long passes into the zone that carry risk and not much reward. And the Devils prefer to collapse on defense. In some situations, that’s the right call. Against an opponent has defensemen who are very good on the puck and can control the offense - like Carolina or Nashville - then the Devils get into trouble because they get caught in their collapse. Nashville put on a class in how that goes wrong last night, actually. Plus, their collapsing ways lead many Devils skaters to sell out for blocks. While this must be done at times, it also risks injury and deflecting pucks past their goalie - not to mention not necessarily being able to get the puck back after the block. These are all issues that we saw a lot of last season’s roster and it wasn’t that good then. So while the numbers are better, there’s still room for growth.
There’s also that matter of the power play. Devils’ power play on the surface doesn’t look too bad with a 20.6% success rate in this season. Since the new year began, they’re at 20%. That may look OK, but the team’s shooting rate and attempt rate remains in the bottom third of the league in 2018. There have been several games where a power play opportunity doesn’t really threaten to score when the Devils absolutely could use a goal. I understand that the majority of power plays do not get converted, but to be up a man and not even create a good shot or gain the zone with the puck is ridiculous. Especially this late in the season. To the coaches’ credit, we’ve seen personnel changes. Due to injuries, the second unit has had two defensemen on it for the past few weeks. Yet, where are the tactical changes? The Devils still utilize a drop pass on their breakouts with varying success. When that’s not there, they dump it in - which often leads to the puck being cleared out by the defense. When they do get into the zone, they’re forcing cross-slot passes through traffic. If they get through, great; but they often get intercepted - which kills the power play attack. It’s often feast or famine for the power play and it’s another aspect that has held the Devils back in a number of these games. Knowing that Geoff Ward is still involved and Hynes kept him around, I’m baffled there have not been more radical changes.
Even in more specialized situations, such as the Devils with six skaters, the team has made often underwhelmed. It’s one thing to not get the late equalizer with the extra skater. It’s another to see six skaters being forced to defend and dumping the puck in from the red line. Which, like on their power plays, often leads to the puck being cleared out. The Devils have demonstrated a strange inability to play well with an extra skater, even when they have performed well in 5-on-5 situations. I don’t get it. And not being able to get an extra goal here and there has cost them points.
I fully understand that the coaches cannot control everything. Like goaltending. Despite Keith Kinkaid’s recent surge, the team’s save percentage since January 1 is the fourth-lowest in the NHL at 90.04%. That’s hard for anyone. There’s not much for the coaches to do with that. Plus, Cory Schneider did get hurt, and there was a brief rotation among Keith Kinkaid with Ken Appleby and Eddie Lack at points. You could argue to “play the hot hand” but Kinkaid’s “hot hand” in Nashville on Saturday came after giving up four goals to Montreal on Tuesday, two games earlier in that week. Meaningless goals, yes, but hardly a “hot hand” either. Still, the coaches aren’t the ones making the stops.
It’s also true that Hynes and his staff have been beset by various injuries and other events. No, they can’t control when the Devils have precious goals taken away by video reviews and coaches challenges. No, they can’t control the Marchands of the league jumping up and throwing elbows at heads. No, they can’t control whether goalies pull their groin or forwards have upper-body issues or whatever else. Yet, every other team in the league has to do deal with all of that too. Some of them do manage. So I cannot really accept that as a main reason why the Devils are where they are. I’m pointing it out to note that, yes, the coaches can’t be responsible for everything.
Two Key Questions
Yet, the coaches should be responsible for some of what we’ve seen from the Devils. I’m left with two underlying questions that I cannot fully answer.
First, as indicated by the preceding paragraphs, has Hynes and his staff done all they could to help the Devils out from a coaching perspective? It’s more than just assigning out line combinations. Are they being given instructions and roles where players can succeed? Are they adjusting for their opposition? For the latter, it’s questionable. The Devils have put up some pretty awesome performances in periods within games. Like the recent loss to Winnipeg. At the same time, we’ve seen some pretty crummy games where the Devils were bodied from nearly start to finish. Like the losses to Florida and Carolina. As well as some third periods where the Devils are down a goal but play like they’re down four. Like that recent loss to Vegas. In an 82-game season, these games will happen at one time or another. It’s not so much that the team has been streaky. CJ has explained why that isn’t a big deal earlier in February. What is a big deal is whether tweaking the tactics could have sustained some more gains or reduced some of the bad we’ve seen in 2018. That’s at the heart of the question.
Second, while we can objectively say that the 2017-18 Devils has improved over the 2016-17 team, have the coaches have utilized that talent well enough? Despite adding Hall for 2016-17, it was clear that there was a lack of talent. It was understood that the 2016-17 Devils were going to be bad regardless of what the coaches did or did not do. Ray Shero and his staff certainly addressed that issue. For this season, the Devils added Nico Hischier, got a surprise out of camp in Jesper Bratt, and saw some depth players not only get hot on the scoresheet but filled in well in their roles: Brian Gibbons, Will Butcher, Stefan Noesen, and Blake Coleman to name a few. Even though he has not had the chance to do so well, picking up Marcus Johansson in the offseason was another move towards “getting more talent.” While there are still issues at left defense, the Devils did go out and make a bold trade for right-side defenseman Sami Vatanen that has worked out well for New Jersey. And they did add two NHL wingers in Grabner (who has disappointed so far) and Maroon (who has done well) to bolster a roster if only by pushing Drew Stafford and Jimmy Hayes to the fringes. So the team certainly added more talent. That is a fact. So I repeat the question: Have the coaches utilized it enough to get the Devils to where they are? Could a different head coach and/or a different staff used them better and get them to a better record than what they have now?
I cannot really answer either with any evidence I have available. Maybe you know of a way to look into that. I would point out that the second question is a key one if you ever wonder whether Hynes and his staff is the right one for this team at this time.
Playoffs or Bust? It Isn’t That Simple
Yes, the Devils have exceeded pre-season expectations. Yes, the Devils have already improved on last season’s record. Yes, the 2017-18 Devils have progressed from last season. These are good things and if that is all you’re concerned with, then this season is a success and this may not matter to you.
Yet, the goals for 2017-18 have clearly shifted. It’s now no longer enough to just be better than last season. For an organization that has not seen the playoffs in five seasons and a team that has been in a playoff position throughout this season, the goal is now to actually make it to the postseason. It is a reason why the announcement of Hynes’ extension was made in late February, when the Devils were in a more secure position in the standings, and not when the decision was made. It is a reason why Grabner and Maroon were acquired. It is a reason why more fans have been louder at the Rock in years and more fans have shown up. Therefore, it’s fair to say that the expectations are now to make the playoffs.
Should the Devils make the playoffs, then there’s no issue. John Hynes and his staff would be praised as having performed a good (enough) job. The new goal was met. Ownership and management are pleased. There may even be some noise for Hynes to get a few votes for the Jack Adams Award. There would be no issue with Hynes receiving a fourth year. That would be just fine and dandy.
But if they do not make the playoffs, surely, the coaches would have to be held accountable to some degree. They had a team in a position to succeed and, well, didn’t. As much as we can point to percentages and goalies and so forth, the coaches absolutely have a hand in the performances that we see on the ice. After last season, the team needed more talent and management provided more talent. So what then? At the same time, it could be argued that more needs to be built. More needs to break their way. More has to change. But that could include Hynes and/or his assistants. I get a sense that they could be coaching for their jobs.
In retrospect, that option year should have been decided until the end of the season. If the Devils get to the playoffs, then it could be activated without an issue. If not, then the hard questions raised earlier have to answered first.
Should John Hynes stay as head coach if they miss the playoffs? Personally, I’m on the fence. There’s real improvements in this season; but I wonder if another coach could have achieved the same or better. He would certainly be on a hotter seat in 2018-19. Given the moves management made and that ownership revealed the news of his extension, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s gone if the Devils crash out of the postseason picture either. For Hynes’ sake, they should really work to make sure the players are in the best position possible to succeed for the next 13 games and make this question moot.
One Final Thought
As much as the next 13 games will be contentious for the Devils, a big reason why the Devils are here are because of the games they dropped earlier in the season. The 17 lost games that Mike mentioned come to mind; the Devils are now paying dearly for them. Those slumps in January, a not-so-nice November, and losing to non-division teams in February to name a few. Those games count just as much as they do today. So what the organization should do is not just consider how the Devils are being coached now or in recent weeks; but of how they have been coached all season. Please consider that in addition to what’s happened in the last few weeks.
I don’t do “hot takes.” I’ve laid out the details (or at least, I like to think I did) as to why this is a complicated question to really answer. And I don’t have an answer that I’m fully confident with yet. It also highlights how crucial the situation is right now. To that end, I want to know what you think. Should Hynes stay as head coach if the Devils miss the playoffs?
Thank you for reading.