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New Jersey Devils Season Preview Part 5: The Coaching and Management

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As the faces on the roster have rapidly turned over since 2015, the faces at the top of the organization have decidedly not. Can this management and coaching group, much of which has been in place since 2015, finally start to see sustained success this season?

2017 NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7 Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Today, in Part 5 of All About the Jersey’s big 2019-20 season preview, we take a look at the people steering the ship in New Jersey, the coaching staff and management. Since Ray Shero took over in the summer of 2015, the team has been trying to build a contender from the bottom up in the right way. As part of that vision, Shero has kept much of his staff intact over that stretch. Now, with the Devils hopefully on the precipice of a new run of successful hockey, we’ll see if patience with this staff will start to pay off.

Coaching

Head Coach: John Hynes

Years with Devils: 5

NHL Head Coaching Record: 141-146-41 (.492 pts%)

John Hynes has been a bit of a polarizing figure in his time in New Jersey and has swayed in and out of favor with Devils fans. In terms of raw results, things don’t look so good for the now-fifth-year head coach of the Devils. In four seasons under his coaching regime, the Devils are under NHL .500, sporting a 81 points-per-82 games pace over that time. In terms of overall standings finishes, the Devils have been 20th, 28th, 15th, and 29th. In a different time in New Jersey, it would be unfathomable for a coach to stick around under these circumstances. Heck, pretty much across the league, there can’t be a ton of precedent for a coach keeping his job after two bottom-four finishes in three years and one playoff appearance in four.

This hasn’t been a normal situation in New Jersey. though. When John Hynes was brought in four summers ago, it was with the understanding that the Devils were embarking on a daunting rebuild. The general situation was that the Devils had a lot of organizational rot to clear and would have to do a lot of work to rebuild a system that had deteriorated badly in Lou Lamoriello’s final years as the team attempted to cling to playoff contention. Over the course of that slow build, the Devils would be slowly turning things over to a youth movement, though that movement needed time to actually develop. With that in mind, the Devils steered clear of NHL retreads and coaches with extensive veteran experience, and instead went the developmental route.

Hynes’ coaching history before his arrival in New Jersey was very much centered on player development, first bouncing between college and the USNTDP as an assistant, then later leading the USNTDP as its head coach for six seasons between 2003 and 2009 (and medaling with three of the four U18/U20 WJC teams he head coached for). After the 2008-09 season, Ray Shero hired Hynes as a coach for the Penguins’ minor league affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and promoted him to head coach a season later. Hynes enjoyed a solid run as head coach for the WBS Penguins, finishing in the playoffs in each of his five years at the helm and winning at least a round each of those years, though never appearing in a Calder Cup final.

When Shero got hired in the summer of 2015, one of his first moves would be to hire a familiar face out of the Penguins organization to be the head coach (the first of enough moves of that nature to make it a prominent meme in Shero’s time as GM). Shero was clearly interested in someone who would establish a certain identity and grow with the team over a longer stretch and when he selected Hynes, the coach was the youngest of any head coach in the NHL. Shero specifically said he “wanted a teacher” for the job at hand, and that’s what Hynes brought.

So how have things turned out, four seasons later? Well, the results are decidedly mixed. In Hynes’ first season, the Devils overachieved significantly. And while 20th place isn’t particularly impressive in a vacuum, that roster had expectations maybe a shade north of the 2019-20 Ottawa Senators at the outset of that campaign. The next season would see the Devils stumble backwards, being mediocre much of the way and then entering a freefall down the stretch that saw them lose a startlingly bad 21 of their final 24 games. The silver lining of that collapse would be the selection of Nico Hischier, though, and the Devils would rebound the following season, powered by their new rookie top center and a Taylor Hall determined to obliterate everything in his path on the way to a Hart Trophy.

For a moment, it looked like Hynes had the rebuild on track ahead of schedule, but those feelings would evaporate as the Devils crumbled after the first month of the 2018-19 season. In the midst of this campaign that would end up landing the second first overall pick in three years for New Jersey, the Devils extended Hynes for multiple years, a move that would earn scorn from some portions of the fanbase, and a tepid shrug from this one. Shero and management continued to take a long view of things, even with some fans starting to grow impatient.

In terms of coaching style, Hynes has always had a focus on fundamentals and has consistently been willing to let most of his young players sink or swim when they arrive in the NHL. For a rebuilding team, these are undeniably attractive qualities. There are times, though, when it’s fair to question how many of those fundamentals are soaking in. The offense has consistently gotten more dynamic under Hynes, but the defense has often looked out of sorts. In a deep dive last season, John (Fischer) noted here that Hynes’ teams were improving offensively, but also deteriorating defensively. A look at many of the Devils games last season would confirm some of that deficiency. Part of that is definitely a personnel issue, but it also felt at times like the basics would go wanting last season.

Hynes is known as a developer and a teacher and with the amount of young faces on the Devils, he remains a theoretical fit for a team still on the upswing. As the Devils try to transition from building to contending, though, the patience for losing will quickly evaporate. Hynes may still be a good developmental coach, but if the system he runs is not yielding results, that will matter less and less in the coming months and years. Simply put, this is a watershed year for John Hynes. He will have his best roster since arriving in New Jersey and could be headed toward his most successful NHL season if he can steer the ship well. The elevated expectations are a double-edged sword, though, and if things start to spiral like they have in two of the past four seasons, his seat will get hot in a big, big hurry.

The Devils may not be in their proverbial “window” just yet, but the days of bottom-ten finishes being acceptable in New Jersey are now in the past. If Hynes wants to continue growing with this team, the time for results is now.

Assistant Coaches

Alain Nasreddine

Years with Devils: 5

Coaching Responsibilities: Defense and Penalty Kill

Alain Nasreddine has been a part of John Hynes’ staff since Hynes arrived in New Jersey four summers ago. Over that time, his responsibilities have mostly involved the defensive end of the ice and the penalty kill. For the most part, things have gone decently well under Nasreddine, particularly as far as the penalty kill is concerned. The Devils have finished 8th, 20th, 6th, and 3rd in goals against rate on the penalty kill over the first four seasons of Nasreddine’s tenure. Aside from a blip of mediocrity in 2016-17, this unit has undeniably been the team’s best over that time, which reflects well on Nasreddine.

The one area Nasreddine has taken some criticism is the 5v5 defensive play of the Devils, which, in the piece by John that I cited above for Hynes, has seen its numbers gradually slide over the past four years. Some of that has to do a decline in the quality of the defensive personnel due to aging and other circumstances, but the unit was also not a world-beater when he arrived and the results were much better then. Last season in particular, it felt like goalies were regularly getting hung out to dry and fundamentals were being forgotten. Some of that is likely confirmation bias, but Nasreddine will hope that a unit bolstered by a new #1 defenseman can have a rebound in 2019-20.

Rick Kowalsky

Years with Devils: 2

Coaching Responsibilities: Offense and Power Play

Rick Kowalsky was brought in to head up the power play and the offense last offseason after the departure of the often-maligned Geoff Ward. Kowalsky was promoted from the head coach down in Binghamton to his position in New Jersey after a some mixed results with the Devils’ AHL affiliate. In a “careful what you wish for” situation for Devils fans, the Kowalsky power play (21st in goals for/60) saw a regression from the previous Ward-headed unit (11th in GF/60). In Kowalsky’s defense, though, Taylor Hall was an absolute supernova on the power play in 2017-18 (#1 in the league in pts/60) and was injured for a majority of 2018-19. This season, Kowalsky will have a whole lot more weapons to utilize on the power play and people will be expecting an effective unit to that end, so he might feel some pressure if his power play looks like anything less than a top-10 group.

Mike Grier

Years with Devils: 2

Coaching Responsibilities: Player Support and Development

Mike Grier occupies the nebulous third assistant coaching spot on the Devils bench, and one that is very hard to evaluate for a lowly blogger like me. Grier was a well-respected player in his time in the league and generally seems to be around as support and one-on-one coaching of the players in New Jersey. Hynes had this to say upon about Grier when he was hired:

Having played 14 years and over 1,000 NHL games as a forward, Mike will lean on his experience in leadership roles to work with our players. He was a highly-respected teammate and had the ability to relate to all players with his personality, demeanor and experience. These attributes will be valuable in communicating and developing our players, as we continue to build a strong culture.

The Devils seem to have a generally positive culture, so I suppose that reflects well on Grier. Also worth mentioning that Grier was the first black coach for the Devils’ franchise upon his hiring.

Roland Melanson

Years with Devils: 3

Coaching Responsibilities: Goaltending Coach

Melanson is now entering his third season as the Devils goaltenting coach after replacing Chris Terreri in the 2017 offseason. The results for the goaltenders in New Jersey over that time have been... mixed. Melanson was brought in in 2017 likely partially due to his past relationship with Cory Schneider, serving as Vancouver’s goaltending coach in the three excellent years for Schneider before he was traded to New Jersey. With a profession as mercurial as NHL goalie, it’s hard to really identify who is responsible for what and the results can swing so rapidly that even if a coach has theoretically “corrected” some issue, something else can just as easily go haywire soon after.

All of the three main goaltenders to play significant time under Melanson in New Jersey have had excellent stretches of play (Schneider in early 2017-18 and late 2018-19; Keith Kinkaid in late 2017-18 and the very beginning of 2018-19; and MacKenzie Blackwood in the middle of 2018-19). Two of those three have also had cover-your-eyes awful stretches of play under Melanson, though (Schneider for the entirety of 2018, and Kinkiad in early 2017-18 and much of 2018-19). Part of Schneider’s woes can potentially be chalked up to his hip issues over the past few years but, regardless, the overall results have been fairly mediocre in Melanson’s first two years.

Heading into year three, Melanson may be best positioned to shepherd a stable, strong goaltending tandem so far in his time with the Devils. He’ll have the job of keeping a now seemingly healthy Schneider on track and fostering a strong sophomore season out of the young MacKenzie Blackwood. The Devils have to be craving some consistency out of the position after the roller coaster of the past few years, so trying to make that happen has to be Melanson’s chief goal. If one or both goaltenders go off the rails for any significant stretch this season, it doesn’t seem out of the question that Ray Shero could look elsewhere for goaltending guidance next summer, so this is likely a big year for Melanson.

Management

General Manager: Ray Shero

Years with Devils: 5

Ray Shero’s fifth summer in Newark was a wild ride. Entering the offseason, he was in charge of a team that, by his own admission and in the estimation of his best player, badly needed more talent. Starting with the draft lottery and continuing right on through the end of July, the wins on paper kept on rolling in for Shero and the Devils. Of course, the actual wins on the ice have been intermittent bordering on scarce over Shero’s tenure in New Jersey. There is plenty of reason to hope that’s about to change, but lets take a few steps back and see how we arrived where we are.

Ray Shero was hired five summers ago now to take the reigns from the legendary Lou Lamoriello. Lamoriello got kicked upstairs in 2015 after almost three decades in charge of the Devils, with over two of those decades featuring a string of almost uninterrupted and, outside of Detroit, largely unparalleled success. In spite of that long run of success (and perhaps more accurately, partially because of it) the organization Lamoriello helped make a powerhouse for close to 25 years had crumbled into a destitute outfit, with a lousy product in the NHL and little hope for a turnaround among its prospects. Lamoriello helped make the decision to bring in Shero but predictably was not interested in being a figurehead or the GM Emeritus, so he bolted later that summer for Toronto.

Shero took over and didn’t waste much time starting to put his stamp on the organization. He brought in a developmental coach he was familiar with in his time with the Penguins organization and he brought aboard his assistant GM from Pittsburgh as well in Tom Fitzgerald. At the draft, he swung the first of many of the type of trades he’d become known for in New Jersey, flipping a couple picks for undervalued winger Kyle Palmieri (in a move I declared a couple years marked the inflection point between the rebuild and the decline that came before it). He’d let David Conte and his staff finish out their scouting season, but would overhaul the scouting department shortly after, bringing on Paul Castron to head up a revamped amateur scouting operation that would hopefully reverse the dismal trend of success over the previous decade of drafts.

Since that first summer, Shero has been methodically trying to build a contender in New Jersey, exercising and preaching patience as the team slowly crawled out of the hole it had found itself in. His trademark move, and one that will long be remembered by not just Devils fans but hockey fans at large, came in year two when he shipped former fourth-overall pick and steady-if-unspectacular top-four defenseman Adam Larsson to Edmonton for Taylor Hall, one of the very best forwards in the entire league, one for one. The move was an odd one to behold, not just because it was one of the more historically boneheaded trades in history on Edmonton’s part, but because it changed the trajectory and aims of the rebuild Shero was engaged in immediately. Shero probably didn’t expect to generate a tectonic shift for the franchise in June 2016, but it fell into his lap regardless, so he went with it.

From that point, the Devils rebuild would take on a bit of a nagging urgency — now faced with a ticking clock in the form of Hall’s contract status — but Shero remained steadfast in his methodical approach to team-building (save for a couple moves at the 2018 deadline). The Devils would hit the first of their draft lottery jackpots in 2017, after a season that was largely mediocre before the team entered a freefall just before the trade deadline. The Devils would add Nico Hischier, Brian Boyle, and Marcus Johansson in the offseason and they’d make a run back to the playoffs, powered by Taylor Hall’s MVP season. This raised expectations and compressed the perceived rebuild timeline even more, but for better or worse, Shero remained steadfast in his commitment to a slow build.

Last season, the team had the bottom fall out again, though this time it was tied first to bad goaltending and later a wave of injuries that reduced the team to a shade above an AHL roster for parts of March. Shero took some criticism for this lurch backwards, given his general inactivity in the summer of 2018, but in a similar way that the team was probably not as good as their finish in 2017-18, extenuating circumstances meant the team probably wasn’t as far away from contention as the final standings might have indicated in 2018-19. Another season in the basement of the Metropolitan Division laid bare the ground the Devils still needed to make up on the rest of the league, though, and upped the pressure on Ray Shero to make the moves necessary to get there.

This past summer, after years of biding his time and slowly trying to improve the roster, Shero put together what amounts to his signature offseason as GM. While it remains to be seen whether the team congeals in a way that leads to success in the standings, it’s difficult to argue that Shero could have done much more to improve the roster than he already did. One of those moves, the selection of Jack Hughes first overall, was obviously powered by more good lottery fortune for Shero. The other moves ranged from solid to great, though, and were based on savvy maneuvering rather than luck.

The biggest move of the rest was the PK Subban trade, where Shero used his long-discussed weaponizeable cap space to land a number one defenseman for a relative pittance in trade assets. The next most impactful was the acquisition the the rights of KHL MVP Nikita Gusev and his subsequent signing. Add in the low-risk signing of Wayne Simmonds and bringing prospect Jesper Boqvist over from Europe and the Devils were set up to have a long list of impactful new faces in camp as the season opened.

People had started to grow impatient with Shero after his quiet 2018 offseason was followed up with the team’s poor showing in the 2018-19 season. Few of those criticisms remain, though, after the home runs Shero hit over the summer. Aside from the left side of the defense, many of the team’s issues were addressed by the moves made this summer. For now, Shero is a hit in New Jersey again and if the Devils can back that offseason up with solid play in 2019-20, that state of affairs is likely to remain the case heading into next offseason.

Other Staff

Tom Fitzgerald

Years with Devils: 5

Role: Executive VP and Assistant GM

Tom Fitzgerald came aboard with the Devils not long after Shero arrived in 2015. Shero had extensive experience with Fitzgerald already in Pittsburgh, and as we know, Ray likes a familiar face. Fitzgerald was hired as Assistant GM and held that title for four years. This summer he was promoted to Executive Vice President & Assistant GM, which I guess is different and makes him the super-duper assistant GM now. His promotion came in conjunction with the promotion of Dan MacKinnon who is now Senior VP and Assistant GM and is in charge of player development, which is also a thing he already seemed to do.

Fitzgerald has been involved in the decision-making process with Shero at the NHL level and is also nominally in charge of the team’s Binghamton (and before that, Albany) affiliate in the AHL. Binghamton’s success has been varied over the past few years, though that can be chalked up to the team getting raided for parts at times by the NHL squad. Fitzgerald seems to be involved in most of the NHL moves and has gotten some buzz as a GM candidate elsewhere, so he probably deserves some percentage of the credit for the moves Shero has made since he came on board.

Paul Castron

Years with Devils: 5(ish)

Role: Director of Amateur Scouting

Paul Castron took the reins of a not-super-popular amateur scouting department in the summer of 2015 (hiring him away from the Columbus organization), following years of lackluster results in the entry draft under David Conte. Castron joined in 2015, but it came after the incumbent scouting staff had managed the 2015 Draft. So effectively, Castron’s first year of evaluation doesn’t come until the next summer in 2016.

Since taking over, Castron’s results have looked very solid, including some big hits in the late rounds in the form of Jesper Bratt and de facto centerpiece of the PK Subban trade Jeremy Davies, as well as a few more promising late-rounders in Aarne Talvitie and Akira Schmid. Castron has also been aided by having more picks and generally higher picks than his predecessor — most notably the two first-overall selections in Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier — but early returns look strong either way (and one of those two first overall selections was far from a slam dunk, looking at Nolan Patrick’s career so far in Philly). In a few more years we’ll be able to more fully assess the quality of results for Castron, but the process, more often than not, has felt better than it did in 2015 and prior.

Tyler Dellow

Years with Devils: 1

Role: Director of Analytics

So Tyler Dellow was announced as the director of analytics back in April to a decent amount of fanfare. This interview in the Athletic ($) (his previous employer) went through some of his background and talked about how he ended up with the Devils. Essentially, Dellow was tagged to head up the analytics group and build a team that would help provide valuable analytical insight into the Devils coaching staff and personnel department. And with player tracking apparently on the way soon for the NHL, the Devils were looking for someone to steer the ship as that wave of data hits.

The curious thing is that Dellow does not currently show up in the Devils’ staff directory. I don’t know what, if anything, to read into that, but no reports that I’ve seen have him on the outs, so I assume it’s still status quo from the spring. The Devils also reportedly hired Matt Cane a little later on, another relatively well-known name in the analytics community, so presumably things are still a go with that department. Whatever they do have planned on that front, it seems to be shrouded in some level of secrecy.

Owners/Managing Partners: Josh Harris/David Blitzer

Years owning team: 7

In sports, on some level a team’s success is impacted by the owners. On a micro-level, of course, the owners are not making the day-to-day decisions and ‘good’ owners don’t necessarily guarantee good results on the ice/field/court/whatever. But it is undeniably better to have good owners that bad ones, and John had a very good post to that effect this summer.

The things you generally want from owners are 1) the ability to hire the right people to run the organization, 2) the willingness to spend money on the product, and 3) the ability to not meddle and micromanage the team to its detriment. Check, check, and check as far as I’m concerned. It’s also important on a franchise-level to have stability and confidence that the owners will be able to keep the lights on and not threaten to sell the team or move them to Albuquerque or something. The Devils’ previous owner Jeff Vanderbeek was passionate about his team, but was plagued by liquidity issues that probably precipitated (at least in part) some of the high-profile departures of the early 2010s. To this point, Harris and Blitzer have shown no signs of any such issues.

Overall, from Harris and Blitzer straight on down, the Devils have a high level of stability in both their management and coaching ranks. Hopefully this season, we’ll start to see that stability and commitment to a vision start to pay dividends.