Last Tuesday, New Jersey Devils interim head coach Alain Nasreddine was behind the bench for his 26th game. The Devils lost through a shootout to Montreal Nasreddine replaced John Hynes, who was fired after his 26th game of this season. That was the team’s second blowout in Buffalo this season. Whenever there is a coaching change, it is only natural to ask the question: Is the team better off now than they were under the previous coach? I think it is now time to really answer this question now that Nasreddine has had as many games in charge as Hynes did this season.
There have already been some thoughts and feelings shared about this. I have noticed in the comments, on Twitter, and even at the Rock itself that the team is more resilient under Nasreddine. They do not necessarily lay down and die in games. They battle. As Mike put it, they may even be more fun. Your mileage may vary on that. In contrast, there have been those who have not been shy about not wanting Nasreddine in charge for the future. Such as in Gerard’s recent post. In general with coaching changes, there are those who just opine about how the fired head coach did not get the goaltending or the finishing or whatever is not in their control. I am generally sympathetic to those arguments. Yet, this is a results-oriented business and while the coach may have not benefited from the percentages, it does not absolve them of any other issues that they may have had control over.
Therefore, this post will be a close look at how the Devils performed under Hynes and Nasreddine. This will be a comparison between the 26 games under Hynes this season and the first 26 games under Nasreddine. This post does not include the stats from the shutout win over Philly or the shutout win over LA. It will utilize plenty of stats primarily from Natural Stat Trick and a few from NHL.com. Say what you want about the numbers but they can support how well the Devils have performed over a common population of games. The title of this post indicates my main takeaway: It has indeed been different under Nasreddine, but I believe it is still a Bad Team. How? Read on and find out.
Hynes vs. Nasreddine: The Records
Again, this is a results-orientated business.
Immediately, the team’s record under each coach shows that the team has only been slightly more successful under Nasreddine. They indeed earned more points. Albeit two more points. The Devils ended Tuesday night not as the 30th place team in the NHL, but they were mired in the bottom five - which is where they stand today. So, yes, we can say that the team has earned more than they did under Hynes; but it is nothing to really celebrate. After all, the team has won the exact number of games under each bench boss.
I included the post-regulation records to highlight an area that provides some credence to the idea that the team may be more competitive under Nasreddine than Hynes. They have went beyond regulation more often than Hynes. Back in mid-January, I wrote how the Devils have not blown it in as many third periods under Nasreddine. That has not exactly gone to plan since that post; but fewer regulation losses are still fewer regulation losses. And the Devils have provided some equalizers to force OT in games that may have not gone there. I still do not think it is much to celebrate as the Devils have lost most of their post-sixty minute sessions. It is in this part of the game where you can see the difference in records.
Conclusion: The team’s record under Nasreddine has been better than they were with Hynes, but it is not by much and it is by no means average or even below-average, much less good.
Hynes vs. Nasreddine: The 5-on-5 On-Ice Rate Stats
Results are important but they do not really say much about how the team has performed. Just whether they won the game or not. I am not discounting that, but it does not give any indication about whether they are creating a lot of offense, leaning on exceptional goaltending, succeeding on special teams, or any of that. One way to see how the team is performing is to look at a team’s rate stats in 5-on-5 play. The 5-on-5 situation is the most common one in hockey and looking at how many attempts, shots, and scoring chances they are taking and allowing paints a better picture of how they are playing in their games. Yes, there are nights where the Devils will dominate in these categories and lose or get dominated and win. Over multiple games, those nights do not overtake how the team has done overall in the rate stats.
These stats are primarily from Natural Stat Trick. To provide context as to whether a rate stat is good or not, I included how the Devils ranked among the 31 NHL teams in each stat. Any stat in the top ten is highlighted in green, any stat at 22nd or lower (the bottom ten) is highlighted in red. If you are familiar with the month in review posts, then you should be familiar with the format. Get ready for a lot of red:
Under John Hynes, the Devils had one of the least prolific offenses in the NHL and they were not at all that hot at preventing their opponents from attacking them. The Hynes-Devils of 2019-20 defended the slot and crease rather well compared with the rest of the league and did an OK job in preventing scoring chances. They still allowed a fairly high rate of shooting attempts and shots against. Worse, they just could not do it themselves. This meant the Devils were often out-performed by their opposition. Throw in some poor goaltending and the relatively low rate of high danger chances allowed did not help them much.
The ironic bit here is that the Devils’ defense was largely the responsibility of then-assistant head coach Alain Nasreddine. Nasreddine was made the interim head coach and the Devils’ defense went from not being good except in one stat to being one of the very worst in the entire NHL.
I have noted this in the last two months in review posts for the Devils and it is still shocking to me to this day. Under Nasreddine, the Devils have allowed whopping 7.06 more shooting attempts against per sixty minutes; nearly two shots per sixty; a staggering 7.62 scoring chances per sixty minutes; and 3.48 high danger chances per sixty minutes. These are increases in rates that are easily seen on the ice because the Devils just give up a lot of offense night after night. The Devils legitimately have become one of the worst teams in defending their slot, their crease, and their zone. Perhaps Nasreddine shifted responsibilities to another assistant - Mike Grier? Peter Horachek? - after being named the interim head coach. That there was a massive increase gives me hope that a different coaching staff can help the team improve. It also tells me that I want nothing to do with the current staff involved for the future.
What makes these increases so difficult to swallow in my mind is that the offense has become more prominent under Nasreddine. Under Hynes, the Devils were not offensive except perhaps in short bursts. Under Nasreddine, they have been attacking more often. Their rates of shooting attempts, shots on net, and high-danger chances have been above the league median in Nasreddine’s 26-game set. The team’s scoring chance rate is below league median but it is not a bad rate and it is still an upgrade over what it was under Hynes’ 26-games. These increases represent and, to a degree, justify those who think the Devils are competing more and being more “fun.”
However, their gains in for-rate stats are overshadowed by the even bigger increases in their against-rate stats. It is to the point where the overall share of attempts, shots, and chances are firmly in favor of their opponents in 5-on-5. I would argue this is worse for the Devils under Nasreddine because in addition to being out-shot and out-attempted, they have been more consistently out-chanced and out-high-danger-chanced. As much as I want to appreciate the Devils generating more for themselves, it does not help their cause at all that they are giving up even more to their opponents.
Conclusion: The Devils are more high-event under Nasreddine but the against-rate stats show that the team’s defense overall has been legitimately terrible. It was actually a bit better under Hynes.
Hynes vs. Nasreddine: The Production, the Expected Goals, the Percentages
While on-ice rate stats for a team may show how a team may be performing, they do not represent whether it has been actually costly. For that, we need to look at goals. And with goals, three other factors come to mind. The first is how well the team has been scoring on their shots. Are their sticks running hot or cold? The second is how well the goalies have been stopping the opponent’s shots. Are they doing their job well? The third is the expected goals model. While the model has been beaten like a drum this season - as Travis Yost noted in this TSN article on January 20 - it does provide a baseline of what should be scored and allowed based on what the team and their opponents do on the ice compared to past history of those events. If nothing else, it is a rule of thumb as to whether the Devils and/or their opponents are producing more than we should think they would.
Therefore, I have combined all of these factors into this one big chart. I even split up the goal scoring rates and percentages by situation. I will have more detail on the power play and penalty kill under each coach later in this post.
Under Hynes, the Devils were a low scoring team in all situations and they had a high rate of goals against except when they had a power play. Under Nasreddine, the Devils have a lower rate of goals against except when they had a power play and they, well, have been still a low scoring team compared with the rest of the league with the exception of penalty kill situations. There have been more positive gains in goal scoring and goals conceding rates than not since the coaching change. However, with the exception of the penalty kill, the Devils have been entrenched in the bottom ten of the NHL in these scoring and getting-scored-on rates. This furthers the notion that it may be different under Nasreddine, but it is still bad.
Jumping to the percentages portion, we can see that a big cause for the improvement of those goals against rates (except on a power play) is in the goaltending. The somewhat-cynical take that Hynes was done in by bad goaltending is right. Or at least it is not wrong. The goaltending was horrid under Hynes. It has improved under Nasreddine. Even the plague of shorthanded goals allowed has not stopped the overall save percentage from increasing. However - and this is important - the team’s goaltending still has not been good. Over all situations, it was still below 90%for Nasreddine - which is not that good at all. A 5-on-5 save percentage of 91.14% is an improvement over a woeful 89.68%, but it still ranks among the bottom ten teams in the NHL. Keep in mind that the Devils have allowed a lot more shots and scoring chances under Nasreddine than Hynes. That is why that even with the gains in save percentages, the goals against rates under Nasreddine improved - but not as much as it could have been. Again, the Devils’ defense as a team has been abysmal under Nasreddine.
While Nasreddine may have received the benefit of better goaltending play, he has not totally received the benefit of better shooting. Over all situations, the team’s shooting percentage has improved. That is driven by special teams. Even that is not a total benefit to the interim head coach. The team’s power play shooting percentage ranked quite low under Hynes and still ranked low under Nasreddine. For the penalty kill, Nasreddine has seen a huge bump but even then it is just the penalty kill. It is not an offensive situation. The worrying bit is in 5-on-5. The team’s shooting percentage has been lower under Nasreddine than Hynes. It was never all that high to begin with. But what it means is that despite the team creating more offense - attempts, shots, and scoring chances - that has not translated to more goals. Since 5-on-5 hockey is the most common situation in a game, that is a problem. This is why the goals for rates are better under Nasreddine in PP, PK, and all situations but a little lower than Hynes’ in 5-on-5 situations.
This has hindered the Devils. Again, this is another area where it is different but still bad. The Devils had a truly terrible percentage of goals for under Hynes. This represented that the Devils were being out-scored by a lot. This has improved in 5-on-5 and all situations under Nasreddine. However, the Devils are still being out-scored by a lot. They went from a miserable 40-41% range to 43-44% range. That is a step in the right direction, but it still miles from anything that could be considered “decent.”
Now let us look at the expected goals model. In 5-on-5 and in all situations, the model resulted in the Devils indeed generating a higher rate of expected goals under Nasreddine than Hynes. The effect has been more pronounced in 5-on-5 hockey than in all situations, but it is still an improvement. Yet again, the expected goals against rate shot up by quite a lot under Nasreddine in both 5-on-5 and all situation play. So much so that the Devils went from actually being close to decent in xGF% in 5-on-5 and quite good in all situation xGF% under Hynes to being bad in both categories. The expected goals model at Natural Stat Trick suggests that the Devils were not performing all that bad under Hynes. No, they were not doing a lot to score a lot of goals but they were not necessarily doing things that would historically lead to a lot of goals against. Under Nasreddine, the expected goal model suggests that the Devils are performing in such a way that we should expect them to be out-scored. Given that the expected goals model in all situations tend to account for special teams, score situation, and all of the other stats mentioned (on-ice stats) and others, it suggests that the Devils have played worse under Nasreddine than under Hynes. Your mileage may vary.
Conclusion: Nasreddine has benefited from better production rates, save percentages except on power plays, and shooting percentages except in 5-on-5 play than Hynes. However, the expected goals model suggests that the team performed better under Hynes. Further, the improvements in production and percentages under Nasreddine have not led to exceptional production rates or percentages, except in scoring shorthanded goals.
Hynes vs. Nasreddine: The Goaltenders
As the save percentages of the team have favored the Nasreddine Era of this season, a closer look at the goaltenders is in order. All stats are for all situations except for 5v5 Sv%, which is 5-on-5 save percentage.
The Devils started the season with MacKenzie Blackwood and Cory Schneider. Schneider got hurt early on and truly never recovered. During Hynes’ tenure, the Devils dealt very little to Tampa Bay for Louis Domingue, who ultimately replaced Schneider as the team’s #2 goalie. Blackwood became the set choice as the team’s #1 goalie and that started and continued under Hynes up until his end in New Jersey. This also continued under Nasreddine until Blackwood missed some time due to injury, which led to appearances from Domingue, a called-up Schneider, and two brief looks at rookie-pro Gillies Senn.
What was surprising to me was that Blackwood made about as many appearances under both coaches but he was far better under Nasreddine’s time. I would say that he got hot as he put in some fantastic performances in most of December and January prior to his injury. Blackwood’s start to the season was rough and he did not really get going until the following month. The stats clearly show that. Despite a lower expected goals amount in Hynes’ time with the Devils this season, Blackwood gave up a lot more goals in 19 games than he did in 18 games under Nasreddine. Blackwood’s improved performances as the season went on largely drove the improvement in team save percentage under the current interim head coach compared to the previous head coach. Again, knowing that the Devils gave up a lot of more shots under Nasreddine than Hynes, it seems more impressive to me that Blackwood posted a 93% 5-on-5 save percentage and 91% overall save percentage in the second 26-game set for this comparison.
There were other differences. Domingue also had some better games and generally made more saves under Nasreddine than Hynes. Given that he was below 90% under both coaches means that he was still not really all that good. In contrast, Schneider was just awful under both.
Conclusion: Nasreddine did indeed receive better goaltending performances than Hynes and they primarily came from Blackwood. It is not for a lack of trying Hynes gave Blackwood plenty of appearances in his 26 games as Devils head coach this season. He got hotter under Nasreddine.
Hynes vs. Nasreddine: The Scoring Chances
While it is apparent that goaltending favored Nasreddine, I took a closer look at 5-on-5 scoring chances for the Devils under both coaches. This was one area of the on-ice rates where the two coaches differed greatly in both ends of the rink. I wanted how well they finished and made stops on chances. It may explain some of the 5-on-5 differences in scoring rates. It is one thing to have one of the lowest high danger chances against rates in the league, but it does not mean a lot if the goalie is getting beaten on most of them. Similarly, generating more scoring chances is a good thing but the value really comes from actually finishing those chances. Here is how it went under each coach:
Under Hynes, the team’s shooting percentages on scoring chances and high-danger chances were much better than what they were under Nasreddine. However, that fortune did not yield a lot of treasure since the Devils generated so few chances, high-danger or otherwise. There have been more opportunities under Nasreddine, but the team’s shooting percentage for both fell really low. That has undercut the real gains the Devils have made in terms of generating chances. It worked out such that high-danger scoring actually improved a bit under Nasreddine but it fell a little bit for scoring chances overall. Combined, this appears to factor in the 5-on-5 scoring rate not improving despite generating more under Nasreddine compared to Hynes.
What was surprising to me was how the goals against rates went the other way. The goalies under Nasreddine were much better in stopping scoring chances and high-danger chances. The team’s save percentages are close to the top ten in the league during Nasreddine’s sample. But the goals against rate was still so high for scoring chances. It was much better than it was under Hynes, but it still a bottom-ten rate primarily because the Devils allow so many chances. Similarly, the increase in high-danger chances yielded a higher goals against rate in spite of an improvement in team save percentage on those shots. While the rate actually was not that bad compared to the league - what happened in the NHL after December 2, 2019 for a 1.47 HDGA/60 to be better than most other teams? - it was still an increase.
Conclusion: In total, while Nasreddine has received improved goaltending on chances, the increase of high-danger chances against led to an increase of high-danger goals against the Devils. Combined with drops in shooting percentage, this closer look at chances shows how the Devils did not really improve their scoring rates in 5-on-5 despite generating more. If the Devils can finish more of their scoring chances, then Nasreddine stands to gain much more and that can lead to more obvious gains under his reign as interim head coach.
Hynes vs. Nasreddine: The Power Play
While the head coach was changed, Rick Kowalsky remained very much in charge of the power play. Yet, there were some notable changes since the switch to Nasreddine. The drop-pass on their breakouts has become much more rare. There have been different players utilized on their units, showing some experimentation. What has not changed was how frustrating it could be within a game or multiple games.
Under Nasreddine, the Devils’ power play has seen some actual gains in terms of generating offense. Just as with 5-on-5 situations, the Devils have taken many more attempts in man advantage situations. The big difference in CF/60 and SF/60 suggests that the Devils could stand to be more accurate, but even the shooting rate went up a bit. The scoring chance rates did not see such gains but that may be a function of their 1-3-1 set-up which has led to a lot of shooting attempts from outside of the chance area on offense. The good news is that under Nasreddine, there has been an increase in scoring rates and in team shooting percentage. As a result, they have been more successful on their power plays.
However, it is not all good for the PP under Nasreddine as interim head coach. First and foremost, the Devils have been bleeding shorthanded goals under Nasreddine. That may be more on the players but it is telling that this was not such a problem under Hynes’ reign as head coach. A power play with a net goal differential of +9 despite scoring 15 goals dampens any good feelings you may have about the power play. That goal differential is actually just below the +10 under Hynes. Second, while the Devils generated more attempts and shots, their expected goals rate actually went down under Nasreddine. This supports what I have been seeing; they may have been taking more attempts but they are not always on target and they are not from really dangerous places on the ice to shoot from. Their 1-3-1 formation may have two Devils in the high-danger area but the puck is not really getting to them and they are not taking so many attempts or shots, nevermind goals. Third, while there were gains in scoring rate and shooting percentage, the Devils still lagged behind most of the league.
Conclusion: There is still plenty of room for improvement. I can agree it has been better under Nasreddine. But seeing that this area is mostly in control by Kowalsky, I think he should get any credit - and criticism - for the team’s power play.
Hynes vs. Nasreddine: The Penalty Kill
Despite how poor the Devils have mostly been over the last five seasons, the Devils’ penalty kill has been a source of consistent success. While it has not always been so obvious, the Devils
As a quick aside, it is telling how the refereeing of the game changes in a season. The Devils were around league median in shorthanded situations in their first 26 games. From December 3, 2019 through February 4, 2020, taking about as many shorthanded situations ends up being one of the most in the NHL. Go figure.
Anyway, Nasreddine was in charge of the PK under Hynes and it went mostly well. The Devils against-rate stats were awesome across the board with one big exception. The goaltending. On a penalty kill, the goalie is often the best penalty killer and that was often not the case under Hynes’ 26 games. The team’s save percentage was near the bottom of the NHL in shorthanded situations and so they gave up quite a few goals and the team’s success rate belied the great work by their skaters. Throw in a lack of finishing on the few offensive situations the Devils generated while shorthanded and so the penalty kill units looked worse under Hynes than it really was. It is on this special team in particular where the goaltending really did Hynes no favors.
This rebounded under Nasreddine. The team’s goaltenders were above league median in terms of save percentage and so the sixth-worst goals against rate on the PK turned into the eighth-best rate in the NHL during Nasreddine’s first 26 games. The success rate jumped from 76.5% to a strong 82.6%. Talk about benefiting from a fortunate turnaround. Similarly, the Devils started to finish a lot more of their shorthanded offense. After just one shorty scored for Hynes, the Devils scored seven for Nasreddine’s first 26 games. This led to a goal differential of -8 in PK situations, which is fantastic. That all said, whoever is in charge of the PK should get some credit. The skaters have been even better from an against-rate standpoint. The Devils PK went from being a top-ten team in all against-rate stats with a couple in the top-three to being a top-three team in all against-rate stats.
Conclusion: The penalty killing units were not the problem under Hynes; just the goaltending was. The Devils’ penalty kill under Nasreddine in his first 26 games benefited big time from the goaltenders just being better. As well as in finishing more chances. That stated, there were some further gains by the skaters such that it can legitimately stated that the Devils have had one of the best PKs in the entire NHL under Nasreddine.
Hynes vs. Nasreddine: Significant Changes in Skaters
Note: The stats in this post all come from Natural Stat Trick.
The Devils have been fortunate to not have lost significant players for a significant amount of time due to injury under each head coach during their 26 games. Sure, there have been minor injuries here and there that have kept players out for a bunch of games. There have been some scratches here and there too. But the Devils have only used 27 skaters this season with five of them being call-ups with fewer than six games played. The point is that Hynes and Nasreddine both had access to mostly the same players.
This is not to say that there have not been changes from the performances of the players themselves. I have already covered the goaltenders, but both Blackwood and Domingue to far lesser extent have performed much better under Nasreddine than Hynes. Blackwood got hot under Nasreddine, which was a benefit for him and something that Hynes did not get to enjoy.
There is more to it than that too. Under Hynes, the Devils had Taylor Hall. Hall did not exactly dominate in his last few months in New Jersey. It is possible that the contract negotiations and subsequent failing of them may have contributed to his not-so-dominant performances. It is also possible that whatever he was asked to do by Hynes hindered his performance. It was not long after Nasreddine was made the interim head coach that Hall was traded. Hall played all of four games for Nasreddine, scratched for two pending a potential trade, and then was dealt away to Arizona on December 16. That could have been a killer for the Devils’ offense.
However, the Devils’ on-ice rates for creating attempts, shots, and scoring chances increased in 5-on-5 under Nasreddine. The team has increased their goal scoring rate scored more goals over all situations under Nasreddine. This was accomplished largely without Hall being in the organization anymore. That makes the increases more impressive. It does not make up the even larger increases in allowing attempts, shots, and chances in my view; but it does mean that the change in coaches may have helped out the offense more than it may seem.
It is tempting to think that Hall’s departure led to this increase in that several players reacted by stepping up their own game on offense. I can kind of buy that. After all, the team changed coaches on December 3 and traded the only MVP in franchise history less than two weeks later. That may have been a wake up call for a lot of others on the team. I can entertain that possibility. I would not agree that he held the offense back or the Devils overly deferred to Hall. Hall only plays on one line and one power play unit. The second and third lines failing to create or tilt the ice in the right really has nothing to do with Hall’s presence. I cannot square the non-intuitive circle that the Devils were one of the least prolific offenses in the NHL and Taylor Hall - the team’s leading scorer under Hynes with 21 points - was a cause of that. I think a bigger impact for the offense would be the emergence of Blake Coleman and the successful acclimation to the NHL by Nikita Gusev. Two players who have been very notable under Nasreddine’s first 26 games as Devils interim head coach and two players who hardly played with Hall this season.
Under Hynes, Coleman certainly was not bad. His production between the two coaches was about the same. He had nine goals and fourteen points under Hynes and ten goals and fifteen points under Nasreddine’s first 26 games. The big difference is in the shooting. Under Hynes, Coleman had 50 shots, 84 attempts, and 50 scoring chances in all situations. That was not bad. It yielded an 5.02 expected goals and Coleman out-produced that. Great. Under Nasreddine, the Pickle Maverick took it to another level. In those 26 games, Coleman took 114 shots, 157 attempts, and 92 scoring chances in all situations. It yielded an outstanding 8.83 expected goals and Coleman out-performed that as well. Those are numbers that are absolutely astounding. They rate among the most in the entire NHL from December 3, 2019 to February 4, 2020. Coleman had as many shots as Alex Ovechkin in this time frame and only Max Pacioretty had (seven) more. Only fifteen players took more shooting attempts than Coleman in this timeframe. Only thirteen players had more scoring chances. Only twenty players had a higher xG value. Coleman was legitimately one of the most individually offensive players in the entire NHL under Nasreddine. And only recently has he taken shifts on a power play. Hynes got good offensive value out of Coleman but not to this level.
This torrid production from Coleman had at least some impact on the on-ice rates too. In 5-on-5 play under Hynes, the Devils had a CF/60 of 49.31, a SF/60 of 30.15, and an xGF/60 of 1,98 when Coleman was on the ice. In 5-on-5 play under Nasreddine’s first 26 games, the Devils had a 63.03 CF/60, a SF/60 of 34.87, and an xGF/60 of 2.42 when Coleman was on the ice. Coleman was not so high up on the team in 5-on-5 play when Hynes was behind the bench. Under Nasreddine, he has become one of the best. That is a massive swing that makes Nasreddine look better than Hynes.
One of the reasons why Coleman has been so prolific is because he has had a common winger for much of his time under Nasreddine that continues to this day. On most bad teams, lines get shifted around a lot because they often do not work and whatever is working is not usually good enough since the team is bad. The Devils have an exception as Nasreddine has kept Gusev with Coleman and Travis Zajac. The trio has justified their stability by often being one of the Devils’ better lines in the run of play for a team that is often losing that battle in 5-on-5. Not to mention that they keep producing together.
Gusev’s production under Hynes was not all that bad. Five goals, twelve points, and 57 shots in all situations is not a lot but it is not nothing either. The big issue was that he was getting steamrolled in the NHL. He was absolutely lost on the ice in some games in October. He fully deserved to be scratched for a few games. In retrospect, he had to adjust to the pace of the NHL, the skill of his teammates, and learning what he could and could not do at this level. Under Hynes, it was often not pretty. His line in 5-on-5 play was in the bottom five on the team in several categories. But it would take time and it started to click for Gusev just as the coaching change was about to happen. It did not take long for Gusev, Zajac, and Coleman to click and Nasreddine has done well to not really touch that line unless absolutely necessary. He has benefited from Gusev having a better understanding of the league when he took over. Instead of leaning on the Nico Hischier line (usually Kyle Palmieri and Jesper Bratt), there was a second line to work with. Gusev and his playmaking absolutely helped Coleman create and take so many attempts and shots in 5-on-5, helping him be one of the most prolific attackers in the NHL in the last two months or so. Gusev was not at all shy himself about as many shots and chances (and he took 32 more attempts too) under Nasreddine in addition to putting up seven more points in all situations for 19 in 26 games. The bigger gain was in his on-ice rates. Gusev went from being one the worst 5-on-5 players on the team to being one of the best by February 4. While it helped to be on that line, he is no longer lost on the ice when he does not have the puck and he is not at all an anchor or a black hole like he was back in his first two months in the NHL.
In addition to improved goaltending, Nasreddine did get help from vastly better performances from Coleman and Gusev that helped offset the loss of Hall. And that the team’s on-ice rates for taking attempts, shots, and chances went up speaks a little more positively about what he has done. Of course, there are other changes in performances by Devils that play a role. We can go on and on about each one. But these stuck out to me beyond the whole thing with the goaltenders and it has helped Nasreddine whereas Hynes did not have the same benefits.
Back at the beginning of this post, I wrote that there are fans who believe there are some real positive gains under Nasreddine, fans who want nothing to do with Nasreddine beyond this season, and more cynical opinions noting how goaltending or some other factor sunk a coach beyond his skill set. My conclusion is that they are all right to a degree.
Hynes absolutely suffered from some really bad goaltending. Management made some changes and Hynes leaned on Blackwood as he was the least worst option at the time. Nasreddine played him about as much in his first 26 games and the main difference was that Blackwood got hot in the crease for him in a way that he never really did for Hynes. This led to a more successful penalty kill and reductions in goals against, two things that hurt Hynes enough to warrant his firing on December 2. Similarly, Coleman becoming a shot machine and Gusev showing that, yes, he is a good NHL winger were beneficial for Nasreddine and not Hynes even though the player’s success is likely more attributable to the player than the coach. (Neither coach benefited from good shooting or finishing, though.)
Those who believe the Devils are more fun or more competitive can back that up. The Devils have been more prolific in terms of creating offense under Nasreddine. The Devils may still be outscored by a large margin overall, but it has improved compared to what they were under Hynes with improvements in goals against, expected goals for, and goals for on special teams. Given that Hall was dealt away during this time period, that makes those improvements even more impressive as Nasreddine was without the team’s most talented forward that was available for Hynes’ entire tenure. Under Nasreddine, the Devils penalty kill has been more powerful with plenty of goals scored and legitimately going from great to elite in some respects. There were even some gains on the power play, albeit they may appear to be undercut when you look at the number of shorthanded goals allowed. Still, if you equate high-event hockey with fun, then that is another edge in favor of Nasreddine. If you equate the Devils going beyond regulation a few more times under Nasreddine than Hynes as a positive, then there is that too.
Those who think Nasreddine should remain as an interim head coach only has plenty of support for that too. The Devils under Hynes may have had a fairly unsucessful defense when it came to limiting attempts, shots, and chances. Under Nasreddine’s 26 games, the Devils have been among the very worst. So much so that it undercuts their gains on offense and the Devils now get out-performed in attempts, shots, scoring chances, and high-danger chances. The expected goals model also reflects poorly on the Devils under Nasreddine compared to the Devils under Hynes. It suggests a step back in performance regardless of the slightly better record and other gains noted in this post. Despite the improvement from the goaltenders - which is mostly MacKenzie Blackwood anyway - the Devils have given up such a high rate of shots and scoring chances against that they still come out deep in the red in goal differential. While there have been improvements in areas such as goals scored and allowed and the power play, the Devils remain in the bottom ten in the NHL in those areas. This suggests that the improvement made may not be that significant or even lasting - which does not reflect well on Nasreddine and his staff. Lastly, if the idea of firing Hynes was based around not getting the results with a 9-13-4 record, then Nasreddine’s 9-11-6 record should not be seen as him being a significant enough upgrade behind the bench to warrant the Devils to drop the interim tag.
Overall, this deep dive supports the main message in the title of this post. It is true that the 2019-20 Devils are different under Nasreddine compared to Hynes in as many games. In a number of respects, I think we can agree that they are better under Nasreddine than under Hynes. And I think we can agree that they are more interesting to watch; fun on some nights (like the last two games that were not considered in this post) and not as fun on others (like the last game in the data set for Nasreddine). But make no mistake. The Devils are still very much a Bad Team under either coach. They are still getting wrecked in the run of play in 5-on-5, their power play remains not that powerful, Blackwood can only do so much with the deluge of rubber he has faced, and the gains in offense - led by Coleman and Gusev’s emergence - are overshadowed by a worsening defense.
As a last point, I do not expect the Devils to suddenly become that much better from a statistical or even a standings point of view in the final month and a half of the season. Especially after the NHL Trade Deadline on February 25. I fully expect and hope for a different coaching staff; one that can recognize what they have on the roster and utilize their skills to the best of their abilities. Hynes and Nasreddine have not done that this season.
You have read my exhaustive look at both coaches in their 26-game runs with the Devils this season. Now it is your turn. Who has been the better coach for the Devils this season, Nasreddine or Hynes? What differences have you noticed between the two coaches? How do you think the Devils have changed - or not changed - between the two coaches? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the two coaches in the comments. Thank you for reading.