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The Devils Still Need to Choose a Permanent Coach. Who Should it Be?

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As the Devils offseason has officially gotten underway with the cancelation of the remainder of their 2019-20 season, they remain without a permanent head coach. Assuming the Devils do choose to actually have a full-time coach again at some point, who should they go with? A rundown of the most prominent candidates follows.

Vegas Golden Knights v New Jersey Devils Photo by Jim McIsaac/NHLI via Getty Images

Now that the Devils 2019-20 season is officially over, some of the lingering questions about the organization will need answering at some point. Most urgently, there are two vacancies that remain in two of the most crucial positions on the team: a permanent general manager and a permanent head coach heading into the 2020-21 season (whenever that actually happens). The Devils have had an interim head coach in Alain Nasreddine since John Hynes’ firing in December and an interim GM in Tom Fitzgerald since Ray Shero’s firing in January. The Devils have reportedly interviewed a number of people for both positions, but a clear path forward for the organization won’t be in place until the team makes a decision on who is calling the shots both in the front office and behind the bench.

Today, we will focus on the coaching candidates, sticking for the most part to the ones who have been rumored and connected to the team most frequently. As it stands, Alain Nasreddine remains the Devils’ head coach at the moment, though he continues to bear the interim tag. The organization has reportedly been talking to a number of outside candidates for the job, though, so it seems likely that the team will go in another direction, especially considering that Nasreddine has been party to the failure of the Devils rebuild 1.0 over the past five years. So with that in mind, let’s start running through the candidates for the job.

Gerard Gallant

NHL Head Coaching Record (W-L-OTL): 270-216-51

Current Position: Free Agent

Most Recent NHL Head Coaching Position: Vegas Golden Knights

Coaching Background: Gerard Gallant has been one of the most prominently mentioned coaching candidates over the past five months, ever since he was fired by the Vegas Golden Knights back in January (I did a deeper dive on him as a candidate back then). Gallant was just 18 months removed from leading one of the most stunning Stanley Cup Final runs in history behind the bench of a first-year expansion team, but he became a victim of the expectations that came with his success. After a Game 7 loss in the first round of the 2019 playoffs almost as stunning as the pervious years Cup run (the Golden Knights blew a 3-0 lead in the third period by allowing 4 goals on the same [questionably called] major penalty), some of that goodwill from 2018 was erased. In 2019-20 the Golden Knights stumbled a bit out of the gate and never really found a footing as firm as they had in the previous seasons. They were still in the thick of the playoff race in January, but success breeds impatience sometimes and after a four-game skid that dropped the team out of the second wild card by the slimmest of margins (ROW tiebreaker), Vegas abruptly showed their franchise’s first coach the door.

Despite their middling position in the standings, the numbers pointed to Vegas still being one of the stronger teams in the league under Gallant’s guidance. Generally speaking, over the past several years, Gallant has done very good work in places where good work is traditionally tough to do. He did the unprecedented with the expansion Golden Knights in his first season and he led the Panthers to their best-ever regular season record and only 100-point season in history in the second of his two full seasons there. In the four full seasons he has coached in the past six years, Gallant never finished with fewer than 90 points with the Knights (again, expansion team) or the Panthers (who are the Panthers). That Gallant was rather unceremoniously given the boot in both instances is a bit perplexing, but the results speak for themselves and neither exit was really tied to any misconduct, just front offices itching to go in a different direction for whatever reason.

Given his penchant for getting very good results in surprising places of late (he did have an earlier less successful run in Columbus, though even that stacks up decently against the seasons that came before and after), Gallant has seemingly had the most vocal support as a candidate among the Devils fanbase since he came available in January.

A Quick Take: Gallant, like most NHL HC candidates, is a retread to an extent, but he also has exited under abrupt/surprising conditions in both of his last stops, rather than fully wearing out his welcome. The job he was able to do with Vegas in 2017-18 was incredible, considering the circumstances and even when the team slipped this year, the underlying numbers pointed to a situation where the team was much better than its standings position and likely would have been just fine without a coaching change. The Devils feel like a slightly rudderless team at the moment and Gallant’s last two stops point to someone who can get results, even when conditions aren’t ideal.

Rickard Grönborg

NHL Head Coaching Record: N/A

Current Position: Head Coach of ZSC Lions (NLA - Switzerland)

Most Recent NHL Head Coaching Position: N/A

Coaching Background: Rickard Grönborg is a name that has gotten a lot of attention for NHL vacancies, despite no prior NHL experience to this point (and a candidate the Devils have reportedly reached out to in some capacity). Grönborg is currently the head coach for the ZSC Lions of the top Swiss league, the NLA, where he took over and led the team to the top of the standings in the truncated 2019-20 season after the team was nearly relegated the season prior. Before jumping to professional hockey in Switzerland, Grönborg was and assistant in the NCAA, AWHL (Tier II American junior league that merged with NAHL in 2003), and WHL before joining Sweden’s international team as a scout and ultimately working his way up to head coach in the junior and then men’s ranks.

As a member of Team Sweden, Gronborg has made his name in the international hockey community. Grönborg spent three years as head coach of the Sweden U-18 team from 2010-11 to 2012-13, picking up two silver medals in that time. He then moved up to the head coach position of Sweden’s U-20 team from 2013-14 to 2015-16, picking up a silver medal in his first season before finishing fourth in the following two. After 2015-16, Grönborg then moved up to the head coach position for the Swedish Men’s National Team, starting with the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, where Sweden won their group but fell in the semifinal to Team Europe. After the WCOH, Grönborg went on to coach three IIHF World Championships teams, picking up gold in his first two seasons before a quarterfinal exit in 2019, as well as Sweden’s 2018 Olympics team, where they were the only team to advance with a perfect record out of the group stage before being stunned by the upstart German team in the quarterfinals.

Overall, the results of his run on the international stage are solid and the work that he did in his first season in the NLA seems to be strong from an outsider’s view, the question on Grönborg is how his coaching style will translate to the best league in the world. He wouldn’t be the first or last coaching candidate to jump straight to the NHL with no prior NHL experience as an assistant and he has plenty of experience as a head coach from international play, but he really just has this past season in terms of head coaching a team with a normal full season schedule, let alone a team of professionals.

A Quick Take: Gronborg is an interesting candidate, but you do have to wonder if the hype is warranted. His head coaching experience beyond the international stage is pretty limited and while he has some good results from over the years with various Teams Sweden, it’s not like he’s dealing with a barren talent pool. Gronborg feels like a risky hire to me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’d be a bad one. The turnaround he led for his team in the NLA is at least pretty encouraging.

Alain Nasreddine

NHL Head Coaching Record: 19-16-8

Current Position: Head Coach of New Jersey Devils (interim)

Most Recent NHL Head Coaching Position: New Jersey Devils (interim)

I include Nasreddine here because the fact that the Devils have yet to officially part ways with him means he’s still in the running in some manner. While it’s possible Nasreddine remains in the position, the odds seem much greater that the Devils will go outside of the organization for their answer behind the bench. Nasreddine’s results this season were not quite as underwhelming as his fired mentor/predecessor, but they were also not particularly good from a W-L perspective and downright brutal if you dug any deeper into the numbers. Nasreddine provided a bit of a jolt to the Devils on the offensive side of the puck, but it came at the expense of any semblance of defensive structure. The Devils were among the worst in the league in expected goals against under Nasreddine, but were buoyed by strong goaltending, most notably a spectacular February from Mackenzie Blackwood. As far as tryouts go, I’m not sure Nasreddine’s was a convincing one.

A Quick Take: I think the Devils have to move on from Nasreddine. If the ownership group was dissatisfied with the previous regime’s results, I’m not sure how much confidence keeping people from that regime in place should inspire. I think the Devils need a clean break and a new direction on the ice whenever hockey does finally return to Newark. Perhaps Nasreddine has an NHL head coaching future in him, I’m just not sure we need to be the guinea pig for that question anymore.

Peter Laviolette

NHL Head Coaching Record: 637-425-123 (plus 25 ties [pre-2004])

Current Position: Free Agent

Most Recent NHL Head Coaching Position: Nashville Predators

Coaching Background: Peter Laviolette has been a head coach in the NHL in one place or another for what now feels like 100 years. In truth, Laviolette’s head coaching record spans 18 seasons, and while he has been fired four times over that run, he has been the head coach of an NHL team for at least a portion of every one of the last 18 seasons. Never without work long, Laviolette has a pretty strong track record of success and, while he has detractors within the stats community and a coaching style that rarely sets the world on fire, on some level, it’s tough to argue with the results.

Laviolette has coached four separate teams (Islanders, Hurricanes, Flyers, and Predators) over the past 18 seasons, and he has taken three of those to the Stanley Cup Final, winning in his trip with Carolina in 2006. The results haven’t necessarily been uninterrupted success, though. Of those 18 seasons, he has made the playoffs in 11 of them. He never returned to the playoffs in Carolina after winning the Cup and also missed in his last full season in Philly before being canned just three games into the following one. He actually did not miss the playoffs in his tenure in Nashville, but was on the outside looking in when he was fired in January. Overall, though, he has gotten solid results in a variety of places.

A Quick Take: Like most coaches, he has worn out his welcome after several years at most of his stops and some of the metrics that are trying to isolate coaching impact are pretty lukewarm on him, but overall, he’s the type of candidate where if the Devils ended up hiring him, I think you’d have to shrug your shoulders and say, “sure, this could work,” even if he’s not necessarily your guy.

John Stevens

NHL Head Coaching Record: 171-148-43

Current Position: Dallas Stars Assistant Coach

Most Recent NHL Head Coaching Position: Los Angeles Kings

Coaching Background: John Stevens is one of the few candidates outside of Gerard Gallant and Alain Nasreddine that we’ve actually had confirmation has been formally interviewed and is a candidate for the job, though his candidacy felt slightly out of left field for me when first reported. Stevens has had a couple stints as a head coach, and while the track record is limited, the results are decent enough.

He coached the Flyers from 2006-07 to the start of 2009-10. He took over after Ken Hitchcock was fired following a 1-6-1 start in 2006, but was unable to improve on that start very much, finishing the season 21-42-11 in his 74 games. He’d bounce back in the following season, though, guiding the Flyers to the playoffs where they’d get to the conference final before bowing out to Pittsburgh. He made the playoffs again in 2008-09 but was again shown the door by the Penguins and then was removed 25 games into the 2009-10 season (Laviolette took over and went to the Cup Final with that team).

After exiting Philly, Stevens caught on with the LA Kings as an assistant under Terry Murray. When Murray was fired in 2011-12, Stevens spend four games as interim head coach before the team made the fateful hiring of Darryl Sutter, whose suffocating brand of hockey would help propel the Kings to two Stanley Cups over the next three years (one, of course, at the expense of the Devils). Stevens remained behind the bench as an assistant to Sutter through the end of Sutter’s tenure in 2017. Stevens was then promoted to head coach in the summer of 2017, this time as the permanent one. Stevens would get into the playoffs in his one full season coaching the Kings before getting waxed 4-0 by the expansion Golden Kinghts in the opening round. Stevens would not survive a rough start to the following season, getting fired after opening 4-8-1.

Overall, Stevens only has a couple glaringly bad seasons behind the bench, his first in Philly and then the bad start that led to his firing with the most recent version of the Kings. He also has never led a team to a 100-point season though. He also spent some time as head coach of Philadelphia’s AHL team before joining their NHL club, with pretty decent success including a Calder Cup in 2005. Stevens recent run as a head/assistant coach of a Kings team that preferred to squeeze the life out of teams as opposed to relying on offense or dynamic playmaking has cemented the perception of him as a defensive coach, though his Flyers teams were fairly dynamic in a couple of his seasons there.

A Quick Take: I’m not big on Stevens as a candidate, though I see the allure in going after a guy with more of a defensive reputation to try and fix the woes on the back end for this squad. Coaching the 2010s Kings and the 2020s Devils are two vastly different exercises, though. Stevens is fine, but I think there are some better candidates as well as some more intriguing ones, if the Devils are looking to break the mold, out there.

Summing Up

The five candidates touched on here, I would say they are just the five most prevalent names that have been connected to the Devils, or floated by writers/fans. It’s possible the selection comes from outside of this group. The Devils could dip into the CHL or NCAA ranks or look at more assistants/AHL coaches from other organizations. It seems decently likely that the coach does come from the above group, though.

Among these candidates, I’d say I’m partial to Gallant at this point (as you may have gathered by my quick takes on each). He got a bit of a raw deal when he was fired in each of his last two spots in my estimation, and I think his particular brand of hockey would bring a bit of structure to a team that badly needs it, without hamstringing some of the more talented players. If I have a second tier of options, it’s probably Laviolette and Gronborg, probably in that order. Laviolette feels like the low-risk old standby and Gronborg certainly has some question marks but is at least intriguing and seems well-regarded on the international stage. Beyond them, I’m less enamored with Stevens and I think the one outcome I’d really prefer not to see is the team continuing on with Nasreddine.

What are your thoughts on the coaching search? Which are your preferred candidates? Are there coaches not on this list you’d like to see the Devils go after? Sound off with your thoughts below and thanks for reading.