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The Pros and Cons of the New Jersey Devils Keeping Alain Nasreddine

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As Mark Recchi was being hired by the New Jersey Devils, word came out that Alain Nasreddine will be kept by the team as an assistant coach, a role he served the team since 2015. This post goes over the pros and cons of the team keeping Nasreddine.

New Jersey Devils v Detroit Red Wings
Pros. Cons. Nasreddine. Indeed.
Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images

In the wake of the news that Mark Recchi was hired as an assistant coach by the New Jersey Devils last week, Randy Miller had additional news regarding the coaching staff at NJ.com:

Ruff was hired on July 10 succeed interim head coach Alain Nasreddine, who will return to an assistant role next season coaching the Devils’ defensemen and their penalty-kill unit.

The Devils still have at least two coaching openings to fill because assistants Rick Kowalsky and Mike Grier, and goaltender coach Roland Melanson will not return next season. The contracts for all three expired after the 2019-20 season. The Devils have been in talks with Kowalsky and Grier to remain in the organization with new roles.

As of this writing, New Jersey’s coaching staff is Lindy Ruff as the head coach with Recchi and Nasreddine as assistants. Given that Recchi was primarily in charge of the power play in Pittsburgh, it is reasonable to think he is replacing Kowalsky. Melanson will be replaced by a goaltending coach. I am not too sure what Grier did so I am not sure who the team will look for as his replacement. I do not know if Peter Horachek, who was called up from being a scout to be an assistant under Nasreddine last season, has returned to scouting or whether his spot will be replaced. All the same, there will be some new faces behind the bench. In the interim, I want to focus on Nasreddine being kept by the Devils.

While further changes may be coming, there will be at least two members of the staff that were with the Devils since the start of the Ray Shero Era in 2015. Tom Fitzgerald was an assistant GM under Shero and did interview for full-time GM positions in the past. He had the interim tag removed as of July 9, 2020. During the press conference that formally announced Fitzgerald’s new position, Nasreddine was specifically highlighted by Fitzgerald as one of the penalty killing coaches in the league. Now we know he is returning to that role as an assistant coach, a role he served since 2015 along with Hynes.

Is it a good thing that Nasreddine is being retained by the organization? Is it a good thing that Nasreddine may be returning to running the PK and organizing the blueline? Let us consider the pros and cons of this decision.

Pro: The Penalty Kill was Legitimately Elite

When fans defend or discuss Nasreddine, it is common that the PK is brought up. The Devils’ penalty kill has been very good. It is arguably the only thing about the Devils that has been consistently good over the last five seasons. However, is that perception or is that reality? I went to NHL.com and Natural Stat Trick to check out the team’s success rate on shorthanded situations and the team’s against rate stats.

Devils Penalty Killing Stats 2014-2020. Bold numbers ranked in the Top 10 in the NHL for that season.
Devils Penalty Killing Stats 2014-2020. Bold numbers ranked in the Top 10 in the NHL for that season.
Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com

It is very much reality. I included 2014-15 - the last season before Nasreddine joined the organization - for context. You can see legitimate improvements in the against rate stats from that season over the following five seasons where Nasreddine was in the organization. The against rate stats speaks to how well the Devils’ penalty killers performed. There was a big improvement from 2014-15 to 2015-16 in the rate stats. After a not-so-good 2016-17, the team has made even bigger strides in terms of limiting shooting attempts, shots, and scoring chances when down a man. The team’s expected goals against rate went down and so did the actual goals against rate, goaltending permitting. As a result, the penalty kill success rate has been very good. Except for the 2016-17 season, the Devils had a top-ten penalty kill in terms of success rate. Since Nasreddine was in charge those units as an assistant, he deserves credit and accolades for that.

Of all five seasons, the most interesting one to me is the 2019-20 season. I split that one up between his time as an assistant (23 games) and as interim head coach (43 games). You can see that the penalty kill success rate was quite low in those first 23 games. The problem was not the penalty killers in terms of what they were allowing. They were doing their job well. Their process was fine. The issue was in the crease. The goalies just let them down. An 81.13% save percentage in shorthanded situations is terrible and not even the most elite group of skaters can over come that. However, Mackenzie Blackwood righted his past wrongs in many of those 43 games when Nasreddine took over for Hynes. As he got hot, the penalty kill followed. New Jersey’s success rate shot up by a remarkable 11.5% and it was the best in the league from December 3, 2019 to March 11, 2020. It is a great example of how bad goaltending can sink an otherwise excellent PK unit.

What is also curious is that the penalty killers could be argued to be even a bit better when Nasreddine was the interim head coach. The Devils did allow a few more scoring chances as indicated by the higher rates of SCA/60 and HDCA/60. However, they came along with a massive drop in shot attempts (CA/60) and shots (SA/60). The reduction of shots and attempts helped yield an even lower expected goals against rate, which further supports the idea that one of the best penalty killing teams in the league improved while Nasreddine was head coach. This makes me wonder: How involved was Nasreddine with respect to the PK for those 43 games?

Most head coaches delegate special teams duties to assistants. However, they still have a say in those areas as they are ultimately in charge of the bench. As Nasreddine was an interim head coach after serving four and a quarter seasons running the defense and the PK, it is possible Nasreddine still had a hand in that. It is also possible that he did delegate the role to someone else - Grier? Horachek? - but significant changes were not needed or advised. Back then, the Devils’ PK really just needed some saves. They were golden once they got some. Keeping it status quo was the way to go. So even if the role was delegated, I do not think it matters that much. From what I recall, not much changed with the penalty kill outside of Blackwood playing like one of the best goalies in the league. Nasreddine’s influence from past seasons was still there. The PK still ran a wedge-plus-one. The skaters chosen worked well off of each other. Even after Andy Greene and Blake Coleman were traded, the Devils’ PK was still fantastically successful. The system for shorthanded situations very much worked.

While there are still some question marks in terms of personnel, I think the wedge-plus-one approach and their current nuances has been very effective. I do not think you could ask for much more from an assistant coach with respect to the penalty kill than what Nasreddine has done for the past five seasons. Therefore, bringing him back for the PK is a very good thing to do.

Con: The Team Defense was Legitimately Terrible in 5-on-5

I wish I could say the same for the defense in 5-on-5 hockey. I do not fully grasp how this could be. Relative to the rest of the NHL, the Devils were awesome at keeping other teams from running them over when they were down a man. Yet, when both teams each have five on the ice, the Devils were wrecked in the run of play. I have made a very big deal of this when Nasreddine was the interim head coach; the last Devils month in review is a great example of how terrible they were. As this is about defense and per Miller’s report, Nasreddine will be in charge of the defense again, let us take a closer look at the team’s against rate stats for the past five seasons.

Devils 5-on-5 Against Rate Stats 2014-2020. Bold numbers ranked in the Top 10 in the NHL for that season.
Devils 5-on-5 Against Rate Stats 2014-2020. Bold numbers ranked in the Top 10 in the NHL for that season.
Natural Stat Trick

The Devils went from having a very solid defense in the season before Hynes and Nasreddine arrived in New Jersey to having one of the worst in the league by the pandemic-shortened end of last season. This was not an overnight change. You can see that 2017-18 was a kind of a tipping point in the decline. It was worse than the prior two seasons and it would get only worse from then onward.

The only area the Devils did well in compared to other teams was in preventing the rate of high danger scoring chances - which are primarily in the slot and at the crease. (Aside: Yes, the Devils rated well in this category in spite of a perceived lack of size, grit, nastiness, size, beef, etc. Spare me your claim that the Devils are “too small” on defense to defend the slot.) Even that tumbled outside of the top ten after Nasreddine took over for Hynes and the team finished around the league median in that stat when you take the whole season into account. As great as it is to have a low HDCA/60 rate, it really does not mean that much if the team is among the league’s worst in the other stats as the Devils grew to be. Keeping the other team out of the crease and the slot rings hollow if they are dominating and succeeding in the other areas of the ice. Not to mention that Combined with their goaltending issues and the Devils have given up a lot of goals in recent seasons. So much so that they have not had an actual GA/60 below their expected GA/60 since 2014-15. That happened even in the few cases where the Devils had decent goaltending in 5-on-5 hockey. In short, the defense has declined in a big way over the last five seasons. Nasreddine was in charge of that and that is not good at all.

Two issues related to the players do come to mind. First and foremost, team defense is everyone’s responsibility - it is not just for the defensemen. Yes, defensemen by their position are in charge of that. However, the current NHL game demands that everyone contribute in both ends of the rink to find success. Forwards that cannot support their defensemen by being available for breakouts, battling for pucks along the side walls, and rotating to a position as someone else moves in the zone do not last long in this league. Older Devils fans like myself witnessed the Devils’ neutral zone trap being superior to most other teams in the mid-1990s because every player had to contribute to it. If the current Devils have forwards that are not good off the puck - and they do - then they either need to learn or get some forwards who can to replace them.

Second, it is true that the Devils’ blueline personnel is not that good. The team leaned a lot on Andy Greene throughout this last decade. When he was in his early 30s, this was more than fine as he was a boss. However, Father Time always wins. Greene’s decline on the ice became increasingly apparent and yet the coaching staff still made him play significant minutes on a first pairing. Management did not seek out a replacement and only now do they have to since Greene was traded away. While the Devils did bring in Sami Vatanen, Will Butcher, and P.K. Subban over the recent seasons to play a significant role, their success has been mixed. Depth acquisitions - and I include Mirco Mueller in this - have not yielded solid enough support to lean on. There is no traditional #1 defenseman to lean on. While it is not a requirement for success - see the 2019-20 Islanders - it would be a tremendous help.

These two come to mind when I see takes like this from Devils fans regarding Nasreddine. (Note to @DevilsInsiders, this is not a slam against you, it just best represents this sentiment.)

Ah, the old chicken-and-egg argument for sports and coaches. Is it the Jimmy’s and the Joe’s, or the X’s and O’s?

I would be sympathetic to this opinion if Nasreddine just finished his first or second season with New Jersey. However, Nasreddine is not some fresh-faced newcomer who just had to deal with the cards he was given. He has worked with Hynes for years and joined the Devils shortly after Hynes did. It is a fair assumption If Nasreddine did not think he had the right players, then he needed to go to Hynes to tell him he needs defensemen with different and certain skillsets. From there, Hynes can communicate that up to Shero, who was rebuilding the team for much of the last five seasons to try to get those players. Perhaps this was done behind the scenes and perhaps it was done multiple times over the last five seasons. If it was not, well, that is partially on Nasreddine. You often do not get help you do not ask for.

However, the answer if the X’s and O’s are not suitable for the Jimmy’s and the Joe’s you do have and you’re not getting the Jimmy’s and Joe’s you do want, then you need to change your X’s and O’s. I do not think Nasreddine did so in an effective way for the better part of the last five seasons. If Nasreddine did that as the team’s against rate stats became worse, then that’s on Nasreddine. At least partially so. Further, if Nasreddine delegated this task as an interim head coach last season, then he clearly delegated it to the wrong person - which does not reflect well on Nasreddine or what he has accomplished before.

I have to go back to the pro of the penalty kill. Again, the Devils were fantastic in shorthanded situations. There is ample evidence of that. That supports bringing Nasreddine back for that role. I cannot fully understand how the team falls apart defensively when they have five skaters on the ice. The evidence is clear of that as well. Therefore, I think it is fair to question bringing Nasreddine back to be in charge of the defense. I totally agree the Devils need to bring in better players on defense. I also agree that it would be great if Ty Smith or Kevin Bahl or someone in the system can show they are a NHLer very soon because the team does need help. I do not agree that Nasreddine’s approach to the blueline will then be successful because the last five seasons have shown he has not been with the players he did have and get to know real well.

I also think this con is bigger than the pro. In just about every NHL game, teams play more 5-on-5 hockey than they are shorthanded. Yes, there will be games where you need the PK to play a lot and do well. Even then, a heavy night for the PK would be somewhere around eight to twelve minutes per game. Teams will play much more than that with each team having five skaters each. Therefore, I think this is a bigger concern for the Devils in general as an issue to solve. Based on the past five seasons of evidence, I am not confident in the solution if Nasreddine will return to be responsible for at least part of it.

Pro: Continuity

Generally, when a team names a new general manager and/or a new head coach, there are a lot of changes in personnel. The Devils are in a slightly different situation. Fitzgerald and Nasreddine have been with the team since 2015. Both outlast the people who brought them to New Jersey, Ray Shero and John Hynes, respectively. What this means is that they have the experiences of what happened over the last five seasons to learn from. This means that both are in a better position to avoid past mistakes and repeat things that did go well since they lived through both for the last half-decade.

It is also a benefit to a fairly young New Jersey Devils team to have at least one familiar face on the bench when training camp starts back up. Many players currently on the roster for next season have only had Hynes as a head coach in this league. These players include: Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Nikita Gusev, Miles Wood, Pavel Zacha, Will Butcher, Michael McLeod, Jesper Bratt, Joey Anderson, Jesper Boqvist, and Mackenzie Blackwood. They can at least know one of the members of next season’s coaching staff and know how to best communicate and work with. While they will have to develop working relationships with Ruff, Recchi, and the other incoming assistants, they are not going to be starting from scratch. That will help them out as they get up to speed for whenever training camp for 2020-21 begins and throughout the season.

It will also help Ruff and the other staff members out from not having to start from scratch. Nasreddine can provide personal experience as to what did and did not work over the past five seasons, assuming he understands what did and did not work then. It can help guide Ruff towards ideas that could help the team and away from ideas that have failed in the past and would likely fail again. He can also help Ruff and the other assistants form relationships with the players since the he already knows most of the players on the roster for the upcoming season. While Kowalsky or Grier could do the same, Nasreddine has much more experience in New Jersey with both so the continuity impact would be bigger with Nasreddine than the other staffers.

I think this idea of continuity is an underrated one and it can help make some things easier as the Devils transition to however Ruff wants the team to play.

Cons: But Is the Experience Necessary and What Does It Mean for the Team?

While I think it is a positive, I can understand those who question if it means all that much. Sure, Ruff and Recchi are new to the Devils franchise. However, both have been in the league either as a coach or a player or both for a very long time. Both have dealt with all kinds of situations on and off the ice with all kinds of different expectations and circumstances. Both have worked with all kinds of players and skillsets. I doubt much would surprise them given their decades in hockey. To that end, I can see some fans asking: Do they need that bridge from the past regime? Nasreddine providing continuity may help initially but beyond that, it may not be an actual benefit as time goes on.

Likewise, while there will be a familiar face behind the bench for the players, they need to adjust and learn to work with new staffers anyway. Most professional athletes deal with coaching changes and have to learn with developing new relationships with their coaches. There will be a learning process regardless of how many people from the past are present. Again, Nasreddine being there may help initially, but as the first season goes on, it may not provide much of a benefit.

And what does it say for the perception of the organization that Nasreddine is retained? Shero’s building did not take the Devils to being a playoff regular again. Hynes was given over four years and the team arguably did not play well in most of them. Both were fired, but their assistants remain. This would be fine if the assistants show that they can handle the job and arguably better than their predecessors. I hope they do. However while Fitzgerald is somewhat of an unknown as a full-time GM, we already know what Nasreddine was like as an assistant coach based on the on-ice results. The PK he was in charge of became amazing and the defense he was in charge of became awful over time. Is this good enough to stick around? For the PK, sure, but also the defense? How? I would not want the Devils to become a franchise where one off season or one cold streak is the end of a coach’s job. Yet, it would be totally justifiable to have a new set of eyes and a new mind to work with the defense based on the last five seasons. It would send the message that we do expect changes for the better. Retaining Nasreddine send the opposite. That does not seem like building up an organization to me. I wonder how the players and potential free agents see it.

What I Would Like to See & Your Take

If it were up to me and me alone, then I would call an audible about Nasreddine’s role. I would have him be in charge of the PK and not in full control of the defense. For that, I would like to see a second assistant coach, someone with not as much experience but has plenty of fresh ideas, to be in charge of the defense with Nasreddine. This would allow Nasreddine to continue working in an area where has had plenty of proven success. This would also allow some different concepts for a defense that really could use them since the ones from the last five seasons have not been effective. While this would means that the Devils have to pay for an extra staffer or double up someone else’s role, this is entirely possible. There is a salary cap for players, but not coaches and staffers. I think the Devils would be wise to recognize that fact and act accordingly. However, it is just my idea to make the best of this situation.

At the end of the day, I want the same thing as you: a better New Jersey Devils team. I would love to be proven wrong by Nasreddine and see a better team defense for next season. I just currently question whether it is a good idea to bring him back. As good as the PK was, that alone may not be enough to warrant retention in his role given how bad the defense has become. As much as I can appreciate continuity behind the bench for various reasons, I do understand that it may not mean much in the bigger scheme of things. I am not as positive about this as I was about the decision to hire Recchi. It is what it is.

To that end, I now want to know what you think. What is your reaction to the Devils retaining Alain Nasreddine as an assistant coach? Do you like the decision to keep him? Would you rather him be in a different role instead of keeping the one he had? How do you think this will impact the decisions for the other coaches? What would you do if you were in charge? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Alain Nasreddine in the comments.