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When is Enough, Enough with Special Teams Coaches?

The New Jersey Devils special teams are struggling out of the gate this season, much like they did all of last season. When does someone step in and say that a change needs to be made?

Washington Capitals v New Jersey Devils Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

I don’t think anyone, whether a player, organization member, or fan of the New Jersey Devils, can be happy with how the team’s power play and penalty kill are doing right now. As of the end of NHL games last night, the Devils, out of 32 teams, rank 27th in each of the aforementioned categories. For a team that went out and acquired an entire top defensive pairing, a better backup goalie and additional forward support, those numbers are absolutely unacceptable. Injuries have understandably affected those totals for sure; not having Jack Hughes and MacKenzie Blackwood available for most/all of the team’s first 8 games hasn’t made things easy. However, what’s the excuse for everything else that has been going wrong with special teams?

With the limited success (or outright failure depending upon how harsh you want to be with the terminology) of the Devils’ special teams in recent years, it boils down to one of three issues: the personnel, the coaching, or a combination of both. While there have been some consistent names on the Devils’ special teams for a few years, there have also been a number of players both added and subtracted depending upon the season. So while deep down at the heart of this matter it could be a combination of coaches and players, I think the one constant, particularly for the past two seasons that is worth looking at, is the coaches.

The reason I say past two seasons is because that is the length of time that Mark Recchi has been a Devils assistant and in charge of running the team’s power play; Alain Nasreddine, meanwhile, has been here quite a bit longer and in charge of the penalty kill for his entire tenure. While I will be looking over individual failings of the power play and the penalty kill, I want to mention from the outset that the team has struggled for years with getting set up on the power play and on denying opposing teams their setup on the PK. This is why I’m focusing more the coaching, because the struggles seem to be based more on systems rather than players.

The power play under Mark Recchi has just not found its groove, even with a training camp and preseason in his second season here with the Devils. While it overall may still be a bit early in his tenure to truly evaluate his effectiveness, his inability to get the Devils PP to even league average has to be considered disappointing. Of note should be that just prior to his contract not being renewed with the Penguins, his team’s PP tumbled from top 5 the past two seasons into league average territory. While the Devils certainly don’t have the firepower of those Penguins squads (who were arguably cup contenders at the time), they have quite a few more talented players than some of the teams who are well in front of them in power play success.

Nasreddine meanwhile has been worse than Recchi in my opinion. A holdover from the John Hynes years, Nas has struggled to get the PK on track while under Lindy Ruff. While there’s no Travis Zajac or Andy Greene among the players he can choose from anymore, a PK success rate of 71% consistently so far for the past two seasons is going to contribute to a team losing games more often than not. The reason I say Nasreddine has been worse is that the team’s defending as a whole, not just on the PK, has regressed under him the past couple of seasons. There has to be some legitimate concern from ownership (or somebody among the higher ups) that the lack of defensive structure is costing this team games. While the occasional ghastly mistake can cost a team a point or two at times, it happens all too often under Nas.

I don’t think asking for league median at this point would be too much from either coach, yet at the same time this would see the PP improve roughly 7% and the PK improve about 10%! That’s a monumental difference over the term of a full season. Speaking of “full season” I think that might be the answer to the question posed at the start of this article, especially for Nasreddine due to his tenure and the limited results it has produced. If things do not improve prior to the end of this campaign and/or if the Devils miss the playoffs, I think that there will be some changes among the assistants prior to 2022-23.

What are your thoughts on the team’s assistants and their special teams coaching? Do you think that a shortened season plus the eight games so far in 2021-22 are enough to evaluate their effectiveness or not? Do you think changes will be made next season if this season goes poorly? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!