Today, Kevin Weekes of ESPN went out, stood in front of a fountain in West New York, and announced some breaking news. Andrew Brunette has been hired by the Nashville Predators to be their head coach. Pierre LeBrun quickly corroborated the news among other updates for teams looking for coaches. Ex Devils-head coach John Hynes is out in Nashville. In comes now-former New Jersey Devils associate head coach Andrew Brunette to be just the fourth head coach in Nashville history - as well as Barry Trotz’s first major personnel decision as general manager.
That Brunette has left the Devils for a head coaching job is probably not too much of a surprise. He was brought in as an associate head coach last Summer with the likely possibility that he would take over for Lindy Ruff after 2022-23, which was the final season in Ruff’s contract. However, the Devils were so unexpectedly awesome in 2022-23 that it made more sense for the Devils to keep Ruff. The moment GM Tom Fitzgerald confirmed that Ruff would remain behind the bench in New Jersey was the moment that Brunette was likely going to be courted for a head coaching position. Which made sense. His work as interim head coach for Florida was great and combined with his past experiences, it was more of a matter of when he will be a NHL head coach and not if he would become one. Again, it is a positive sign for an organization when others want to possibly hire their staffers.
The surprising bit is Nashville. If there were rumors about Trotz wanting someone else behind the bench, then they certainly were not loud. It was true that Brunette had been contacted by Anaheim and Columbus. The coaching searches in Manhattan and Calgary have certainly been public. Washington even decided to hire
Stephen Carbury Spencer Carbery today. What this means is that John Hynes is now suddenly out of a job and now in a pool with fewer open spots. Maybe New York goes after him. Maybe Columbus or Anaheim adds him. Say what you want about Hynes, but there was nothing stopping Trotz from at least telling Hynes that the Preds were going to go in another direction earlier than today. This way Hynes can at least prepare for this situation for a little bit. Alas, it is what it is.
(Aside: No, I do not believe the Devils will get any compensation for Brunette being hired. That rule went away in the NHL years ago.)
Now is the perfect time to look back at what Brunette did in New Jersey since his spot may need to be replaced now. Brunette was primarily in charge of the power play as well as working with the Devils forwards. It is hard to gauge how much of the latter impacted the Devils. But given that several Devils had great seasons in terms of both production and 5-on-5 on-ice metrics, I would have to think Brunette was at least a positive factor. I find it hard to believe he only did the power play. Even there, it was a dramatic upgrade in the regular season over Mark Recchi’s statuesque approach to the 1-3-1. Here are some team stats between 2021-22 and 2022-23.
- Power Play Success Rate: 15.6% (35 for 225, 28th) to 21.9% (49 for 224, 13th)
- Shorthanded Goals Against: 14 (32nd) to 8 (t-17th)
- Corsi For/60: 85.71 (29th) to 106.47 (12th)
- Shots For/60: 42.93 (32nd) to 58.52 (10th)
- Scoring Chances For/60: 51.2 (21st) to 65.56 (9th)
- High Danger Chances For/60: 15.9 (31st) to 26.16 (13th)
- Expected Goals/60: 5.65 (30th) to 8.61 (10th)
- Actual Goals/60: 5.72 (26th) to 8.22 (12th)
The 2022-23 Devils power play did have some real issues. They were heavily reliant on their first unit scoring as the second unit barely did. Gaining the zone proved to be a challenge against teams who would stack the blueline. Even if the Devils got the puck into the zone with a carry, the first or second pass afterward would be preyed upon to deny the attack. Winning that opening faceoff for power plays became important for the Devils if zone entries and breakout plays were an issue that night. And aggressive penalty killing teams - like Our Hated Rivals and Carolina - could put the Devils power play under enough pressure to deny them offense. The latter was a bigger problem in the playoffs when the Devils played Our Hated Rivals and Carolina, two very good and aggressive penalty killing teams. It is undeniably true that the Devils’ power play was lacking any real power in either series as they went just 6-for-36 (16.7%, 13th among playoff teams) across both rounds. Given that was the most visible thing Brunette did and it was largely invisible in playoff games, I can see how many of the People Who Matter may not think Brunette was all that important or that his power play work was not that good.
I disagree. Because of the points I just put up. Recchi was that bad as the one in charge of the Devils’ power play in 2021-22 and even prior to that in the shortened 2021 campaign. The Devils had statistically one of the least effective power play units in the entire NHL. Most teams use a 1-3-1 formation; but the Recchi-coached power plays had somewhere between 3 to 5 Devils literally standing still when they got set up in the offensive zone. And on many nights, it was a real question as to if they got set up in the offensive zone. Under Brunette, the Devils were legitimately more threatening on their power plays. They went from generating relatively small amounts of offense during man advantages to relatively larger ones - touching the top-ten in the whole NHL in some categories. Even with reliance on one unit and issues against PKs that stack the blueline and/or swarm the edges of the 1-3-1, the Devils’ power play was able to generate more attempts, more shots, and more chances. This led to what we want to see on power plays: more goals. An improvement of 14 goals was not solely because someone’s stick got hot.
I can understand the criticisms about Brunette’s power plays falling short in the playoffs as it was apparently a concern in Florida. I do not know. What is going to tell me more about whether or not a coach’s power play is effective? 82 games against 31 opponents or 12 games against 2 opponents who are adept at penalty killing? My point is that Brunette provided legitimate upgrades for the Devils beyond whatever he worked with forwards. The power play was much, much better and far, far more respectable in 2022-23 than in 2021-22 - even if the playoffs were a disappointment in that sense.
My main point is that Brunette was a part of the team’s big improvement last season. As a result, he will be missed for what he brought to the Devils last season. It will be important that Fitzgerald, Ruff, and whoever else is making the decision to replace Brunette’s spot that they get it right to sustain the gains the Devils made in power play situations and among their forwards. Who can replace Brunette’s spot on the bench?
They may not need to go far for his replacement. In a word: Sarge. Assistant coach Sergei Brylin has run the power play in Utica before. He has worked directly with players for development purposes. He has been in the organization as a coach since 2013, sticking with three different affiliations (Albany, Binghamton, Utica). Given that he was promoted last August to New Jersey, it could be as simple as moving him to the bench and increasing his responsibilities. This would mean finding a replacement for someone to be in the press box to provide a perspective on how the game is being handled at a distance. That may be easier to fill should the Devils have someone in mind to develop into a coaching role. Or they can ask Chris Taylor to go there as Brylin goes to rinkside. For these reasons, Brylin was my first thought as a potential Brunette-replacement.
It is tempting to call for various other Devils alumni besides Brylin. Why not Zajac? Why not Elias? Why not whomever else? I do not know it would be a good idea beyond the potential story. Brylin has been in a coaching role for quite some time and has even done power play work with the Comets not that long ago. If there is an ex-Devil in the organization to take that spot, then, again, Brylin is my preferred choice.
What about Kevin Dineen? I do not know if it makes much sense to move up the Comets head coach to be an assistant. It would mean another head coach has to be hired within the organization. And I am not sure Dineen would necessarily want that given his past head coaching experience.
If not Brylin and no one else in the organization, then the Devils would have to explore the wider coaching market. No immediate names come to mind in terms of people I want the Devils to get. However, this is where Fitzgerald, MacKinnon, Madigan, Duggan, and the rest of the management team would know better among their contacts as to who would be interested in the role. Call it a wild card option and hope that the answer does not end up being Recchi 2.0.
What is known is that the role is now open as Brunette is now the bench boss in Nashville. Now I want to know your reaction to the news. How do you think Brunette will do in Nashville? Who do you want the Devils to hire to replace Brunette? What do you want to see differently from the power play next season? Please leave your thoughts and other reactions to the Brunette news in the comments. Thank you for reading.