Devils Hire Ryan McGill To Shake up Defense

After letting go of Mark Recchi and parting ways with Alain Nasreddine earlier this offseason, the New Jersey Devils solved one piece of the puzzle by hiring Andrew Brunette to replace Recchi. He will oversee the team’s forwards and power play, meaning they still had a hole to fill with Nasreddine’s position still open. They took care of that on Friday by hiring former Vegas Golden Knights assistant Ryan McGill to run their penalty kill and work with their defensemen. 

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McGill had been with the Golden Knights since their inaugural season in 2017-18 but was let go, along with head coach Pete DeBoer, earlier this summer. In his five seasons with the Golden Knights, they were one of the better defensive teams at even strength. And though their penalty kill results varied, they usually posted solid metrics. What will McGill offer the Devils? Let’s take a look. 

McGill’s Résumé With the Golden Knights

It’s not often you see an expansion team make the final of their respective league in their inaugural season, but the Golden Knights accomplished that feat in 2017-18. There are multiple reasons they pulled it off, with their team defense being one of them. They were one of the better defensive teams at five-on-five, averaging 56.42 shot attempts and 2.28 expected goals against per 60 minutes (xGA/60), ranked 13th and seventh in the NHL. 

Their penalty kill was quite good under McGill that season, as they killed off 81.43 percent of the penalties they faced. Their underlying metrics were solid, as they gave up 94.8 shot attempts and 6.53 expected goals against per 60 minutes, ranked fifth and ninth in the league at 4-on-5. 

Ryan McGill
Ryan McGill as head coach of the Owen Sound Attack in the OHL. (Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

Over McGill’s five-year tenure, the Golden Knights averaged 53.59 shot attempts and 2.31 expected goals against per 60 at five-on-five, both of which ranked inside the top 10. On the penalty kill, they averaged 96.57 shot attempts and 6.53 expected goals against per 60, each ranking 15th in the NHL. The year-to-year breakdown paints a relatively favorable picture as well:

SeasonShot Attempts Against/60 (5v5)xGA/60 (5v5)Shot Attempts Against/60 (4v5)xGA/60 (4v5)
Via Natural Stat Trick

It’s worth keeping in mind that the Golden Knights went through a head coaching change from Gerard Gallant to DeBoer in Jan. 2020. Their results held firm up until this past season, but there are a couple of factors to consider, the most notable being the number of injuries the Golden Knights dealt with in 2021-22. 

Aside from the Montreal Canadiens, only Vegas dealt with more man-games lost this season at 505 (via NHL Injury Viz). When factoring in the number of injuries they had, the Golden Knights lost 9.382 wins above replacement. It’s tough for any team to post consistently positive results when dealing with that many man-games lost. That likely led to them having only a 77.4 percent success rate on the penalty kill, and it’s certainly why they missed the playoffs. 

Golden Knights Defensemen Who Had Success Under McGill

Considering injuries were a significant factor in the Golden Knights’ struggles this past season, most of McGill’s tenure was solid. But it’s not just team results worth considering either; quite a few defensemen had success and broke out under his watch. The most notable is Shea Theodore, who the Golden Knights managed to snag in a trade so the Anaheim Ducks could keep Josh Manson ahead of the expansion draft in 2017. That turned out to be a poor decision for the Ducks that resulted in some incredible gains for the Golden Knights. 

While Theodore was already 22 years old by the time he played his first game for the Golden Knights in 2017, he wasn’t a fully developed defenseman yet. It was during the Golden Knights’ inaugural season he showed signs of blossoming into a top-four defender. In the years following, he’s averaged 50 points per 82 games and has been a staple on the Golden Knights’ top pair for the last couple of seasons. At 26 years old, he still has plenty of good years ahead of him and is now one of the top puck-moving blueliners in the game. 

William Karlsson Shea Theodore Vegas Golden Knights
William Karlsson and Shea Theodore of the Vegas Golden Knights (Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)

Nor is Theodore the only defenseman who took off under McGill in Vegas. Nate Schmidt had shown potential of being more than just the third-pair defender that he was with the Washington Capitals. In Vegas, he fulfilled that potential and logged the most minutes against elite competition among their blueliners (via PuckIQ) before getting dealt to the Vancouver Canucks in a salary cap dump ahead of the 2020-21 season. 

On the opposite end of Schmidt and Theodore, two puck-moving defensemen, are Zach Whitecloud and Brayden McNabb, two defensive defensemen. McNabb had some decent years with the Los Angeles Kings before getting selected by the Golden Knights in the expansion draft. But it was in Vegas where his role increased, as he’s logged some difficult minutes in his five seasons with the team. Whitecloud hasn’t received the same assignments McNabb has, but his role has increased over the last three seasons, which shows positive development in his game. 

Related: Devils’ Siegenthaler Earned Extension After Breakout Season

Finally, there’s Nic Hague, who was one of the Golden Knights’ top prospects and is slowly beginning to emerge as a top-four option. While his game hasn’t popped yet, he’s made strides in his development, specifically offensively. At 6-foot-6, it can take time for players of his stature to break out, but he does have the potential to be a fixture on their blue line moving forward. 

What Devils Should Expect From McGill

While most of the defensemen McGill inherited in Vegas were already established NHLers, their careers took noticeable steps forwards under him. From the Devils’ perspective, seeing the number of defensemen that succeeded under him should be encouraging. 

McGill will not be inheriting an inexperienced blue line with the Devils, either. It’s a veteran-savvy unit with a top-four of Jonas Siegenthaler, Ryan Graves, Dougie Hamilton and Damon Severson. And that doesn’t include this offseason’s additions of Brendan Smith and John Marino, who will give head coach Lindy Ruff the most talented defense core he’s had with the Devils. 

Dougie Hamilton, New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils defenseman Dougie Hamilton (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

There are also some of the Devils’ top defense prospects to consider. While they’re not NHL bound just yet, they have a deep prospect pool that includes two former top five picks in Luke Hughes and Šimon Nemec, plus a highly regarded prospect in Seamus Casey. There’s also Kevin Bahl, Reilly Walsh and Nikita Okhotiuk, who could have NHL futures too. 

Developing them will be crucial for future success, specifically Hughes, Nemec and Casey. After seeing Will Butcher and Ty Smith not live up to expectations, there’s no doubt the Devils want Hughes, Nemec and company to fulfill their potential, which McGill can hopefully help with over time. 

It’s hard to know how much McGill’s hire will move the needle. With that said, his results with the Golden Knights were no worse than solid and quite good at their best, especially when they were healthy. He has plenty of experience coaching and should bring some fresh ideas on how to help the Devils improve defensively, specifically in the neutral zone. With Brunette, a Jack Adams finalist, on board and Chris Taylor retained from the previous regime, Ruff should have the coaching staff he needs to help the Devils improve their results in 2022-23. 

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick, injury data from NHL Injury Viz

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