Devils Can Replace Brunette From Within

The New Jersey Devils had avoided attrition to their front office and coaching staff this offseason…until yesterday. Around midday, Kevin Weekes reported that the Nashville Predators were making a coaching change by hiring Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette to replace John Hynes. 

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Hynes, who coached the Devils from 2015-2019, spent three and a half seasons as the Predators’ coach, totaling a 134-98-16 record. Brunette was behind the Devils’ bench as an assistant for one season after getting let go by the Florida Panthers last summer. New Jersey will miss his presence behind his bench, but they’ll have ways to fill his vacancy. Let’s look at what changed under him in 2022-23 and how the Devils could replace him in the coming weeks. 

Brunette Helped Improved Devils Overall Offense

After a 2021-22 campaign that saw the Devils finish 27-46-9 and with 63 points, there were a couple of reasons why they hired Brunette. The first was to fix an abysmal power play under previous assistant Mark Recchi. The second was in case things didn’t work out with head coach Lindy Ruff to start this season, then the organization would have a replacement they could turn to midseason if needed. 

As it turns out, the Devils never needed to move on from Ruff. They got on a 13-game winning streak from late October through American Thanksgiving and never looked back. They finished with 52 wins — a franchise record for a single season — and 112 points, and Ruff earned a nomination for the Jack Adams Award as best head coach in the NHL for the year. 

Ruff is the head coach, and his system fits the team’s roster well. He deserves plenty of credit at the end of the day, but Brunette should get his due as well. The Panthers had one of the most diverse offenses in the league in 2021-22, with an ability to create off the rush and through forechecking and cycling. And some of that translated to the Devils this past season. 

Andrew Brunette New Jersey Devils
Former New Jersey Devils assistant coach Andrew Brunette (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

While the Devils were still primarily a rush team, they became a more diverse squad in the forecheck and cycle game. It was a significant reason they went on their 13-game winning streak early in the season. Line combos like Tomáš Tatar, Nico Hischier and Fabian Zetterlund excelled best in this regard, as they created havoc against teams like the Arizona Coyotes and Montreal Canadiens during that win streak. 

Granted, those were two of the weaker clubs in the league, but the Devils won 52 games. When the team was at its best, they found different ways to score, and Brunette deserves credit for helping add that to the system. Fortunately, since it’s already in how the Devils play, it shouldn’t depart with him to Nashville. 

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The other noticeable difference was in the Devils’ power play. The team ranked in the bottom five of the NHL in generating expected goals under Recchi, but that changed in Brunette’s one season as an assistant. New Jersey finished the 2022-23 regular season averaging 8.28 expected goals per 60 minutes, the ninth-best rate in the league. They converted on 21.8 percent of their man-advantage opportunities, the 13th-best rate in the NHL. They may not have had the best power play in the league, and it struggled in the playoffs, but there was substantial improvement from being a bottom-five unit a year ago. 

Brylin Could Be Prime Candidate to Take Over

Given the season the Devils just had, even an opening for an assistant coach will entice candidates from outside the organization. The thing is that they might not even have to look beyond their current coaching staff to replace Brunette. In shaking up Ruff’s staff last summer, the Devils promoted Sergei Brylin from the AHL to join Ruff for the 2022-23 campaign. 

Many Devils fans will remember Brylin from his playing days with the organization. He spent 13 years in a Devils uniform, totaling 308 points in 765 games. After a few years in the KHL to end his career, he returned stateside to work as an assistant coach with the Devils’ AHL affiliates from the 2013-14 season until the organization promoted him last summer. 

Last season with the Utica Comets — the Devils’ AHL affiliate — Brylin was in charge of their power play. That unit converted on 21.6 percent of its chances, ranking fifth in the AHL. It helps that the Comets’ power play had prospects like Alexander Holtz, Nolan Foote and Zetterlund leading the charge. But the Comets’ man advantage did drop to 31st in the AHL this season. That’s not all on player personnel, so losing Brylin to the NHL likely had some impact. 

Sergei Brylin New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils assistant coach Sergei Brylin (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Brylin has paid his dues as an assistant with the Devils organization for quite some time. He seems like an ideal candidate, perhaps the favorite, to replace Brunette in the coming weeks. Still, I’d be surprised if Devils general manager Tom Fitzgerald didn’t at least talk to outside candidates, as he should. 

Coming up with a shortlist for NHL assistant jobs isn’t as easy as one for head coaches. I won’t sit here and tell you I have a good idea of who external candidates might be. Could it be a young and up-and-coming coach working his way up the coaching ladder? Or could it be a former NHL head coach like Travis Green looking to get back in the game?

Either way, Brylin seems like he’ll be one of the favorites to take over for Brunette. The Devils will miss the latter and what he added to the team this past season, but it’s not like he’s irreplaceable. What he implemented to their offense at five-on-five should still be engrained in the system, and the power play shouldn’t lose a step if the Devils hire Brylin and he can replicate the results he had with the Comets in 2021-22. 

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