The month of December was a rollercoaster of a month for the New Jersey Devils. It started with the firing of head coach John Hynes on Dec. 3 and was followed by trading away star winger Taylor Hall just less than two weeks later. The Devils didn’t receive any immediate NHL talent in trading Hall, so it’ll take a while to know the outcome of their return.
But it isn’t too early to start looking at what impact Alain Nasreddine, who took over as interim head coach after Hynes’ firing, has had on the team. The Devils have played in 14 games under Nasreddine and have gone 6-2-1 in their last nine games after starting 0-4-1. What changes has he made? And which players have benefited the most from the coaching change?
Changes From Hynes to Nasreddine
The Devils did not get off to a great start under Hynes this season. They lost their first six games (0-4-2) and looked awful in the process. Bad goaltending didn’t help, but the team was losing the shot and chance battle on an almost regular basis. Things quickly began to unravel in November, with the situation coming to a head in two blowout losses to the New York Rangers and the Buffalo Sabres after American Thanksgiving.
There were a lot of reasons why general manager Ray Shero had to fire Hynes. But the most glaring may have been the style of hockey the Devils were playing under him, as they were one of the slowest paced teams in the league. And they were playing a brand of low-event hockey that didn’t fit the makeup of a roster with smaller, skilled forwards. Nasreddine made it clear he wanted the team to use their skating and play faster. So has that been the case?
|Stat||Rate Under Hynes||Rate Under Nasreddine|
The Devils’ 5-on-5 shot rates have improved under Nasreddine and by a noticeable margin. There’s been a jump in their shot attempts (CF/60), as well as their shots on goal (SF/60) per 60 minutes. And a more noticeable one in their expected goals per 60 minutes (xGF/60). That’s resulted in them scoring (GF/60) a bit more, too.
It may be hard to see a change in the style of play from only the offensive numbers. But the Devils’ defensive numbers give us a bit of a clearer picture. Under Hynes, they were one of the stingiest teams. But it’s been the opposite under Nasreddine.
|Stat||Rate Under Hynes||Rate Under Nasreddine|
The Devils have been allowing a fair bit more shot attempts (CA/60), shots on goal (SA/60), and expected goals against (xGA/60) since the coaching change. They were able to keep those rates down under Hynes because they played at one of the slowest paces in the league. But it seems they’ve sacrificed that to play faster on offense. That makes the most sense, given it’s more suited to their roster, and it’s a big reason why they’re 6-2-1 in their last nine games.
Which Devils Have Benefited From Playing Faster?
This is an easy one. In 21 games under Hynes this season, Bratt had just four goals and seven points, as well as only 24 shots on goal. He was also a healthy scratch on a few occasions, but the coaching change has given him new life. He’s been a fixture on the top line and has eight points in 14 games, as well as 27 shots on goal. His on-ice numbers have improved, too, as the Devils have an xG share (xGF%) above 53% with him on the ice.
Gusev’s play had been coming around before Nasreddine took over. But he’s taken his game to another level since the coaching change, too. He has 12 points in his last 13 games and leads the team in CF%, and his xGF% is second to only Blake Coleman. The Devils needed someone to make up for the offense lost by Hall’s departure, so it’s good Gusev is producing the way he is.
How he performs for the rest of the season will be worth keeping an eye on. The Devils have a solid young core to build around in Hischier and Jack Hughes, but they need complementary pieces around them. Gusev can be one and a player to build around beyond next season when his contract expires.
Like Gusev, his play was coming along before Hynes’ ousting, but Hischier has taken off over the last month. He had 15 points in his first 24 games of the season but has nine in his last 11 games. He’s also benefited from having Bratt as his linemate since Hall’s trade. He’s played well with Bratt in the past. And that’s continued this season, as they’ve formed a formidable first line with Kyle Palmieri — the Devils have an xGF% of 61.79% with them on the ice.
Severson’s had a couple of rough moments since Nasreddine took over. But he’s also had some great ones, as he did in a shootout win over the Boston Bruins on New Year’s Eve. He leads Devils’ defensemen in CF% and xGF%, the latter of which is above 55%. And the Devils are controlling a majority of the scoring and high-danger chances with him on the ice, which wasn’t the case under Hynes. He also has seven points in his last 14 games, a 41-point pace over 82 games.
Nasreddine Made the Right Changes
It was clear the Devils needed a change in their style of play. They don’t have a lot of size in their lineup but rather a lot of speed, which is why Nasreddine getting them to play faster makes sense. It isn’t a guarantee these changes will continue working over the final 40 games of the season, but the early returns are incredibly encouraging.
The Devils’ top players, like Hischier and Gusev, have benefited from it greatly. And it helps that complementary players like Bratt and Severson have rebounded, too. This is what most people, including myself, envisioned this team would look like in the preseason. It may be too late to save their playoff chances, but playing this style of hockey and winning some games will go a long way for a team that’s experienced a lot of losing over the last 3-4 years. And maybe it’ll lead to Nasreddine sticking around beyond this season, too.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017