With the NHL’s 24-team, return-to-play format beginning to move forward, the New Jersey Devils’ 2019-20 season is over, meaning it’s time to begin focusing on next season. Ownership has two significant tasks at-hand: hiring a new general manager and head coach. And the latter seems it’s beginning to shape.
In his latest edition of 31 Thoughts, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported the Devils are considering four candidates for their head coaching gig — Peter Laviolette, Gerard Gallant, John Stevens, and incumbent Alain Nasreddine. There’s also one more candidate, who’s believed to be Rikard Gronborg of the ZSC Lions in the NLA (Switzerland). Here’s why he, along with Gallant, must be the top two candidates for the job.
Devils Should Stay Clear of Laviolette
The Devils are not in a position to screw up this coaching hire in the least bit. So it’s good to see candidates like Gronborg and Gallant in the running. But let’s talk about the other three names first, starting with Laviolette.
Laviolette has been a solid head coach for a long time. He has a 637-425-25-123 record and has been to the Stanley Cup three times, winning it once. He’s had success anywhere he’s gone. With that said, he might not be the best fit for the Devils because the team needs an offensive-minded coach.
Below is a shot map showing how a coach impacts shot rates in the offensive and defensive zones (via Hockey Viz). The maps displaying offensive impact are on the top, while the maps on the bottom display defensive impact. If Laviolette had a positive offensive impact, the top row would not be entirely blue, nor would it have a negative percentage. And this dates back to the 2009-10 season, so his offenses have been an issue for a decade.
If there’s a silver lining to Laviolette as a coach, his teams have done well defensively. But the weaknesses at the offensive end are too much to ignore. The Devils had struggled to score goals for the better part of the last five seasons under John Hynes, who the organization fired in December. That likely won’t change under Laviolette, so there doesn’t seem to be a fit between the two sides.
What About Nasreddine?
When the Devils fired Hynes, Nasreddine took over on an interim basis. He finished with a 19-16-8 record as the coach, so there’s no doubting the team had more success than they did under Hynes. But it’s also worth looking how the Devils got to those wins.
From Dec. 3, the date of Nasreddine’s first game as head coach, until the final day of games before the NHL’s coronavirus suspension on March 11, the Devils had a Corsi share of 45.23% — only the Detroit Red Wings were worse. Their expected goals share of 45.45% wasn’t much better, with only the Red Wings and Winnipeg Jets having a worse percentage.
Teams don’t usually win a ton of games getting consistently outplayed like that at five-on-five. But the Devils got some incredible goaltending from Mackenzie Blackwood, and even Cory Schneider after his call-up, for the rest of the season. From Dec. 3 onward, the team had a .911 save percentage (SV%) at all strengths, as well as a .921 SV% at five-on-five — both were a fair bit above the league average.
And had they not gotten that kind of goaltending, chances are they would’ve lost a lot more games. They gave up the most shot attempts per 60 minutes under Nasreddine, as well as the fourth-most xG against per 60 minutes. So not only were they giving up quantity, but they were also giving up quality shots.
With that said, the Devils’ blue line does need an overhaul. Maybe a couple of additions this offseason would help improve their defense. But it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of your head coach when your team is giving up the most shot attempts against per 60 minutes in the league.
Don’t Sleep on Stevens
The third candidate mentioned by Friedman was Stevens. He was the Philadelphia Flyers’ head coach from 2006-2010 and compiled a 100-109-34 record. Though he had a losing record, the Flyers made the playoffs twice under his watch, with a Conference Finals appearance in 2007-08. After a rough start to the 2009-10 season, he was fired by the Flyers and replaced by Laviolette.
Stevens’ next head coaching gig came with the Los Angeles Kings after Darryl Sutter was let go by the team in Apr. 2017. Stevens led the Kings to a 45-29-8 record and a playoff berth in his first season, but his tenure in Los Angeles did not last long. After a 4-8-1 start to the 2018-19 season, the Kings fired him after barely a season as their head coach. He has since been an assistant coach on the Dallas Stars’ staff.
It’s hard what to make of Stevens’ head coaching record. There are some rough moments, like his first season with the Flyers when they went 21-42-11. But there are some highs like leading them to the Conference Finals, as well as taking the Kings to the playoffs in his first season. And in hindsight, it doesn’t appear coaching was the issue on an aging Kings’ roster that needed a rebuild.
Stevens isn’t the caliber coach Gallant is, and he may have less upside than Gronborg too. But there’s a pretty good argument he’d be an upgrade over Hynes and Nasreddine. You could even argue he’d be favored over Laviolette, at least when it comes to having a positive coaching impact offensively.
Stevens may not be the greatest offensive mind in the NHL, but he’s got an edge over Laviolette. Because of that, he may be the better fit for a Devils’ team that should be building an offensive-minded roster around Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier. And he’s possibly the best candidate mentioned by Friedman after Gallant and Gronborg.
Gallant and Gronborg Leading the Way
Pretty much everyone is familiar with Gallant’s success as a head coach. His time with the Florida Panthers may not have ended well. But he took the Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup in their first season as an NHL franchise. That’s not for nothing. And even though the Golden Knights fired him in the middle of this season, that doesn’t take anything away from his coaching abilities.
He’s known as a player’s coach and won’t automatically bench his top players for making a mistake. The Devils will have one of the youngest rosters in the league next season, so that’s noteworthy. But the most important thing is Gallant gets the most out of his teams. He has a 214-140-45 record as a head coach, and chances are he could get the Devils to overachieve too.
Then there’s Gronborg, who’s one of the most intriguing coaching candidates out there. He’s of Swedish descent and has enjoyed plenty of success coaching the Swedish national team at various levels. The 2019-20 campaign marked his first as a head coach for a professional team with the ZSC Lions. He led them to a 23-13-8-6 record, placing them first in the NLA, this a season after they finished 10th in the league.
What’s appealing about Gronborg as a potential NHL head coach is his emphasis on maximizing his skill players’ talents. “The hockey world nowadays is not that different, especially with the way the NHL has opened up play. All the hooking and holding of the past is gone, and that requires a skill game,” he told Luke Fox of Sportsnet.
The Devils have a lot of players who’d fit how Gronborg wants to play. Jesper Bratt, Nikita Gusev, Hughes, and Hischier are smaller players who rely on their skill. Gronborg is also known for having implemented a progressive system with ZSC, something the Devils would benefit from after playing in Hynes’ conservative system for the last few seasons.
There’d be more risk in hiring Gronborg because of his lack of NHL experience, but he’d be a fit for the Devils. The catch is his NHL-out clause complicates things. ZSC has already said they have no intention of releasing him to an NHL club, so it’ll take some extra effort from the Devils to hire him. But his potential is worth trying to work something out.
Who the Devils Should Turn To
Hiring Gallant would be a home run, while Gronborg wouldn’t be far off despite the lack of NHL coaching experience. If the Devils fail to agree to terms with Gallant or Gronborg, Stevens would be the next best in line. That may seem like a controversial take with Laviolette in the running. I don’t think he’s a bad coach, but he’s not the right fit for a Devils’ team that needs to emphasize offense.
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And with all due respect to Nasreddine, the team’s underlying numbers during his watch don’t suggest a permanent gig should be in the cards. The Devils can’t afford to miss on this hire, so the pressure is on to get it right. But they should be in good hands if they end up with one of Gallant, Gronborg, or Stevens.
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