The New Jersey Devils have been without a permanent head coach since Dec. 2, when they fired John Hynes and replaced him with Alain Nasreddine. The search has been underway since then, and a familiar crop of names has come up in their shortlist. Veteran coaches among their finalists include Peter Laviolette, John Stevens, Gerard Gallant, and Lindy Ruff.
But there’s one prominent coach who’s available that’s not among their top candidates. Bruce Boudreau was let go by the Minnesota Wild in February after they fell short of expectations. That said, there’s no denying his résumé as a coach. He’s made the playoffs in 10 of his 14 seasons as an NHL head coach. And while his teams have never made it to a Stanley Cup Final, that shouldn’t be a deterrent for a Devils’ team that needs to become relevant again.
Boudreau Got Wild to Overachieve
Boudreau’s tenure with the Wild only lasted four seasons, but it got off to an impressive start. They went 49-25-8 and finished with 106 points in the Western Conference during the 2016-17 season. That team was far from star-studded, too. Their leading scorer was Mikael Granlund, who finished with 69 points in 81 games. Their second-leading scorer was Eric Staal, who had 65 points in 82 games. But they succeeded as a team because they had the third-best expected goals share (xGF%) in the league (54.33%) and got great goaltending from Devan Dubnyk.
The Wild followed up their 106-point season with a 45-26-11 record and 101 points in 2017-18. Their formula for success was much of the same, as well. Their leading scorer this time around was Staal, as he finished with 76 points in 82 games. Granlund finished with 67 points in 77 games, while Jason Zucker had a career-best 64 points. The Wild had the seventh-best xGF% in the league and got another strong season from Dubnyk.
But the team’s trajectory changed in 2018-19. Granlund and Staal’s production dropped, while Dubnyk’s play slipped enough where it affected the team in the win column. Still, the Wild had one of the best xGF% in the league, at 53.55%, which ranked seventh. And that was a staple of Boudreau’s tenure in Minnesota. They had the third-best xGF% in the league until his firing on Feb. 13, and gave up the least xG per 60 minutes (xGA/60) in the league, at 1.93.
And although defense was a significant reason for Boudreau’s success with the Wild, their offense didn’t suffer. The following chart depicts a coach’s shot impacts at five-on-five. The offense is shown on top, while the defense is on the bottom.
What’s most impressive about Boudreau is he’s had a positive impact offensively and defensively in every season where data is available (2007-present). Does that mean the Devils become playoff contenders under Boudreau in year one? It’s possible, even if it isn’t likely. But the roster isn’t as far off as some may think, and he could have an immediate impact making them competitive.
How Boudreau Compares to His Competition
You’re likely familiar with most of the names in the Devils’ coaching search. But how does Boudreau stack up against the field?
We’ll start with Laviolette, who seems to be the favorite to land the job. His teams are known for playing fast-paced hockey and scoring goals. The Devils’ roster, as is, would benefit from a coach who brings that style of hockey to New Jersey. That said, Boudreau’s had a much more significant positive impact than Laviolette in getting the most out of his team’s offenses. And he’d have some nice pieces to work with as the Devils’ coach, including two former first overall picks in Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes.
Related: Devils’ Top 10 Draft Picks
Next up is Gallant. He took the Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season by getting them to play a fast, aggressive style of attacking hockey. But even though they pushed the pace, they were also well-structured defensively. He won’t bench one of his top scorers for making a defensive miscue, which is part of the reason he gets the most out of his teams. So he’d be an ideal fit for the Devils.
As for the rest of the field, it doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence. Ruff had a four-year stint as the Dallas Stars’ head coach that included a 50-win season in 2015-16. Those teams were among the fastest-paced in the NHL, but they were a mess defensively, which led to his eventual firing at the end of the 2016-17 season. And his work as an assistant leading the New York Rangers’ defense and penalty raises plenty of eyebrows.
There’s also Nasreddine, the incumbent candidate. He has no previous experience as a head coach, other than what he had with the Devils on an interim basis. He may not have had much to work with roster-wise, but he still finished with a 19-16-8 record, thanks to some stellar goaltending from Mackenzie Blackwood. Otherwise, the Devils’ five-on-five numbers were not pretty. Their defense struggled mightily under Nasreddine, so a change may be in the team’s best interest.
Finally, there’s Stevens, who’s been an assistant with the Stars for about a year. There’s nothing wrong with his résumé as a head coach, even though it’s fairly pedestrian. He’d probably be a better hire than Ruff or Nasreddine, but there’s no doubt Boudreau has the edge over him, as well.
Devils Shouldn’t Sleep on Boudreau
Given the red flags that come with Ruff or Nasreddine, it’s clear Boudreau is the better candidate. He’d also be a better fit than Laviolette, and chances are he could get the Devils on the right track faster than Laviolette. If there’s one coach who has an argument to be ahead of Boudreau, it’s Gallant. Otherwise, he’d be the second-best candidate in this field, at worst. So why hasn’t he been part of the search?
For starters, Boudreau is 65 years old and might be looking to coach a team that’s closer to Stanley Cup contention. That’s not the Devils, so it’s possible they reached out, and he politely declined. But if the Devils haven’t reached out to him or his camp, then what are they doing?
Ownership stressed they were looking to win as soon as possible when they axed general manager Ray Shero in January. Boudreau may not make the Devils Stanley Cup contenders in 2020-21, but he will make them more competitive. And I’d bet good money on him putting the team in the playoff conversation in 2021-22. Maybe his name comes into the fold once a permanent GM is hired. That would be pretty late in the process, given how long the search has gone on. But as they say, “better late than never.” And it’d be a mistake if Boudreau was never a part of the process.
* * *
Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick