On December 3 the New Jersey Devils fired Head Coach John Hynes after his team collapsed following their lone playoff appearance during his four-year tenure (150-159-45). GM Ray Shero was out of options, and firing all 23 of his underachieving players was obviously not one. During his press conference following the firing (and naming of assistant coach Alain Nasreddine as the interim Head Coach) he showed his frustration with the group he had assembled.
“We can’t make a five-foot pass,” lamented Shero, who then admitted that no one on the roster has lived up to the team’s expectations. The fanbase moaned and whined for weeks upon weeks about how they thought Hynes’ system didn’t work, or that he had ‘lost the team’. News flash: no system is going to work when the players can’t make simple passes to one another on a consistent, professional level.
From covering the team throughout the entire Hynes Era, and in covering other teams in New Jersey that got their coaches fired, I feel pretty confident in saying that the players genuinely liked having Hynes as their coach. But the coach can’t go out on the ice during a game and complete passes for his team, and the GM can’t fire everyone on the team. So here we are.
Obviously it’s a new era and a new NHL. Scoring is paramount and the Devils are the 29th in goals scored with 69. That’s not acceptable. Especially not for a team that so many thought ‘won the offseason.’ Only Columbus (68) and Detroit (63) are worse. Their goal differential is minus-32, second-worst in the league. New Jersey also ranks 29th in goals against with 101. Toronto also has given up 101 and Detroit has surrendered 119; both of them have played more games than the Devils. New Jersey is last in the Metropolitan Division with 22 points (9-14-4), second to last in the East, and second to last in the entire league. That’s not good.
Perhaps Shero overvalued the group he has assembled. Perhaps you reading this overvalued the team too. It sure seems that way from watching this team night in and night out. Sure there are some nice pieces, cornerstone players that are in the infancy of their careers. But there are also a lot of players that look like they have lost a step or lost their mojo. At some point, the players have to accept some responsibility for that. For the most part, they have when talking to the media.
Time and time again they said, “It’s on us,” “It’s unacceptable,” or “We have to be better.” They never got better, and it ended up on Hynes, not them.
Andy Greene looks burned out. For years and years he played heavy minutes, admirably might I add, for the Devils on their blueline. With so many players coming and going amongst that group, he was the minutes-muncher that was on the ice in all key situations and routinely on the penalty kill.
“I wouldn’t say (something) drastic (has to happen), it’s on us here in the locker room,” Greene told The Hockey Writers following a 4-0 shutout against the New York Rangers. “We had a lot of changes in the offseason, it’s not like it’s the same exact team from last year, it’s not the same guys. It’s on us in here. We have the team, it’s about making sure we are mentally and physically ready to play each night. How badly do we want to get out of this together and put this in the rearview mirror?”
The captain is closing in on 900 games in the NHL and as a Devil, but it would be a shock if he makes it to 1000 in red and black. “He’s a great coach and a great person and he had to be sacrificed because of us in here, because of the way we’ve been playing,” Greene said the day that Hynes lost his job.
PK Subban looks like a shell of his former self. He’s been spun around like a top in the defensive zone more times than we can count and with five points (none on the power play) in 27 games it becomes clearer and clearer why the Nashville Predators were so eager to give him away at the NHL Draft in June.
Damon Severson has been the same player for what seems like his entire career in New Jersey and is routinely beaten to loose pucks or beaten in foot races to the front of the net. It also seems like he’s on the ice for almost every goal against. Will Butcher is still being sheltered and he’s played the majority of his 184 NHL games as a third pair defenseman. Have to wonder what he would have looked like with some time in the AHL instead of jumping from college right into the pros.
Matt Tennyson has played 19 nondescript games this season. Same for Mirco Mueller (14 games). Connor Carrick only played four games before suffering a broken finger. Sami Vatanen has been good. Not great, but good. Among this group, the best of the eight. Despite missing four games he has been the lone player of that group that has been able to make passes out of his own zone on a semi-regular basis and half of his ten points have come via the power play.
Taylor Hall has four goals this season on 98 shots on goal. That’s 4.1% and he’s been stopped on about 15 breakaways this season. Breakaways that he buried during his Hart Trophy season when he had 39 goals and 93 points two seasons ago. The lowest shooting percentage Hall has had in his career: 8.4% during his first year in New Jersey. His impending free-agent status has been a black cloud over an organization who’s fan base is still twitchy over the last time a player wearing no. 9 walked away as a free agent.
“John has done a lot for me personally in my career,” said Hall after his first game without Hynes behind the bench. “Basically, all I really have to say is that, and you’ll see him in the NHL head coaching at some point soon. We didn’t play well enough as a team and we have a different head coach because of that. We need to find a level that we all haven’t shown this year.”
Gut feeling: he’s traded before February rolls around as Shero tries to maximize the value of a player that may be able to help a team that thinks they are a true contender. Chances he gets a good deal? 50-50.
Kyle Palmieri has had a nice season, and as the team’s leading goal scorer (10) there can’t be much blame thrown at his feet. He’s shown up more nights than not. Blake Coleman is the team’s second-leading goal scorer with nine. Coleman is a fine player. A hustler, a team-first guy. But with a team that a lot of people out there thought was better than this, he shouldn’t be second on the team in goals. He has one more goal than Pavel Zacha (2), Miles Wood (3), and Travis Zajac (3) have combined.
“I don’t think there is one player that is performing, even at the level, let alone above, that we expect or maybe they expect. And that’s a thing that’s disappointing,” said Shero.
Zacha and Jesper Bratt (8 points) can’t play consistent enough to stay in the lineup, Wood has been all flash and no dash with his feet still moving faster than his thought process. Zacha has shown improvements on the defensive side of the puck, but with all the talented players taken behind him in the 2015 NHL Draft, it’s really hard to not be disappointed with his tenure in New Jersey.
Jesper Boqvist (2 points/goals) has been in and out of the lineup and was probably better suited with another year in Sweden with the AHL not being an option presently.
Wayne Simmonds (11 points) has been great on the power play as of late and has been a real asset with his net-front presence for whichever of the PP units he has been a part of. But at even-strength, it seems as if it’s been a struggle to find a pair of forwards that he can complement. Nikita Gusev (12 points), like Simmonds, is a newcomer to this group, and he has been okay. At times you can see why he was so highly-touted and coveted: great shot, premier vision, quickness with both his hands and feet. But he has needed some time to adjust to playing in the NHL and unfortunately for Hynes he didn’t have any more time.
Nico Hischier (16 points) and Jack Hughes (11 points) have both been okay to start the season, and each of them has missed a handful of games due to minor, various ailments. They are the ones who are the future of this team. Their continued development is crucial for the success of their careers and the rise of the franchise.
Hughes is just 18-years-old, Hischier turns 21 in a month. They will both be playing for the Devils for a long time, and chances are there aren’t going to be a lot of current teammates there with them. But what Shero needs to do, especially when he makes deals for Hall, and likely Greene, is bringing back assets that can complement those two cornerstone centers that they were gifted via the Draft Lottery.
We didn’t even touch on the goaltending, which has been average at best, but 22-year-old Mackenzie Blackwood is 8-8-3 this season and still finding his way in the NHL. Shero needs to find a new coach and one that will get this team back to playing competitively on a consistent basis. He also needs to find a new home for Hall if it becomes crystal clear that no. 9 is not going to re-sign in New Jersey. If he doesn’t hit a home run with both of those moves, it could cost him his job as well.
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.