New Jersey Devils’ general manager Ray Shero announced Wednesday that the team has named Alain Nasreddine and Geoff Ward assistant coaches. Ward won a Stanley Cup during his seven seasons as an assistant coach with the Boston Bruins. Last season he acted as head coach of Adler Mannheim in the German Ice Hockey League where he led the team to a championship. Ward will be in charge of revamping the Devils’ offense. Nasreddine was Devils’ head coach John Hynes’ defensive assistant in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and will continue in that role with New Jersey.
Shero: “[Head coach] John Hynes and I both feel that these are the ideal individuals to help develop & work with our players on all levels."
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) June 17, 2015
It was common knowledge prior to the announcement that former co-coach Adam Oates, who also acted as the Devils’ offensive assistant, would not be returning to join Hynes’ staff. However, many were taken by surprise when Nasreddine’s name was announced rather than former co-coach and previous Devils’ defensive assistant Scott Stevens. When former general manager Lou Lamoriello hired Stevens and Oates as co-coaches last year, he specifically said there were no promises made to the men. Nevertheless, at the end of the season Oates and Stevens were the primary candidates associated with New Jersey’s head coaching vacancy. But that changed when Lamoriello stepped down as general manager.
Instead Shero tapped into his Pittsburgh roots and brought in the Penguins’ AHL affiliate head coach John Hynes. However, Hynes’ hiring did not dissuade Stevens. Following the announcement he publicly stated that returning to New Jersey, the team he captained to three Stanley Cups, was his top priority. Even though he did interview with Hynes, Stevens did not get the job, which evoked various reactions.
The Stevens Argument
It was often thought that since Stevens wanted to join Hynes’ staff he would be hired. After all, why fix something that is not broken? New Jersey needs offense and systematic restructuring. But the defense under Stevens was stable and showed no signs of serious disarray other than some youthful mistakes.
A person could argue that Stevens earned the defensive assistant job. The young defense responded well to his direction. He lived every play behind the bench as if he was readying for his next shift. This all contributed to the rapid response of Nasreddine’s hiring. While some fans reacted positively to the news and welcomed the change, there was a division of opinions. Unfortunately for fans that wanted Stevens back Hynes went in another direction. The coaching carousel is infamous for moves like the one New Jersey just experienced. An assistant coach is not retained within a new staff and some people feel the action is unwarranted.
Who Stevens is though enhanced some of the reactions. He is one of the most beloved players in team history. His number hangs in the Prudential Center’s rafters and his name is usually involved when fans relive the team’s infamous moments.
While it is not guaranteed that Stevens will not be back with the Devils in some capacity other than the coaching staff, his absence is a notable change. It is a dangerous thing to place a former player into a role on his past team such as a management position or a coaching job. It can easily backfire. Still never underestimate the importance of having a team’s winning players around, especially when it is struggling and transitioning. Players learn from the example. One of New Jersey’s best games all season was against Philadelphia, which coincided with the 1995 championship reunion.
The Devils now exist without Martin Brodeur and Stevens, two of the team’s biggest icons. Considering New Jersey’s recent problems change is necessary and expected. However, there is a fine line between embracing the future and removing the past, particularly when a key piece of the team’s history, like Stevens, was not the problem to begin with.
A Positive Outlook
It is one thing to be unhappy over Stevens not getting the job. In contrast, it is another to condemn the hiring of Nasreddine so prematurely. He is a promising choice for New Jersey. While Nasreddine does not have Stevens’ playing resume, he suited up at both levels for Pittsburgh, Chicago, Montreal, and the New York Islanders.
The familiarity and comfort Hynes has with the new Devils’ defensive assistant coach could be one of the biggest benefits for the team moving forward. The two men understand each other and there is no adjustment period for them behind the bench. Nasreddine was seemingly the favorite to replace Hynes within the Penguins’ organization. Yet he followed Hynes and showed a true commitment to his philosophy.
Nasreddine had great success in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. His defensive core allowed the fewest number of goals in four of his last five seasons and was consistently a top unit. He is used to working with young players and developing talent. The Devils are fully embracing a youth movement and now it is even visible behind the bench. Like Hynes, at only 39-years-old Nasreddine joins the Devils with no previous NHL coaching experience. That could be viewed as a potential issue. Additionally, it could mean he is bringing a fresh unclouded perspective. The question will be, how does Nasreddine’s game plan translate at the NHL level and what revisions will he implement? Realistically the same goes for Hynes but he has already given some insight on what he will initiate in New Jersey.
Unlike Pittsburgh, the Devils’ identity is defense and solid goaltending. It has been the team’s calling card for decades and even though a new era is emerging in New Jersey that will not change. That only raises the pressure on Nasreddine as well as Hynes that he made the right choice. But a coach’s chance to prove himself in the NHL has to start somewhere and for Nasreddine that time is now in New Jersey.