There’s an old saying in hockey that suggests you are what your record says you are. And by that metric, the New Jersey Devils were lousy. Really, really lousy. In fact, there was not one statistical category you could identify – from record to save percentage to special teams to possession – that would suggest the Devils were much good at anything this season. And there was little hope that they were going to get any better.
Some of that is on the coach. And that’s why John Hynes is no longer the coach of the New Jersey Devils, mercifully relieved of his duties just hours before the Devils’ home game against the Vegas Golden Knights after it was leaked that he was a dead man walking and was about to be dismissed in the next day or so.
But here’s the thing. Devils GM Ray Shero gave Hynes a three-year extension 11 months ago to the day – Jan. 3, 2019 – at a time when the Devils were almost as bad as they are now. The day Hynes signed his deal, the Devils were the third-worst team in the Eastern Conference and the season was already essentially lost, since they were already 12 points out of a playoff spot. (By the way, if that date seems significant, it’s because it was. The St. Louis Blues went into their game that night dead-last in the NHL and beat the Washington Capitals 5-2 to start a run that culminated in a Stanley Cup parade.) It seemed like an odd time to give your coach a three-year extension rather than wait to see how the rest of the season played out. Instead of extending Hynes, the Devils could have simply allowed him to finish his contract and set him free.
Ray Shero is not dumb and John Hynes is not a terrible coach. Shero thought at the time that the Devils needed some stability and vision and he liked the culture that Hynes was creating when it came to accountability and structure. And Shero thought that if he made a major overhaul to his roster, Hynes would have enough to work with to start to bring the Devils back into the playoff picture and among at least the periphery of contenders.
Well, you know what the say about the best-laid plans. Shero’s roster manipulation did not move the needle and it turns out what he needed most he failed to get: a goaltender who could consistently stop the puck and give a shaky defensive team a chance to win games. And now that the Devils’ season is rapidly circling the drain once again, there is absolutely no chance that Taylor Hall will make a long-term commitment to the franchise. Not that there was ever an iron-clad guarantee he ever would have in the first place. Two summers ago, after his MVP year in which he led the Devils to the playoffs, Hall retained Darren Ferris as his agent. It’s well known that Ferris would rather watch a continuous loop of Pride and Prejudice than a pending unrestricted free agent not go to market. But a contending team would have at least made Hall pause and ponder the possibility of staying.
Like almost anytime a coach gets fired, it’s an organizational failure. The Devils, despite all their changes, do not have a very good roster. P.K. Subban plays more than 22 minutes per game and has five points to show for it. Jack Hughes has received the third-most ice time among rookie forwards in the NHL and is in danger of turning in a Patrik Stefan-like offensive line. Their goaltending has been atrocious, to the point where Cory Schneider was waived and is now a $6-million American League goalie. Not sure how much you can pin any of that on Hynes.
But there’s little doubt Hynes owns his part in this as well. The Devils are atrocious on both sides of special teams and their possession numbers are dreadful. They were expected to score their way out of trouble to make up for their defensive shortcomings, but instead they have one of the limpest attacks in the league. In two games against the Buffalo Sabres, they’ve been outscored 14-3. There have been line configurations that have been downright head-scratching and players such as Jesper Bratt and Nikita Gusev got much less ice time than they should have. Starting with the first game of the season when the Devils jumped out to a 4-0 lead on the Winnipeg Jets, then lost 5-4 in a shootout, they’ve displayed an uncanny propensity for blowing leads. It’s up to the coach to devise a game plan and a structure that best prepares a team for success and Hynes either wasn’t doing that well enough or the players weren’t heeding his message. Neither of those is a good thing.
So, the Devils will play out the season under new coach Alain Nasreddine. Nobody is expecting much. Hall will be dealt for futures and New Jersey will hope for some more lottery luck, which would garner them either Alexis Lafreniere with the first pick or Quinton Byfield with the second. By the time the Devils are contending, John Hynes, the man who helped establish a culture in New Jersey and helped make Hall an MVP, will probably be long forgotten. But, man, that’s coaching.
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