Evaluating Rumored Devils’ Head Coaching Candidates

Gerard Gallant was fired this year by the Las Vegas Golden Knights. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLl via Getty Images)

Introduction

Pierre LeBrun tweeted yesterday that the New Jersey Devils have narrowed down the team’s head coaching search to four finalists. This after interviewing eight to ten different candidates. He also noted that the process is on hold until a later time.

Taking what LeBrun explained and using other information that came out about the process, it has led many, including myself, to believe the four finalists are Alain Nasreddine (confirmed by LeBrun), Gerard Gallant, Peter Laviolette, and John Stevens. Below you can see a breakdown of each candidate, and who I believe should be the next head coach of the red and black.

Worth noting, we spoke in some length about this very topic on episode one of our podcast, Devils Army Cast, so make sure to check that out!

Alain Nasreddine

We are well-versed in what candidate number one brings. The current interim head coach, to put it lightly, brings pretty much nothing. I have written before on how bad Nasreddine, which you can find that article here. However, for refreshing purposes, I will include a summary below.

After taking over for former head coach John Hynes on Dec. 3, the Devils somehow saw the team’s play get worse. Although they had a better point percentage, Nasreddine’s Devils were far worse in several important analytical categories (see below). Some were even worse than the historically bad Detroit Red Wings. 

From a previous article of mine.

The question now turns to, “if the team was so bad why did the record improve?” Well, that is solely because of the play of Mackenzie Blackwood. The Devils saw a 24-point improvement to the team’s save percentage after Nasreddine took over. This is remarkable for Blackwood, given how dreadful the team played in front of him over this time.

All-in-all, Nasreddine showed he is not head coaching material. Maybe a full season at the helm would show better results. But the Devils cannot screw this hire up, and “hoping” Nasreddine figures it out should not be in the cards. As fans, let’s hope the team does not fall for the “better results” and realizes Nasreddine’s team was led by stellar goaltending. 

Gerard Gallant

Gallant is by far the most qualified of the four candidates. He most recently spent about two-and-a-half seasons with the Vegas Golden Knights and was shockingly fired 49 games into this season. Before that, he spent roughly two-and-a-quarter seasons behind the bench of the Florida Panthers.

In his time with Florida, he compiled a record of 96-65-25. In season one, the Panthers went 38-29-15 and missed a playoff berth by eight points in a loaded Atlantic Division. The next season the Panthers had one of the best seasons in the team’s history, winning the Atlantic Division title thanks to a 103-point season. This with a roster that wasn’t all that impressive. In his last season with the team, he was fired after an 11-10-1 start; the team went 24-26-10 after his firing. Since then, the Panthers have not been back to the playoffs.

Gallant then moved to Las Vegas and was the first-ever coach in team history. He did a spectacular job, coaching the team to a 51-24-7 record, as well as a Stanley Cup Final appearance in their first season as an NHL franchise. He followed that season up with another playoff run, this time a 93-point season. His reign as the Golden Knights’ head coach came to an abrupt end when the team surprisingly fired him in favor of Pete DeBoer after starting the 2019-20 season 24-19-6. At the time of Gallant’s firing, Vegas was still in a playoff spot.

In terms of advanced statistics, Gallant also passes the test. In three seasons with a subpar Panthers’ roster, the team ranked – for the most part – above league average in several important underlying categories. These being Corsi for percentage (CF%) and expected goals percentage (xGF%). His job with the Golden Knights will make advanced statistic followers gleam with joy. After ranking slightly above league average in the team’s inaugural season, Vegas ranked both third in xGF% and CF%. Before he got fired this season, his team ranked fourth in CF% and first in xGF%. 

Gallant has been extremely successful in his coaching career. He made a team in Florida, whose roster was not necessarily good, perform better than expected. He also helped build an expansion team and led them to a Stanley Cup appearance while seeing them excel both traditionally and through advanced statistics.

Peter Laviolette

Laviolette is the name on this list the casual fans will recognize the most. He has been coaching in the NHL for 18 years and has spent his time with four different teams. He won the Stanley Cup with the Hurricanes in 2008-09 and was runner up in 2009-10 and 2016-17. Across his career as head coach, he has 143 games of playoff experience and 1,210 regular-season games under his belt (637-425-25-123). 

Peter Laviolette was replaced by former Devils’ head coach John Hynes midseason. (Photo by Gene J. Puskar/The Associated Press)

Looking at just this and you may automatically think he is the most qualified of the candidates. But it is not that simple. Laviolette coaches in a way that closely resembles what former head coach and current Predators’ bench boss John Hynes wanted to do. Play a type of low-event hockey which, in return, has adverse effects on some of the team’s players, with examples being Nikita Gusev and Jesper Bratt’s struggles in New Jersey under Hynes. 

By no means is Laviolette a worse head coach than John Hynes, as that move by Nashville was questionable. And interestingly enough, Nashville’s underlying numbers have taken a noticeable hit since Hynes took over. Laviolette is also a lot better of an option than Nasreddine. My issue is he is not as good as a candidate that several have him pegged to be. A good fit for a head coach is so much more than how they performed in the past. And so much more how their system fits the roster.

John Stevens

Stevens is the most interesting of the four candidates on this list. And most likely the one on the list most people have not heard of. He’s had head coaching experience with two different clubs. He spent parts of four years with the Philadelphia Flyers from 2006-2010 and also coached the Los Angeles Kings during the 2011-12 season and from 2017-2019. Most recently, Stevens has been an assistant coach for the Dallas Stars.

In his time with the Flyers, Stevens did a remarkable job in turning around a 22-48-12 team to one that went 42-29-11 and lost in the conference finals. The following season he took the Flyers back to the playoffs but lost in round one. His stint came to an end in Philadelphia 13 games through the 2009-10 season. Coincidentally enough, Laviolette took over and the Flyers played roughly the same point pace the team did with Stevens at the helm.

John Stevens most recently has served as one of the Dallas Stars’ assistant coach. (Photo by: Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Stevens moved to Los Angeles after his time in Philadelphia, where he served as an assistant coach for years. He was on the bench when the Kings defeated the Devils in the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals. He was hired full-time for the 2017-18 season and led a Kings’ roster on the decline to a playoff appearance, where the team was swept by Gallant’s Golden Knights in round one. The Kings entered full-blown decline/rebuild mode the next season, and Stevens was let go after a 4-8-1 start.

Interestingly enough, in his tenure with Philadelphia, Steven’s was known for high-scoring teams with formidable defenses. However, once he moved to Los Angeles this was the complete opposite, as the Kings relied on the team’s defense and goaltending. The same seems apparent, although in an assistant’s role, in Dallas as well. 

Analytically Stevens’-led teams have not been all that great. Both CF% and xGF% of the Flyers and Kings over Stevens’ tenures were, for the most part, below league average. This is slightly troublesome for me. 

The Choice

The best candidate out of the four above, and I am sure Devils’ fans will agree, is Gallant. He checks several boxes the Devils are looking for. He fits the type of hockey the team wants to play, has long sustained success at the NHL-level, and has built programs from the bottom. 

In comparison to the other candidates, Nasreddine is by far the worst option. He faltered behind the bench this season, and I am unsure that a full season would see improvements.

Laviolette and Stevens are on a similar level for me. Stevens’ teams, although on-ice results were pretty good, the underlying numbers were not all that impressive. Laviolette has had sustained success in the league, but the system he will probably want to implement in New Jersey is extremely similar to what Hynes tried. And although a lot better coach than Hynes, I am still unsure if the system would work, as the Devils’ roster is built for a different style of play. 

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1 comment on “Evaluating Rumored Devils’ Head Coaching Candidates”

  1. Mac Reply

    Good article and analysis. Thanks . Hope they can get Gallant . Hope he and the GM can build a winning team behind a promising young goaltender in Mac Black and recent draft picks . Need a coach that can lead new and existing players to reduce GAA. We have a good goalie , need to have top D in front of him .

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