No one has been spared from the finger of blame for the abysmal start our New Jersey Devils have had 19 games into the 2018-2019 season. One of the more recent focuses of this undesired spotlight has been Head Coach John Hynes—with some even going as far to call for his job. Currently in his fourth season with the Devils, Hynes has endured his fair share of challenges coaching a team that’s literally being rebuilt from scratch.
Before we continue, let’s just preface this with saying neither of us actually believe or foresee coach Hynes losing his job any time soon. However, due to the sluggish start and some of his moot coaching decisions, it is a topic worth addressing—from both perspectives. Coach Hynes has accomplished a lot during his tenure with the Devils, but has also had some head-scratching moments that are causing confusion, frustration, and (in some cases) total outrage.
Let’s start by giving credit where it’s due.
The Devils are rebuilding—and Hynes is a key part…While many underachieving teams always claim to be “one or two players away,” fact of the matter is rebuilds (if done right) take anywhere from 3-5 years. Last season’s postseason clinch didn’t so much re-establish the Devils as a perennial playoff contender as it did the team’s new foundation and identity. Coach Hynes has been instrumental in the developmental progress of this team, from Taylor Hall’s MVP-caliber season and Kyle Palmieri’s emergence as a top-six goal-scorer, to identifying diamond-in-the-rough talents like Jesper Bratt and Blake Coleman. The Devils aren’t where we want them just yet, but many players Coach Hynes has committed to developing have become valuable assets to this Devils team.
Hynes can only work with what he’s got…While this does circle back to the reality New Jersey is still rebuilding, it’s ironic how many fans that are quick to jump on Hynes for his contributions to the state of this team, are the same ones who lamented over General Manager Ray Shero’s frustratingly inactive summer. Let’s keep in mind the Devils lost a considerable number of roster players this offseason—Michael Grabner, Patrick Maroon, John Moore, Brian Gibbons—without making any outside replacements or improvements. Shero was hoping his younger players that facilitated last year’s playoff berth, along with any internal replacements stepping up, would build on last season’s success. You could argue coaching has factored into some players struggling or underachieving, but sometimes there’s only so much trial and error a coach can conduct.
The youth movement is in full swing…The jury is certainly still out on youngsters like Steve Santini, John Quenneville and Pavel Zacha. For the most part, many young Devils players have become mainstays for this team. On defense, names like Damon Severson, Mirco Mueller—whose play has improved considerably this season—and Will Butcher play regularly, and have big roles on special teams. Hynes has also overseen the development of young forwards like Blake Coleman, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt and Miles Wood—core components of the Devil’s top-nine. Some might think Hynes gets too generous with his ice time to veterans like Ben Lovejoy, Stefan Noesen, or Brian Boyle. Whether it’s coaches feeling obligated to utilize their veterans so as not to waste their general manager’s investments, or being unable to push young players at pivotal times after spending extensive stretches already on the ice, it’s something every team does that fans simply struggle to accept.
Amidst the Devil’s rough start to 2018-2019, many are saying Coach Hynes’ questionable practices and decisions play a big role in New Jersey’s struggles.
Roster/lineup decisions…This has been one of the more arguable talking points against John Hynes at times this season. After the team’s 4-0-0 start, Hynes felt the need to shake things up a bit, and sent down rookie forward John Quenneville. The former 30th overall pick didn’t reach the score sheet in those first four games, however he was near the top of the team in corsi for at 55%, while his line with Travis Zajac and Miles Wood was one of the more reliable units in terms of creating consistent pressure in the offensive and defensive zones. Since his demotion however, Quenneville has posted 10 points (4g, 6a) in 11 games (while the Devils continue to struggle finding depth scoring).
Allocating power play time…Early on this season and for stretches of last year, the Devils often had Brian Boyle getting significant ice time as a net-front presence. Boyle had his flashes, but over the long haul, this depiction of size vs skill doesn’t make much sense. Last season, Patrick Maroon found his way to the front of the net on the power play, but also had better hands in close than Boyle. Since Boyle was placed on the IR, we have seen another new face in front of the net—Stefan Noesen. In 2017-2018, Noesen managed 27 points (13g, 14a) in 72 games, but was a +12 with a corsi score of 50.2%. So far this season, Noesen has just three points through 15 contests, is a -5 and has a 49.7% corsi for. If players like Zacha and Quenneville can both be reprimanded—and rightfully so—for their lackluster offensive contribution, how does Noesen get rewarded for poor play with power play time? Yes, Nico has been missing and that spot needs to be filled, but wouldn’t it make more sense to have Travis Zajac and Miles Wood rotate as the net-front players?
Closing games and defensive lapses…New Jersey was completely exposed on their first road trip, getting outscored 34-17, and seemingly never could come up with a solution to the issues. Some people credit Coach Hynes for remaining calm during press conferences, yet many would prefer he show some emotion when getting blown out on a nightly basis. In most of their losing efforts, the Devils often find a 2-4 minute window when the game completely escapes them, and the rout is either on or just long enough to surrender a pair of goals and lose before the game even can begin (see the first minute of Saturday’s loss in Carolina). Tied into the players having mental lapses are some seemingly inexcusable decisions with late-game ice time—most notably, the overtime game vs Detroit. Not only was a 2-0 lead blown—in which New Jersey seemingly was in complete control—but somehow Travis Zajac managed to never see an important face-off, while Brett Seney was thrown to the wolves. Now, I understand wanting to take advantage of open ice by having the fastest players out, but during three-on-three—where possession is vital—a player who is winning just under 55 percent of face-offs in Zajac needs to be on the ice.