Something had to give.
After a draft-lottery win, the drafting of Jack Hughes and other significant offseason changes made with a playoff berth in mind, the New Jersey Devils couldn’t get their game in gear this season.
Shero told assembled media on Tuesday that the Devils’ 4-0 home loss to the New York Rangers last Saturday and a 7-1 blowout in Buffalo on Monday were the tipping point in his decision to relieve head coach John Hynes of his duties.
Despite a short turnaround between games — the Devils host the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday evening at Prudential Center — Shero said it wouldn’t have been fair to Hynes to keep him behind the bench once his decision had been made.
Hynes, 44, coached the Devils to a 150-159-45 record over 354 games. New Jersey reached the playoffs once during Hynes’ four years behind the bench, losing in five games to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the 2017-18 postseason.
After they drafted Hughes last June, then swung a draft-weekend trade to acquire Norris Trophy-winning defenseman P.K. Subban and signed gritty winger Wayne Simmonds as a free agent, the Devils were a popular preseason pick to break out this year. But it hasn’t worked out that way. New Jersey had a 9-13-4 through 26 games and sat 10 points out of a playoff spot on the NHL’s Eastern Conference when the coaching change was announced on Tuesday.
“The start to the season, which was 0-4-2, was not what anybody anticipated,” Shero admitted. “I think that set a lot of things back. We cost ourselves games. We lost in every way imaginable, it seemed.”
There have been some more positive moments since then, but success wasn’t sustainable. Hence, the coaching change. “Obviously, the Ranger game was not good and the Buffalo game — I’m not even sure how to describe it,” Shero said.
Shero admitted frustration that the entire Devils roster has been underperforming this season. “I think we’re better than this,” he said, “but we’ll have to see.”
The man tasked with righting the ship is longtime Devils assistant coach Alain Nasreddine. The 44-year-old has been promoted to interim head coach and will work with current assistants Rick Kowalsky, Mike Grier and goaltending coach Roland Melanson. Devils pro scout Peter Horachek, who has past experience as an interim head coach with the Florida Panthers and the Toronto Maple Leafs as well as an assistant with the Nashville Predators, will also join the group as a new assistant coach.
“I think the best way to look at it is maybe a fresh start for everybody,” said Nasreddine in his first media conference in his new role.
“This just happened. Everyone in that room has been underachieving. You’ve got to deserve and earn your opportunities. I’ve earned everything in life and I expect players to do the same thing with the way they play.”
Shero hired Hynes less than a month after taking over as general manager of the Devils during the summer of 2015. The two had a shared history in the Pittsburgh Penguins organization, where Hynes had served as head coach of the AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for five seasons. After a long career as a defenseman, primarily in the minor leagues, Nasreddine signed on as Hynes’ assistant in Wilkes-Barre Scanton after hanging up his skates, and came with him to New Jersey.
Nasreddine has no head coaching experience at any level. Horachek, 59, will be counted on to provide valuable guidance.
Nasreddine does know the Devils organization inside-out and feels he has learned well by working alongside Hynes. “A lot of people would be excited, but it’s mixed emotions,” Nasreddine admitted. “I owe this guy (Hynes) a lot. It is a little bit bittersweet.
“It’s an opportunity of a life time when you really sit down and think about it,” he continued. “There are only 31 of these jobs. When an opportunity like this arises, you have to take it. I’m glad they think I can help.”
With a game just hours away when the coaching change was made, Nasreddine didn’t say much about how he plans to change the Devils’ systems going forward. “Not great circumstances, but we have a game to win tonight, so that’s where the focus is,” he said.
Mackenzie Blackwood will start in net when the Devils host the Vegas Golden Knights, who kicked off a three-game road trip with a 4-1 win over the New York Rangers on Monday.
Hynes is the NHL’s third coaching casualty in less than two weeks. The Toronto Maple Leafs dismissed Mike Babcock on November 20, and Bill Peters resigned from the Calgary Flames on November 29. All three coaches have been replaced from within their respective organizations.