NEWARK, N.J. — As the saying goes, you can't fire the players. So New Jersey Devils general manager Ray Shero did the next best thing and sacrificed head coach John Hynes on Tuesday evening.
"John has done a really good job here over past four-plus seasons in terms of establishing things both on and off the ice," noted Shero approximately 90 minutes prior to puck drop against the Vegas Golden Knights at the Prudential Center. "Everybody had higher expectations; but collectively as a group, our team, I don't think there's any one player that is performing even at the level — let alone above — that we expect or maybe they expect but that's the thing that's disappointing."
The Devils started the season a disastrous 0-4-2, which the GM called a "head is spinning" beginning as they "lost every way imaginable, it seemed." It was a shocking turn of events considering the addition of P.K. Subban, 2019 first-overall draft pick Jack Hughes and a healthy Taylor Hall and Cory Schneider. After the team's 4-3 loss to Vegas, the team stands 9-14-4 and Hughes is hurt, Schneider was sent down to the minors, Hall is reportedly on the trade block and Subban hasn't registered a point in 15 games.
"There's opportunity for them to find out where we are here and where we're going to go because in term of being where we are this season . . . no one has really gotten to the level we expected or they would probably expect," noted the GM who hired Hynes in 2015 in New Jersey, five years after hiring him to run the Penguins' AHL team bench. "Over the course of some time here hopefully that's going to happen to really find out what we have here in terms of our players and where we're going to go."
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While the Devils have struggled to produce — 29th in the NHL in goals-per-game (2.50) before Tuesday's game — they've also allowed a staggering 3.62 goals-against in their first 26 games (second-worst in the NHL). Over the first four seasons of Hynes' tenure, the team was averaging 2.57 goals-per-game — so they're not far off that mark this season; however, they were at 3.02 goals-against-per-game, which makes this season a mind-boggling rise.
"It's because of us," said captain Andy Greene after the game. "Someone losing their job because of the way we were playing, the way we haven't been executing. Hynes was a real good coach, a great coach, great person. It's always sad when you see that."
The scoreboard results this season have surprised because on paper the Devils have a solid squad with the players mentioned above, combined with 2017 first-overall pick Nico Hischier, Sami Vatanen, Greene and newcomers Nikita Gusev, who led the KHL in scoring last season, and Wayne Simmonds. Yes, a bunch of new faces can sometimes take time to gel but this team never seemed to find its mojo under Hynes, which grew more evident in the last few days. So on the second night of a back-to-back, Shero felt the sand had run out on Hynes' timer after the team lost 4-0 to their Hudson River rivals, the New York Rangers on Saturday and an abysmal 7-1 defeat at the hands of the Buffalo Sabres Monday night.
"It goes down to execution . . . some of you saw the game last night, I mean, we can't make a five-foot pass. I mean that's — I don't know," noted Shero, who couldn't find any other words for the loss the Sabres.
"At the end it's always about the players, at the end we're on the ice . . . have to take responsibility on that," said Hischier, who netted a goal, after the game. "Nobody in here likes where we're at, what we're doing right now but it's not that we're not trying. We know we're a better team than that — we just have to figure it out."
Despite another loss to Vegas, the team played well for the first 40 — and actually went into the third period up 2-1 — under new interim bench boss Alain Nasreddine. He takes the helm from the man he worked under for more than nine seasons and stressed that considering "everyone in that room has been underachieving," it's a clean slate.
"I don't want to live in the past and what happened first 25 games," Nasreddine commented postgame. "Tonight, you know it's a new beginning and we had to lead, yes, going into the third but it was more about what we did and what we didn't do."
Opportunity is now knocking not only for these players to turn this season around — quick reminder, the 2019 Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues were in last place on Jan. 3 — but the head coach. Shero said that he will begin to keep his eye out for a new bench boss for next season, with this staff getting every chance to prove themselves too.
"I think we're better than this," Shero said. "When you've got 23 players that aren't playing at their level nearly that — I don't think I'm sitting here saying something that's not true — I think they're better than this but we'll have to see. Usually, it's five, six guys that are having down years or three guys are doing great and other guys are pretty [good]. I don't think it's hard to see after twenty-something games this year that we've had that from anybody. So, it's a big challenge but something that [Nasreddine is] going to embrace and certainly, we'll see where it goes."
The Devils have Wednesday off and will get back to work on Thursday before their next matchup Friday when the also underperforming Chicago Blackhawks come to town.