Lichtenstein: Axing Hynes Won’t Change Flawed Devils Prospects

GM Shero Should Hold Himself More Accountable

Steve Lichtenstein
December 04, 2019 - 10:53 am

“This was my fault, too.”

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The above were words that Devils general manager Ray Shero did not use when explaining his decision to fire coach John Hynes prior to Tuesday night’s home tilt versus Las Vegas. Alain Nasreddine, Hynes’ longtime assistant, took over on an interim basis, debuting with a 4-3 loss to the Golden Knights.

I can understand why Shero was moved to axe Hynes, who had been the longest-tenured coach among the nine New York-area pro sports teams. Consecutive no-show performances against the Rangers at home and in Buffalo dropped New Jersey to 9-13-4. Their 22 points rank next to last in the NHL. 

Rarely is a match these days as one-sided as Monday’s. The Devils were down 5-0 to the Sabres after one period in a game in which Shero said, “We can’t make a 5-foot pass.”

John Hynes
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Saving Hynes from further humiliation in front of angry Prudential Center fans is one thing, but Shero basically threw Hynes under the bus Tuesday. 

“When you’ve got 23 players that aren’t playing at the level nearly that I (expected),” Shero said. “I think they’re better than this.”

Not once did Shero say, “Maybe some of these guys — the guys I drafted, signed or traded for — aren’t as good as I thought they were.”

When is it his turn to point the finger at himself?

Hynes has a long record of development success, including six seasons as head coach of the U.S. National Team Development Program and then five seasons as then-Penguins GM Shero’s hand-picked coach at AHL Wilkes Barre/Scranton. He’s typically been on USA Hockey’s speed dial when it came time to choose a coach in whatever capacity was needed at amateur and pro international tournaments.

So are we all supposed to now lay the blame entirely on Hynes for how poorly guys such as Pavel Zacha, Michael McLeod or Damon Severson, among others, have developed in New Jersey?

Shero and Hynes had basically been attached at the hip since they both joined the Devils organization about a month apart in 2015. Both earned contract extensions at the tail end of last season, a similarly underachieving 72-point campaign that left a poor taste among fans who expected the team to build upon the playoff-qualifying success from the prior year. 

Shero then made big splashes this past offseason to close a massive talent gap with the rest of the league. In addition to selecting wunderkind center Jack Hughes with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, Shero traded for defenseman P.K. Subban and wing Nikita Gusev while also signing beefy wing Wayne Simmonds to a free agent contract.

That it didn’t take right away is an understatement. The 0-4-2 start itself wasn’t as cringeworthy as the way the defeats transpired. The Devils blew third-period leads three times in that stretch, all at home. The three road losses were noncompetitive.

“That set a lot of things back,” Shero said. “Your head’s spinning — we cost ourselves games. We lost in every way imaginable, it seemed.”

The Devils basically played .500 hockey until last weekend, when they were outscored 11-1 in the two inexcusable efforts that sent Shero to owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer to discuss making a change behind the bench.

I guess Shero is still holding out hope his club can mimic last season’s Blues. St. Louis struggled early, made a coaching change in November and eventually went on a run for the ages to hoist the Stanley Cup. In Pittsburgh, Shero promoted Dan Bylsma to head coach in February 2009. The Penguins also captured the Cup that season.

Let’s make one thing clear: Shero could trade for Barry Trotz right now, and it wouldn’t matter. How could the exalted Islanders coach win with such a soft and undersized defense corps, too many forwards who prefer the safety of the perimeter instead of crashing the hard areas in the corners or around the net and goalies who rank near the league bottom in save percentage?

All of this is playing out adjacent to an even larger drama — the Taylor Hall conundrum. The All-Star left wing, who was honored with the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP in 2017-18, seems content to play out the final season of his contract before testing unrestricted free agency. Hall, 28, has spoken openly about not wanting to waste any more of his prime years on the outside of the playoffs.

Given where the Devils stand, Shero, who stole Hall from Edmonton in a one-for-one trade for defenseman Adam Larsson in the 2016 offseason, would be foolish to let this play out much longer. Every day, Hall’s trade value ticks slightly lower, since he’s considered a rental unless he agrees to re-sign with the acquiring team on the spot. If Shero loses Hall in July for nothing, like when John Tavares bolted the Islanders, he should be joining Hynes on the unemployment line. 

Whether or not the two issues are intertwined will probably never be known. Publicly, Hall has praised Hynes for making him a more complete player. Hall seemed genuinely upset that he couldn’t contribute more this season (four goals and 17 assists in 27 games) after a knee injury cut short his 2018-19 campaign at 33 games.

“I have a pretty cool trophy at home that I think (Hynes) had a part in,” Hall said following Tuesday’s game.

Again, I’m not excusing Hynes for his 150-159-45 record, with just the one playoff berth, in four-plus seasons. His system seems to be geared more toward a heavier group that likes to grind out games along the walls. That’s not who these Devils are.

Nasreddine certainly wasn’t going to alter the Devils’ identity in a few hours. Against Vegas, Shero’s team blew another third-period lead.

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Related: Boomer Esiason: Similarities Between John Hynes, David Fizdale Situations