By Steve Lichtenstein
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In another time and in another place, New Jersey coach John Hynes might be feeling a burn around his buttocks.
Whenever a team is plummeting in the standings like Hynes’ club has in the last month, the coach often has reason to worry that a pink slip will be sitting on his desk when he arrives at the rink the next morning.
Ah, but these are the Devils, who are by no means a win-now team. This might be their fifth consecutive rebuilding season since they last qualified for the playoffs, but remember that their owner is Josh Harris. He also happens to control the NBA’s 76ers, meaning he is well-versed in “The Process.”
And though one would assume that residing within the confines of the New York media market would raise the stakes, the Devils toil in relative obscurity. At their media day in September, newly acquired star left wing Taylor Hall looked somewhat bemused when asked about the pressures of this market as compared to when he played in Edmonton, noting that there would be rows of media members at past Oilers events instead of the handful questioning him that morning in the bowels of the Prudential Center.
“To be honest, I think we were under more of a microscope in Edmonton,” Hall said.
So at worst, Hynes might be finding his seat somewhat tepid instead of hot following the Devils’ sixth straight loss, 3-2 in a shootout to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night.
The Devils are 3-9-4 in their last 16 games since Nov. 17. After occupying the last wild-card slot in the Eastern Conference at the Thanksgiving break, New Jersey, with 31 points, now sits 15th, just three points ahead of the last-place Islanders. In the four contests prior to Saturday’s 3-1 loss in Ottawa, the Devils were barely competitive, getting outscored 19-3.
Sunday’s defeat to the hated Rangers can’t even be looked at as a step in the right direction, given that the Devils were 75 seconds away from an upset before Derek Stepan’s redirection, with goalie Henrik Lundqvist pulled for an extra attacker, tied the score. The Devils then squandered about five glorious scoring opportunities in the overtime before falling, 2-1, in the skills competition.
When these galling losses used to occur under similar circumstances on the other side of the Hudson River, Rangers fans howled for changes behind the bench until the pressure was too much for management to bear. Legendary Devils president Lou Lamoriello used to toss coaches to the curb following slumps of lesser length.
While professional sports are still a results-oriented business, I expect the Devils to remain patient with Hynes, who is only in his second year as an NHL head coach. Ray Shero, who replaced Lamoriello as general manager in May 2015, has given no indication that he will waver from his commitment to Hynes and his system.
That system calls for a disciplined north-south game, which has been missing in action at crucial parts of these games (like second periods). Hynes has attempted to hold his team accountable, benching and demoting guys and calling out the team’s “compete levels” and insufficient “sandpaper” in his players’ games. He even went so far as to call up and dress old-time enforcer Luke Gazdic for a pair of recent games.
That’s not to say that I don’t find fault in some of Hynes’ moves. I would concur with those who believe that the constant personnel and line alterations are contributing to the team’s demise — give the boys a chance to develop chemistry. Hynes seems to rely too much on deadwood like defenseman Jon Merrill (New Jersey is 0-7-2 in games he’s played) and forward Sergey Kalinin (one point in 23 games) despite negligible production. Meanwhile, a talent like 2015 first-round draft pick Pavel Zacha has been shifted all over the place while serving less power play ice time than muckers Beau Bennett and Devante Smith-Pelly. And how, for instance, did Hynes not recognize what should have been obvious during the preseason, that rookie left wing Miles Wood, who was all over the Garden ice on Sunday, could be of use with his speed?
However, the bottom line, as I noted in my last post, is that Hynes just doesn’t have the horses to compete, especially in the Metropolitan Division, where the top five teams are on a somewhat historic run.
Shero simply miscalculated. While his roster has exhibited exponentially more speed and skill as compared to a season ago, it has seemed to come at the expense of the team’s defense. The backline corps has registered 16 goals in 31 games this season as compared to 20 tallies in 82 games in 2015-16, but its primary obligation is to keep pucks out of its own net.
In that regard, the Devils are failing miserably. New Jersey has surrendered a league-worst 60 goals in its last 16 games. Goalies Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid have looked shell-shocked during this stretch until Schneider’s brilliance on Sunday.
Even with this Devils season on the brink of total collapse, I don’t believe you can pin the blame on Hynes, whose commendable work during his rookie season in New Jersey was rewarded by USA Hockey with summer gigs as head coach at the World Championships and as an assistant under John Tortorella at the World Cup of Hockey.
He didn’t suddenly forget how to coach. By all accounts, his message is still heard in the locker room. You won’t find anyone available who has a better record developing young players.
Hynes should be safe from Shero’s ax this season — so long as Shero isn’t decapitated first.
That isn’t ownership’s style. Brett Brown, the 76ers coach, is still going strong with a career record of 54-219.
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