How the Devils’ Season Went Wrong

NEWARK — Ray Shero had been the Devils’ general manager for less than a month when he announced in June 2015 that John Hynes would be his head coach. Hynes was 40 and had no N.H.L. head-coaching experience, but he’d worked for Shero in Pittsburgh.

Shero and Hynes became the front men for a franchise that had won the Stanley Cup three times between 1995 and 2003 and wanted badly to be elite again. But in their first four seasons, the Devils made the playoffs only once, in 2018.

Then they won the draft lottery for the No. 1 overall draft pick for the second time in three years and added a premier defenseman. This season would finally be their time.

Fortified by the rookie center Jack Hughes and defenseman P.K. Subban, this season’s Devils team would be not just good; it would be fun and entertaining, a hot ticket. Goaltender Cory Schneider and forward Taylor Hall, the league’s most valuable player in 2018, appeared healthy after struggling with injuries the previous season.

Over the course of two dreadful months, though, it became obvious that something was terribly wrong. With the Devils (9-14-4) in 15th place in the 16-team Eastern Conference, Shero fired Hynes, his running mate, on Tuesday. The Devils would start over, again.

“I’m happy I hired him, and I think he did an incredible job to pushing us to where we were going,” Shero said before the Devils lost to the Vegas Golden Knights, 4-3. “Then, all of a sudden, the roller coaster started coming back down a bit. To get over that hump, the change needed to be made, and then we’ll see where we’ll go.”

For now, Alain Nasreddine, who had been an assistant under Hynes since 2010 when they were at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League, will be the interim coach. When Shero called him Tuesday to tell him the news, Nasreddine thought he might also be getting fired.

“When you get that phone call, you don’t know what to expect,” said Nasreddine, 44, who played in 74 N.H.L. games as a defenseman. “You expect the worst.”

Their first game under Nasreddine was much like most of the first 26 games under Hynes: The Devils took a lead into the third period only to see Vegas score three straight goals, all by Jonathan Marchessault, pleasing the surprising number of Golden Knights fans in the meager crowd of 12,831.

“I think we came out really good,” said the center Nico Hischier, the No. 1 overall pick in 2017, “but in the third period, we got scored on and it feels like, ‘Not again.’ It shouldn’t be like that.”

A night earlier, the Devils surrendered five first-period goals in a 7-1 loss on the road to the Buffalo Sabres, and last Saturday, the archrival Rangers clubbed the Devils at home, 4-0, wiping out any equilibrium they’d gained from a stretch in which they went 9-7-2.

“Everybody had higher expectations, but collectively as a group, our team, I don’t think there’s any one player who’s performing even at the level, let alone above, that we expect, or maybe they expect,” Shero said.

The Devils lost their first six games of the season, including a 6-4 loss on Oct. 14 to the Florida Panthers in which Schneider, their $6 million goalie, was shredded for five straight goals. He played only two more games before he was sent to their Binghamton farm club.

Hall, who played in only 33 games last season before having knee surgery, has scored only four goals this season. Because he is an unrestricted free agent after this season, Hall could become trade bait if the Devils continue to sag.

“I had literally no idea that a coaching change could be coming. I haven’t exactly been prowling social media lately,” said Hall, who added, “I just think it’s a new opportunity for everybody in here.”

The firing of Hynes stung Hall. He’d also underperformed after the Devils acquired him from Edmonton in a blockbuster trade in June 2016. After that 20-goal season, Shero asked Hall if he wanted to be traded. The next season, Hall scored 39 goals and led the Devils to the playoffs. He won the Hart Trophy, as the league’s most valuable player.

“I don’t talk about it a lot, but I have a pretty cool trophy at home that I think he had a part in and certainly helped me get to that,” Hall said, referring to Hynes.

Subban, projected as a top-line stopper and power-play asset, has only two goals and a poor minus-12 rating. Forward Kyle Palmieri is the only Devils player with 10 goals. Hischier has five goals and Hughes has four. The Devils are 28th out of 31 N.H.L. teams in goals per game.

“Coming into the season, you had a lot of promise, a lot of expectations,” said Palmieri, a New Jersey native who joined the team in 2015. “My time in Jersey hasn’t come with a ton of expectations, as far as what we were expected to achieve.”

There is time. On Dec. 3, 2018, the St. Louis Blues were 9-13-3 and had fired Coach Mike Yeo. His replacement, Craig Berube, led the Blues to the Stanley Cup, becoming only the second interim coach to do so. The first was the Devils’ Larry Robinson in 2000.

“I just think the season has been a yo-yo,” said the veteran defenseman Andy Greene, who is the Devils’ captain. “It’s been up and down. Good for a game or two, then bad. No real consistency, no real sustained momentum.”

Playing to about 90 percent capacity at home, the Devils are 27th in the league in attendance, down one spot from a year ago. Their next home game, against the Chicago Blackhawks, should draw a good crowd, only because Chicago fans will be mixed in.

The Devils will simply be trying to gain traction. An entertaining hot ticket, they are not.

“We’re better than this,” Shero said, grimly.

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