No one expected Alain Nasreddine to take over as head coach of the New Jersey Devils. Let’s reflect on Jersey’s unique coaching history.
NEWARK, NJ—We’re over a week into December and it’s already felt like a long season for the New Jersey Devils and their fanbase.
While most are focused on New Jersey’s current interim head coach in Alain Nasreddine, or who the Devils will hire this offseason, the coaching change was nothing out of the ordinary for the franchise.
New Jersey’s coaching history entails a carousel of bench bosses, especially once Lou Lamoriello took over as general manager in 1987-88. ESNY looks back on the Devils’ unique coaching history and what the future may possess for the next head coach.
The Forgotten Years
Prior to Lamoriello taking over Jersey’s team, the Devils first two coaches in team history were Billy MacMillan and Doug Carpenter. According to Hockey-Reference, Tom McVie also served a brief stint as head coach prior to the Lamoriello era.
Mr. Lamoriello wasted no time hiring a new coach during his first season with the team. The Hockey Hall of Famer replaced Carpenter with Jim Schoenfeld in 1987-88. Schoenfeld coached the Devils for parts of the next two seasons while also taking the team to the playoffs for the first time in the spring of ’88.
Next up on Lamoriello’s list was John Cunniff in 1989-90, who like Schoenfeld, didn’t last more than two seasons. McVie returned to the Devils while replacing Cunniff and lasted for the entire following season in 1990-91.
As you can see, New Jersey and its head coaches never got off on the right foot from day one. However, the legendary Herb Brooks was hired as head coach for the 1992-93 season. Brooks and the Devils posted a franchise record 40 wins but were ousted in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
After 11 seasons in the NHL, New Jersey witnessed six different head coaches, while one of those bench bosses served two tenures. You can do the math.
Lamoriello appeared to have found his right-hand man when he hired Hockey Hall of Famer Jacques Lemaire in 1993-94. Lemaire incorporated an efficient “trap” system for Jersey and those Devils’ teams proved they were the best at executing the “boring style” of hockey.
Lemaire coached the Devils to two Eastern Conference Finals appearances in 1994 and 1995 while winning the team’s first-ever Stanley Cup championship in ’95. There’s no need to discuss 1994…we understand Sam Rosen—that “moment will last a lifetime.”
To date, Lemaire is the Devils’ all-time wins leader for a head coach with 276 regular wins. His 35 playoff victories are team-high, as well. Lemaire was released from the team after the Devils were upset as the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed by an eighth-seeded Ottawa Senators club in the first round of the 1997-98 playoffs.
The Devils dominated teams during Lemaire’s last two seasons but failed to advance past the second round of the playoffs.
Perhaps it was a shock to some, but Lamoriello hired Robbie Ftorek to replace Lemaire for the 1998-99 campaign. The last time Ftorek coached an NHL team prior to then joining the Devils was in 1988-89 for the Lost Angeles Kings.
Ftorek was a different breed in relation to Lamoriello’s past coaches. He was emotional and expressed plenty of body language, to say the least. While Ftorek only lasted parts of two seasons with Jersey, he’ll forever be remembered.
For starters, the first memory that comes to mind of the hot-headed coach is him throwing the backup goaltender’s bench on the ice at Detroit in a losing effort. With the Devils losing 2-1, forward Jay Pandolfo suffered a questionable injury which caused his face to excessively bleed. While the fan-favorite laid on the ice unable to get up, the Red Wings cashed in on an insurance goal late in the third period.
The next notable memory of Ftorek is the fact that Lamoriello fired him with just eight games remaining in the 1999-00 season. At the time, that was unheard of in professional sports, but déjà vu would eventually take place again for a future Devils’ coach…
Either way, assistant coach, Larry Robinson, took over and the rest is history. New Jersey won the 2000 Stanley Cup and in memorable fashion—partly thanks to Ftorek being fired in an odd fashion. But seriously, the 2000 and 2001 teams were arguably the best Devils’ teams, ever.
In 2001, the Devils were a different squad under Robinson. The team finished with the second-best record in the NHL but sadly lost to the Colorado Avalanche in seven games during the Cup final.
After two long seasons, it seemed that Jersey ran out of fuel. 2001-02 was a forgettable year for the Devils who finished in sixth for the Eastern Conference and were bounced in the first round by the Cinderella Carolina Hurricanes. The axe came down for Larry Robinson.
The former Pittsburgh Penguins coach posted a 20-8-2-1 record with Jersey down the stretch, but Lamoriello opted to bring in the great Pat Burns during the 2002-03 offseason. For the record, Constantine hasn’t served as an NHL head coach since.
The 2002-03 Devils were dominant and in large thanks to Burns. Like Ftorek, he portrayed a strong personality and emotion but his coaching clearly guided the Devils to their third Stanley Cup championship.
Burns coached the 2003-04 Devils back to the playoffs, but the Scott Stevens-less squad (injury) was bounced in the first round by the Philadelphia Flyers in five games. Sadly, it was announced that offseason that Burns was diagnosed with cancer. The 1998 Jack Adams Award winner stepped down as coach that same summer and unfortunately passed in 2010.
New Jersey’s regular-season record under Burns was an impressive 89-45-22-8.
Cup-less Ever Since
After the miserable 2004-05 NHL lockout, Larry Robinson returned for a second stint behind the Devils’ bench in 2005-06. Most probably thought a Robinson return would’ve worked out, but the team’s performance was subpar. Robinson was fired after posting a 14-13-5 record.
Just when fans thought Lamoriello already accomplished every shocking announcement possible in professional sports, the GM named himself head coach of the Devils for the first time. John MacLean served as the team’s primary assistant coach, and New Jersey went 32-14-4 under the tandem while winning the (then) Atlantic Division.
Lou’s magic carried over into the playoffs after the Devils defeated the New York Rangers for the first time in franchise history. Better yet, New Jersey swept the Broadway Blueshirts.
Following a second-round loss to the Hurricanes, Lamoriello hired another former Montreal Canadiens product in Claude Julien (Lemaire, Robinson, Burns). The 2006-07 Devils cruised through the regular season and posted a 47-24-8 record under Julien and two more wins would have marked a franchise record. However, with three games left in the regular season, Lamoriello broke the headlines—again.
Julien was fired for reasons that are still officially unclear. Yet, one would have to imagine that the players didn’t get along with the (then) eventual Stanley Cup champion head coach (2011 Boston Bruins).
2007-08 was a tough offseason for New Jersey considering that Scott Gomez left for the Rangers via unrestricted free agency, as did Brian Rafalski for Detroit. Lamoriello opted to bring in a rookie NHL coach and one of the notorious Sutter brothers, Brent.
Prior to joining the Devils, Sutter spent seven seasons coaching Junior Hockey in the Western Hockey League with the Red Deer Rebels. Sutter and the Devils displayed regular-season success in the two seasons he acted as the bench boss. However, the first-time NHL coach was granted permission to opt-out of the last year of his contract in 2009-10.
Similar to other New Jersey coaches that didn’t win Stanley Cups, Sutter experienced commendable success aside from the playoffs—New Jersey was bounced from the first round during both postseason appearances under Sutter while being embarrassed by the Rangers in his rookie year and then blowing a 3-2 series lead to Carolina, yet again.
With Sutter quitting on the Devils and signing with the Calgary Flames that offseason, Lamoriello pulled a “Lou move” by re-hiring a familiar face. Yes, Jacques returned.
Jacques’ Return Part I
After a decade away from New Jersey, Lemaire returned to a Devils squad that appeared poised contend for Lord Stanley in 2009-10. The great Martin Brodeur was still in Vezina Trophy form. The team entailed star power and commendable veteran presence in all areas of the ice. Plus, New Jersey acquired a unique sniper in Ilya Kovalchuk prior to the 2010 NHL trade deadline.
All the components seemed aligned that season for Jersey to hoist its fourth Stanley Cup. However, after another first-place finish, the Devils were bounced in the first round by a Stanley Cup Final-bound Flyers squad.
John MacLean Finally Gets His Shot
After spending almost a decade behind the bench as an assistant coach, one of the greatest Devils of all-time finally received his opportunity to shine as a bench boss under Lamoriello.
John MacLean took over as head coach during the 2010-11 offseason and with a New Jersey team that had Stanley Cup expectations. To put things in perspective—the team started off with its first line on the depth chart as Kovalchuk and Zach Parise on the wings, while Travis Zajac centered the two future Hockey Hall of Famers.
New Jersey kicked off the campaign with one of its worst starts in team history, and MacLean was relieved of his duties after a 9-22-2 record. Of course, like most general managers would have acted—Lamoriello re-hired, Lemaire—I’m not kidding.
Jersey simplified its game and actually made a historic run towards the postseason but fell short. Lemaire then addressed the media after the team’s final game of the season and announced his retirement. Yet, the Hall of Famer also hinted that his team was in good enough to make a run at a Stanley Cup…he wasn’t wrong.
Oh, how Jersey misses, Jacques…
The Love-Hate Relationship With Peter DeBoer
Jersey entered the 2011-12 season with realistic expectations—clinch a playoff berth after missing the postseason for the first time in over a decade. Rookie head coach Peter DeBoer and company accomplished more than that.
The Atlantic Division sent four teams to the playoffs that season—with the Devils finishing as the fourth seed with a commendable 48-28-6 record. Jersey advanced to its fifth Stanley Cup in 2011-12. It was a memorable journey for a franchise that was long overdue for a legitimate Cup run and also entailed a double-overtime victory in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Rangers—at The Rock.
While DeBoer appeared to be a potential fit for years to come—his tenure spiraled downhill after the Cup run. Kovalchuk shockingly retired (2013) while Parise and David Clarkson left for unrestricted free agency. Additionally, both Patrik Elias and Martin Brodeur were both on their last laps.
Jersey failed to qualify for the playoffs under DeBoer in the shortened 2012-13 season and then again in 2013-14, which also marked Brodeur’s last season with the team.
The fans were fed up with DeBoer entering the 2014-15 campaign, but Jersey was forced to wait for his departure. The once praised bench boss was relieved of his duties during the holiday season that year (12-17-7). Lamoriello, Adam Oates and Scott Stevens took over as the “three-headed staff” for the remainder of the season.
However, the team’s performance didn’t improve (20-19-7). Little did fans realize that the last they would see of Lamoriello with the Devils was actually on the team’s bench.
The organization brought in Ray Shero to take over as GM that offseason and Lamoriello departed to take over the Toronto Maple Leafs GM role.
A Whole New Organization
With Lamoriello out for the first time in almost three decades, Jersey’s fanbase was re-energized, at first. It was arguably for the better that Lamoriello and the Devils went their separate ways, as the Devils were certainly in need of an overhaul in relation to building its roster and for the future.
The former Pittsburgh Penguins general manager in Shero hired a familiar face, John Hynes, who coached Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, prior to joining the Devils.
In 2015-16, Hynes was arguably what the Devils needed with a modern approach and a much different personality than any other Devils coach in recent memory. New Jersey surprised the NHL by winning 38 games in Hynes’ rookie season and an exciting rebuild appeared to be underway—finally.
Jersey struggled the following season and ended up with the No. 1 overall pick (Nico Hischier) at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. In 2017-18, the Devils clinched their first playoff berth since 2011-12 and were winning games in exciting fashion.
While the team was bounced in the first round of the playoffs to the likes of the Tampa Bay Lightning, there was hope in Jersey for the first time in a long time. Still, the following season seemed like another step back.
Fans expected a playoff squad, but the end result of 2018-19 was another No. 1 overall draft-pick (Jack Hughes).
While Hynes and the Devils struggled and “underachieved” out of the gate this season, the reality is that the Devils were never as talented as the fans expected. The mix of players doesn’t fit the mold to compete in the modern NHL game, and now the Devils are looking at another rookie NHL coach to guide the team out of turmoil for the remainder of the season.
With that being said, Hynes is the second longest-tenured coach in Devils history after spending parts of five seasons behind the bench. Only the great Lemaire coached in more games than Hynes for New Jersey. But, keep in mind that Lemaire manned the bench on three different occasions.
It seems that the Devils have always found success the following season after relieving a head coach. Fans shouldn’t expect immediate success under Nasreddine, but a change of pace will help guide the Devils and skaters such as Hughes and Hsichier in the right direction for the next bench boss in line to inherit.
Here’s another fun fact
According to Hockey-Reference, Lamoriello has the highest points-percentage out of any head coach who’s been behind the Devils’ bench for more than 40 career games.