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NJ finally playing with panache; Alain Nasreddine deserves much credit

January 3, 2020, 10:15 PM ET [4 Comments]
Guest Writer
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Precisely one month ago, on December 3, 2019, GM Ray Shero pulled the trigger on the firing of John Hynes — was it only a month? By then, the move was simply a mercy killing as the Devils had sunk to dysfunctional depths that no coach could survive. Given the way the team had looked on the ice, with their only star Taylor Hall having one skate out the door, and with the hiring of Hynes’ most trusted and longest serving lieutenant, Alain Nasreddine, as interim coach, the team’s fan base braced for the worst: Five straight losses later, and after Hall was traded for picks and prospects — zero NHL-ready talent — the fans’ fears were confirmed and the remainder of the season looked like it would be death march of drudgery to the lottery podium.

Yet somehow... some way... these Devils have been transformed.

The team that fought back from a 1-0 deficit to outwork the Islanders (!) two days after fighting back from a 2-0 deficit to outgun the Bruins (!!) resembles the fragile Devils of November in name and sweater color only. Anyone who watched the team play the first ten weeks of the season must be shocked at the turnaround — it certainly seemed that Pierre, AJ, and the NBCSN crew were surprised last night. And Nasreddine, who was surely dismissed as a stopgap by most everyone after his 0-5 start, deserves much of the credit for the metamorphosis.

Perhaps no team — not even the Oilers — was as reliant on a single player as the Devils were to Taylor Hall since he miraculously dropped into their lap three years ago. But when his play lost its edge as his unresolved contract situation degenerated into a trade watch, the entire team seemed to sink down with him. The incessant line juggling that Hynes tried to get his disjointed team going only exacerbated the problem. As Nasreddine took over the squad, he settled into combos and allowed players to develop some chemistry, even through the early losing efforts.

Perhaps Nasreddine’s most impressive feat was keeping his team positive and hungry for offence throughout the losing streak. Let’s face it: as currently constructed (and in the foreseeable future, given the roster Shero has assembled) the Devils will not be successful as a grind it out team such as the Blues, Isles, or Wild. To have any hope of even moderate success, the Devils must outskate and attack the opposition. The Devils actually started the season looking like the 1984 Oilers as they raced out to a 4-0 lead on the Winnipeg Jets two periods into the opening game. But the crash and burn of that season debut seems to have caused consider psychological damage as the newly assembled team quickly lost their confidence — abetted by a goaltending breakdown. As Hynes and his team fell further and further into crisis mode, a circle-the-wagons mentality led to lethargic, low event hockey where the skill sets of Devils undersized forwards and puck moving defensemen were nullified and their physical shortcomings magnified.

Obviously, the stability of the goaltending position provided by the impressive maturing of Mackenzie Blackwood (under the tutelage of Rollie Melanson) has been a significant factor that has enabled the wins to flow. But goalies alone cannot win games, and Blackwood’s fine efforts began well before the coaching switch. Nasreddine’s feat of
remodeling the team’s game and cohesively blending the personalities of his players should not be diminished by Mackenzie’s excellence. Yes, there are still plenty of issues with the construction of the team, and the Devils still make some awfully fundamental mistakes when put under pressure. But they are no longer melting. They are no longer looking for an excuse to go into a shell.

To defeat, in comeback fashion, two of the steadiest, hardest-working, and consistent teams in the Eastern Conference back-to-back….
To have the Rock going wild as it did on New Year’s Eve….
To make watching the Devils eye-opening instead of snooze-inducing….
Whatever happens next, a task almost no one thought could be done — a one-month rise back to not just respectability, but to genuine, exciting hockey — had been done.

Take a bow Alain… you deserve just a moment to take in the applause.

Gilles Moncour
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