Suppose the New Jersey Devils Fire John MacLean, What Kind of Coach Should Replace Him?

The New Jersey Devils lost yet another game and did so with many of the same characteristics that have come in previous losses this season.  The Devils weren't better than the opposition at even strength until they were already losing.  There were simple defensive errors that were responsible for goals against. There were periods of time where the Devils' most consistently effective method of puck movement was clearing the puck.  Turnovers high in the offensive zone led to some easy rushes for the opposition through the neutral zone. The power play struggled to establish possession more than the offense at 5-on-5.  Shots and passes forced through traffic weren't uncommon.  Just replace opponent with the name of the actual opponent and this could apply to many games so far this season. I could continue, but I think you get the point.

In the recap of last night's 3-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, ILWT user dasru had this comment that I feel sums up a common opinion among most New Jersey fans:

Every single game, it's the same song and dance. Devils saying things like:

We have to play smarter. We have to play for 60 minutes. We have to finish our chances. We have tighten up in our own zone.

It's almost been 20 games, and none of these things have happened. I don't think a coaching change will accomplish much. The players are on the ice during all of these breakdowns. Elias said it best in the post game show. They seem to wait around for something to happen until they get going.

...

I'm mentally tired of these games. Please, Lou - change something. Hold someone accountable. I don't care if the team stays the same, gets worse, or gets better. I just want to see something attempted here. I'm just tired of seeing the same thing happen every night, and nothing seemingly being done to fix it.

I sympathize with dasru's sentiment.  The current lack of results aren't acceptable, and when something isn't going the way things they should be, it's only natural to demand that something must be changed to make it right.  Earlier today, Tom discussed the potential effect that would come from changing the team captain.  I have to agree that I don't think it'll have much impact, but I'm not really certain on who to change it to.  However, this post isn't about the guy wearing the "C," it's about the coaches.

One of the increasingly popular demands is to fire John MacLean and replace him with, well, someone else.While I know the coaching staff is not able to control everything that's wrong with the New Jersey Devils, with each passing game, it is clear that the coaches aren't really addressing what they can control.  As I wrote after the Toronto game, they are increasingly indefensible for not addressing what they can control.  From the comments in the same post, I am growing closer to this viewpoint by ILWT user elesias:

Let me start by saying that I'm not a vocal proponent of firing MacLean, though I would support the move.

While I may not agree that changing the coach will cure this team's ills, let's talk about it in a constructive manner.  What type of coach does this team need?  What kind of coach should replace MacLean if/when he's fired?

Let's get this straight first: I'm not interested in when MacLean should be fired or whether he should be fired at all.  I'm even less interested reviewing coaches on the market. I don't want to discuss either.  This is the key question:  If (or when) the Devils are going to fire the head coach, then what traits do we want the replacement have to improve the team?  No names, no howls for how the change needs to happen now or after Saturday's game or whatever.  Let's discuss what the new coach should bring to the table.

Let's start with the staff.  I believe the staff bears responsibility for the Devils' horrendous results along with MacLean.  To review, the coaching staff makes up of MacLean, Larry Robinson, Chris Terreri, and Adam Oates. There are also five special assignment coaches in the organization: Pat Burns, Jacques Caron, Jacques Laperriere, Jacques Lemaire, and Scott Stevens.  I'm not really concerned about the special assignment coaches since Burns, Lemaire, and Caron are essentially retired, Laperriere might be; and the only one among them who may have a future in coaching is Scott Stevens. I don't know how involved he is with this team, much less whether he's doing anything constructive.

So let's focus get back to MacLean's three assistant coaches.  I'm of the opinion that if MacLean is going to get fired, his assistants shouldn't be his replacement namely because of their involvement with this team.  It makes no sense to me for the Devils to fire MacLean for a 5-12-2 record and then replace him with Larry Robinson, who's been there for the same record. Not to mention that he's been on the bench witnessing various Devils make fundamental costly mistakes in their own end at times, among all other problems, and has seemingly done little about it.  Along with the fact that he didn't literally handle the job back in 2005-06, why promote Robinson?

What about the other two assistants?  I don't really have a reason to complain about Terreri, but since he is just a positional coach (goaltenders), I don't have a lot of confidence in him taking other. Adam Oates was brought in under the expectation of improving the power play and it has simply devolved. I don't think giving him more responsibility will make anything better.

Basically, if the plan is to cut MacLean free, then the replacement should bring in a fresh look instead of promoting an assistant who may not.  If the replacement wants to bring in a new assistant, then I wouldn't mind provided they can provide results.  But let's get back to the head coach. Here are five traits that I would want in a hypothetical (for now) replacement:

#1) A coach who favors a possession-based system.  While Patrik Elias claims the system hasn't changed (as reported by Tom Gulitti), I remain baffled as to what MacLean's system actually is Perhaps I know nothing about anything, but whatever it is hasn't worked so well so far.  

Hockey is a game of flow and the good teams - think Chicago of last season, Detroit of this season - play like possession is everything.  This team, well, they recently got above 50% for Corsi in close games as per this post by JLikens.  Not bad, but it could be better. It's important for a team to dominate possession in close games at even strength because it will lead to more shooting opportunities and fewer for the defense.  I'm not picky on the schemes; but the replacement coach should be able to come in and emphasize the importance of maintaining control whenever possible.   Hopefully, this will lead to fewer turnovers, better puck movement, more attacks, and reduced pressure on defense.  While I do not believe a coach can make their team shoot more efficiently, I do believe they have an impact on the process to get shots.  Even if the close-game Corsi isn't so bad now, it can be improved upon.

#2) A coach with a defined roles for the players.  The replacement coach will likely further jumble pairings and lines to figure out who he has on his roster; but the coach needs to be more like Lemaire and less like MacLean at it.  There needs to be a sense that some players will have consistent roles among inconsistent lines.  Last season, while Travis Zajac got moved around a bit, he was always on an offensive line.  Rob Niedermayer was always on a more defensive unit.  Colin White would be out there for difficult situations defensively more so than offensive starts. And so forth.

MacLean, searching for something, has been just re-arranging guys (e.g. the few games MacLean felt rookie Jacob Josefson would work well with Kovalchuk earlier this season) and forcing players to adjust due to the varying skill sets.   Some can make that adjustment, usually a tweener like Dainius Zubrus; whereas Elias, Ilya Kovalchuk, White, Rod Pelley, and others are more effective when put into a certain role - creating at least another question mark regarding what this team can do. The replacement coach cannot fall into that desperate trap of making changes for the sake of making changes.  Understand who the offensive players are, who's more suited for defensive or energy play, and then set the lines up in that manner.  If there's signs that it is working, then stick with it.  Only make changes if the performances are worse off because of the line or pairing.

#3) A coach who focuses on making in-game adjustments. I personally don't mind in-game changes so much because they are usually in response to a match-up or performance issue.  Perhaps it's my confirmation bias, but the Devils don't seem to adjust until they're in the hole and/or before the third period. This only undercuts the team, and possibly explains why they repeatedly get beaten on in the second period. Whoever will be the replacement must have a good idea of when to make adjustments and be willing to make those changes.  

#4) A coach who is more willing to hold players accountable.  Mistakes happen. Bad breaks occur.  I understand. But when players play particularly poorly or make fundamental errors over and over, there has to be some consequence.   Talk about cap problems all you want, but right now, the Devils do have space to scratch guys and call up different players from Albany. 

Yet, what discipline have we seen by MacLean? Only one example comes to my mind: Kovalchuk being scratched before the 6-1 loss to Buffalo for being late to a meeting.  Maybe I missed something, but that's pretty much it.  Nothing for players who have taken dumb penalties that hurt the team. Nothing for players who have screwed up repeatedly in their own end. Nothing for players who don't put out the level of intensity the team may require.  Unless there's a lot going on behind the scenes, I don't think MacLean has dropped the proverbial hammer as much as he should've.   While I don't want the replacement to be so abrasive or harsh that it turns off the team completely, I do want him to hold players more accountable.

#5) A coach who will demand an identity.  Devils fans can point to several teams in the past and identify what made them successful.  Such as: a stingy defense with a fantastic goaltender keeping goals to a minimum; and an opportunistic offense that was adept at preying on team's mistakes. What can fans point to for this season's team? A team that will pile on shots when they're losing, which is mostly due to having done something stupid of their own?  That's not an identity. That's not even good hockey.  

I think this is more important than any of the other four traits, it's one of the root issues plaguing this team that I identified weeks ago.  This needs to be addressed as soon as possible in my opinion. To that end, I want the replacement to demand that he and the players establish what style would fit the roster best; and to ensure that they stay true to that identity.   If it means reverting to the trap-happy days of the late 1990s, fine. If it means becoming a team that forechecks aggressively and clogs the slot like a Lemaire-coached team, fine. If it means something so totally alien to Devils fans, fine. Just pick some direction and stick with it.

This is, of course, just my feelings on the matter. Again, I'm not saying John MacLean should be fired. I'm not saying when his job's doomsday will be. I'm not saying there is a coach out on the market that I want to see.  Just what traits I want the replacement coach to have.  Maybe I'm hoping for too much in them; and I know that the replacement can't change everything for the better.  

In any case, I would like to know your opinion on this matter.  If the Devils are going to fire the coach, then what traits would you want the replacement to have?   Don't give me a name, don't give me a rant on why MacLean should or should not be fire. If he is to be replaced, what kind of a coach would you want to replace him and why?  Please leave your answers in the comments.  Thanks for reading.

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