On December 3, the New Jersey Devils relieved Head Coach John Hynes of his duties after a disappointing start to the 2019-20 season. The club also announced that Alain Nasreddine, an assistant on staff for the last five years, would fill in as interim head coach.
Nasreddine inherited a team full of potential, but struggling to put together the pieces to win. At the time of the change in command, the Devils had a 9-13-4 record for a total of 22 points. They were 30th in a league of 31 teams, only higher than the Detroit Red Wings in the standings.
Fast forward to March 12, the day the National Hockey League put a pause on the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Just three months after Nasreddine took over, the Devils were now in a much different spot. They had a 28-29-12 record and sat at 26th in the standings. The Devils went 6-2-2 record in their last 10 games. They were one of the most improved teams in the League from their turning point in December.
So now for the million dollar question – what did Nasreddine do to turn the Devils season around?
“When I first came in, I think with the lack of success we were having everyone was real tight. Expectations were high, and my goal was to not necessarily just loosen the guys up, but have them go out and play,” explained Nasreddine.
“I wanted to make sure that they understood that making a mistake is okay because we have really good talent but we’re also really young. And for a lot of young guys, sometimes squeezing their stick, or being afraid to make a mistake and can go a long way. So that was my number one priority coming in. I think the guys really bought in to that to just go out, have fun, and make plays and eventually it translated into more confidence and that’s how I think some guys were able to have success.”
Nasreddine’s adjustment translated off the ice as there was a shift in the locker room and atmosphere around the team. This was a common piece of feedback Nasreddine and Devils management received from players during their exit interviews.
“The feedback I got from the players in those meetings, a lot of them thought about the atmosphere we had going on in the room, how it had become more of a family atmosphere where guys enjoyed each other’s company,” said Nasreddine. “You got new guys like Claesson that came in, Mermis, those guys came in later, and they all said the same thing. That there were younger guys, older guys, as soon as they came in that made sure that they reached out, made sure that they feel welcome. And to me that was a sign of a team growing in the right direction.
“The success we had there at the end had a lot to do with it.”
Although the team lost some veteran and star players due to trades, it provided the younger members of the roster an opportunity to step up. Nasreddine felt when these younger players found their voice on the team, it helped build unity.
“I think it forced some younger guys to take, really take ownership in the team. And all of the sudden, Nico Hischier, even though he’s only 21 years old, now has a bigger voice and more responsibilities. And I think being younger really helped the team be tight and do more things together. And it was anywhere from at home to on the road, dinners, and it was good to see.”
Nasreddine learned plenty during the four months he served as the bench boss for the Devils during the 2019-20 season, but the biggest lesson he learned was involving consistency.
“I think for me it was just being consistent in the message,” said Nasreddine. “Originally when I first came in we lost our first give games, so it’d be easier to go back to those bad habits. But we stayed the course, I tried as much as possible to stay positive especially the situation we were in. But I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is, you believe in something and guys stick with it, theres going to be ups and downs, which we did have especially early on, and so it wasn’t easy. But I think that was the biggest thing I took out of those four months.”
Although the season was cut short as the Devils did not qualify for the 24-team playoff in the NHL’s return, Nasreddine was happy with the improvements made during his time as Interim Head Coach, and in the exciting few months at the end of the Devils season.
“The more you go, and the more you win and the more you see changes and success, then it becomes a drug and that’s where I’m at. I mean, you know at the end there I was enjoying every minute of it. I was learning, but like I said, not only for the players but for the coaches of the organization it was fun to come to the rink.”