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Nasreddine preparing to coach Devils despite lingering uncertainty

Remains candidate for job next season, is excited about their youth, promise

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

Alain Nasreddine has begun preparations for next season even though he hasn't received confirmation he will return as coach of the New Jersey Devils.

"I haven't heard anything," Nasreddine said Tuesday when asked about his future. "So I'm sorry. I have nothing there for you."

Nasreddine, who replaced John Hynes as New Jersey coach Dec. 3, remains a candidate and was speaking as if he expects to stay.

"I think [the Devils are] very close," he said. "I think at least competitive enough to be battling for a [Stanley Cup] Playoff spot ... I'd say next year, for sure. You look at the progress of some of the young guys in the last two months of the season, and it's very promising."

The Devils were next to last in the Eastern Conference when Nasreddine replaced Hynes. From the time of the coaching change until the NHL paused the season March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, they went 19-16-8 (11th in the conference), were No. 1 in the NHL on the penalty kill (86.0 percent) and were tied for 15th on the power play (21.2 percent).

Tom Fitzgerald, who became Devils general manager when Ray Shero was fired Jan. 12, is in a similar situation as Nasreddine.

"I'm working like I'm the general manager of the team, and Nas is working like the head coach of the team, which he is, so we don't let anything else interrupt or confuse us of what our responsibilities are at the moment," Fitzgerald said April 16.

The Devils have conducted interviews for the job as coach, including a virtual chat with Gerard Gallant in mid-April, The Athletic reported. Gallant was fired by the Vegas Golden Knights on Jan. 15.

The NHL announced May 26 as part of its Return to Play Plan that the regular season was over. The Devils were not among the 24 teams to make the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.

Nasreddine is excited about the future for the Devils, particularly after what he saw down the stretch in the weeks prior to the pause.

 

[RELATED: Devils relying on Blackwood, draft picks after season ends]

 

Jack Hughes, the No. 1 pick of the 2019 NHL Draft, scored 21 points (seven goals, 14 assists) in 61 games, including 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in 37 games after Nasreddine became coach.

Pavel Zacha, 23, had an NHL career-high 32 points (eight goals, 24 assists); Jesper Bratt, 21, had an NHL career-high 16 goals; and Nico Hischier, 21, the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, had 36 points (14 goals, 22 assists) and won more than half of his face-offs for the first time in three NHL seasons (51.7 percent).

The acquisition of Nikita Gusev in a trade from the Golden Knights on July 29 has benefitted Zacha and Bratt. From Feb. 20, when they were put on a line with the 27-year-old right wing, Zacha had seven points (two goals, five assists) and Bratt had eight points (five goals, three assists) in 10 games.

"Let's not forget about [Mackenzie Blackwood] in net, and [Damon] Severson (25) is still a young defenseman," Nasreddine said. "We've got some good, young prospects coming up, so I think there's a lot to be excited about."

Blackwood emerged as the Devils' goalie of the future; the 23-year-old went 22-14-8 with a 2.77 goals-against average and .915 save percentage in 47 games (43 starts) as a rookie. Severson led Devils defensemen in goals (eight), points (31), power-play points (10), takeaways (35) and average ice time (22:58).

The Devils could potentially have three first-round picks in the 2020 NHL Draft -- their own and two acquired in trades -- and they have a 7.5 percent chance at winning Phase 1 of the NHL Draft Lottery on June 26.

If the Vancouver Canucks qualify for the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Devils will receive their first-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, from the trade of Blake Coleman to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Feb. 16. If Vancouver doesn't make the playoffs, the Devils will receive the Canucks' first-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft.

The Devils also received a conditional first-round pick from the Arizona Coyotes as part of the Taylor Hall trade Dec. 16. If Arizona's first-round selection in the 2020 draft is in the top three, the Devils will receive the Coyotes' first-round pick in the 2021 draft.

In addition to Hall and Coleman, defensemen Andy Greene (New York Islanders) and Sami Vatanen (Carolina Hurricanes), forward Wayne Simmonds (Buffalo Sabres), and goalie Louis Domingue (Canucks) were also traded during the season.

"Losing some of the guys we lost, like Taylor Hall, was huge, and eventually Coleman and Andy Greene," Nasreddine said. "I think it forced the younger guys to really take ownership in the team. All of a sudden, Nico Hischier now has a bigger voice and more responsibilities. I think being younger really helped the team have that family atmosphere."

The youth movement should continue next season as well, with forwards Michael McLeod (22 years old, No. 12 in 2016 NHL Draft), Jesper Boqvist (21, No. 36 in 2017 NHL Draft), Nolan Foote (19, trade with Lightning), Janne Kuokkanen (22, trade with Hurricanes) and defenseman Ty Smith (20, No. 17 in 2018 NHL Draft) expected to fight for roles.

"My goal was to not just loosen the guys up but just have them go out and play because hockey is a game of mistakes," Nasreddine said. "There's a lot more mistakes than there are good plays, and I want to make sure that they understand that making a mistake is OK because we have really good talent but we're also really young."

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