Newark, NJ – Once believed to succeed Lindy Ruff as head coach, the New Jersey Devils lose Andrew Brunette to the Nashville Predators.
As first reported by ESPN’s Kevin Weekes on Tuesday, the Predators officially announced on Wednesday the hiring of Andrew Brunette as the fourth coach in franchise history. Barry Trotz’s first move as incoming General Manager of the Predators, however, was firing John Hynes and Dan Lambert.
“We want to become more of an offensive team and Andrew specializes on that side of the ice,” Trotz said in a press conference on Wednesday. “He lived it as a player, and he coaches it as a coach. He is as good of an offensive teacher and power-play coach as there is in the game today”
Brunette, a former Jack Adams nominee, was the right-hand man to Ruff for one season following his departure from the Florida Panthers after the 2021-22 season. Now, he’ll be a head coach for the second time in his coaching career. The 49-year-old Sudbury, Ontario native will rejoin the Predators organization as he was a member of the 1998-99 expansion team.
To sum up, Trotz, the first-ever coach in Predators history, hired the player that scored the first-ever goal for Nashville’s franchise. What a story.
Brunette remained in Nashville for one season before moving on to the expansion Atlanta Thrashers 1999-00.
As the associate coach in the 2022-23 season, Brunette’s responsibilities fell to special teams. During the regular season, the Devils were top-15 in the NHL, 13th overall, on the power play. New Jersey converted on 21.9% of chances in 82 games. Their penalty kill was even better at fourth overall in the NHL killing 82.6% of penalties.
However, the playoffs weren’t as kind to the Devils’ power play. They were fourth-worst among the 16 qualifying teams converting on just 16.7% of power play opportunities. Their penalty kill remained top five in the (still ongoing) playoffs, killing 82.5% of chances.
Now that the Devils have a role to fill for themselves, let’s take a look at four candidates that could be the next Devils’ associate coach.
The Devils could certainly fill the role internally by promoting current assistant coach Sergei Brylin. Brylin spent his entire 13-year playing career with the Devils before serving as both an assistant and associate coach for the Devils’ AHL affiliate in Utica beginning in 2012-13 through the 2021-22 season.
Brylin was in charge of power play duties for the Utica Comets in the 2021-22 season. The Comets’ power play was ranked fifth best in the league scoring on 21.6% of their power play chances. The Comets superb power play helped the Comets claim first place in the Eastern Conference and set an AHL record winning 13 consecutive games.
At the AHL level, Brylin had elite talents such as Alexander Holtz and Fabian Zetterlund to work with. At the NHL level, the Moscow, USSR native could be handed the keys to even more talent with a New Jersey power play that features Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, Dougie Hamilton, and more.
Remaining in-house, Patrick Eliáš’ time behind the bench could be coming.
It feels unrealistic for the Devils to reach past Brylin and hire Eliáš, especially with Brylin’s impressive history as an associate. However, there’s no denying that the Devils legend is a tempting choice. Eliáš has limited coaching experience, helping Team Czech Republic as an assistant coach at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship. The experience really ends there.
Yet, taking a look at his playing numbers, Eliáš knew how to convert on the power play. Of his 408 career goals, 113 of them came on the power play and in the 2008-09 season, he scored a career-high 12 power-play goals.
Eliáš stated following the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship that at the time he wasn’t quite ready to become a coach full-time. Perhaps four years later his opinion on the matter has changed. Yet, it feels more likely he’ll need to work his way up the ranks given how we’ve seen Brylin navigate his way to the NHL in a coaching role.
The Devils just added a former head coach as Ruff’s associate last season, why can’t they do it again? Yes, the circumstances are different in the sense that Bruce Boudreau wouldn’t come in as Ruff’s successor. GM Tom Fitzgerald confirmed Ruff will be back behind the Devils’ bench next season and that should be no surprise.
What we do know, however, is Boudreau wants to continue coaching in the NHL. He’s currently serving as an analyst on NHL Network following his mishandled departure from the Vancouver Canucks organization.
The current NHL coaching carousel seems to be spinning some new names out there. Spencer Carbery was just hired in Washington, Brunette is now getting his opportunity in Nashville, and it sounds like the New York Rangers are zeroing in on Peter Laviolette. That is unless John Hynes throws a wrench in their plans according to The Athletic’s Arthur Staple. Still, there are clubs such as Columbus, Anaheim, and possibly Toronto when they decide on their new GM with vacant head coaching roles. However, the NHL is a copycat league and with an influx of new blood in the coaches market, it’s easy to see a situation where teams pass up on a 68-year-old veteran like Boudreau.
The Devils could certainly take advantage of Boudreau’s availability. Dating back to the 2019-20 season, Boudreau has coached a team (whether the Minnesota Wild or Canucks) that has scored three or more goals per game at 5on5. Boudreau is going to want to stay relevant in the NHL’s coaching conversation. The Devils can take advantage of that and hire him as Ruff’s associate. It would give them two of the winningest coaches in the NHL among actives.
If there’s any one coach that’s chomping at the bit to get back into the NHL, it’s Dan Bylsma. Bylsma was promoted to head coach of the Penguins in 2009, the same year Fitzgerald was promoted as Pittsburgh’s new assistant GM. Bylsma saw instant success behind the Penguins’ bench although the Stanley Cup alluded him while he was head coach.
Pittsburgh fired Bylsma following the 2013-14 season. After a one-year hiatus, Bylsma was back behind the bench for two seasons with the Buffalo Sabres. After two seasons, it was clear he wasn’t the right coach to mold a 19-year-old Jack Eichel as well as the plethora of other young talent Buffalo possessed.
Bylsma hasn’t been back in the NHL since, however, the Seattle Kraken AHL affiliate, Coachella Valley Firebirds, hired Bylsma as their head coach last summer. Currently, the Firebirds are still in the AHL playoffs and have gotten as deep as the Western Conference Final. As the hottest team in the AHL playoffs right now, the Firebirds have a legitimate chance to lift the Calder Cup following a 48-win, 103-point season to claim second overall in the AHL with Bylsma at the forefront of it all. Fitzgerald’s familiarity with Bylsma and the latter’s recent success makes this one feel like a legitimate possibility.
The Devils losing Brunette to the Predators only comes as a surprise based on the location. Brunette’s name had been mentioned as a candidate for a few vacancies such as Anaheim and Calgary. Only the Predators organization seemingly knew Brunette was at the top of their list. There remains the possibility the Devils carry on without an associate coach. However, there are plenty of potential suitors available to step up and claim the role.