Greetings to whoever has stumbled upon this blog, or anyone who’s been waiting for something new by me (not likely, but I can dream). I haven’t bothered writing a blog post here for a long time because, quite frankly, I don’t have time to bother with this Devils team. I get pissed off just thinking about them, and I was inspired to write this when my train of thought derailed and my mood worsened in kind. What I thought was going to be an improved team going into the season- probably not a playoff team, but probably one that would fight their way into the picture- has, at best, played the exact same as last season, when there were two worthwhile scoring lines and two lines worth of players that wouldn’t be welcome on practically every other NHL roster. With a team that includes Taylor Hall, Pavel Zacha (who was getting things together before he got what seems like his 20th concussion before his 20th birthday- he won’t last another two seasons at this rate), the improved Joseph Blandisi, and the speedy Miles Wood, that’s inexcusable. While they’re not there yet in terms of offense and prospects are coming as soon as next season, it’s not too much to ask to expect a step forward.
Part of the reason why they’re worse off is a decline from Cory Schneider. His struggles were mostly confined to that stretch from late November to early January, where the Devils were a dumpster fire. They could have gone toe-to-toe with the Colorado Avalanche with how horrendous they were. But every goalie has gone through a rough patch this season. Scoring is up around the league, so it’s to be expected. It also makes the Devils’ play style even more inexcusable.
And that brings me to what I think is the major culprit hindering the progress of the New Jersey Devils- the defense, and how they play it. It’s the most passive defensive play I’ve ever seen, and it’s excruciating to watch. They’re content to just block opposing passing lanes, which forces the opponents back to the point so that they can keep scouting for a target. The result is that the Devils get pinned in their own zone, seemingly praying that the puck squirts out of there… instead of, you know, aggressively going after the point players once they get a handle on the puck and forcing a turnover and transition. But more often than not, that doesn’t happen. The result is frequent minute-plus defensive possessions, followed by a quick offensive line change after finally getting the elusive clear because they’re tired and need a break. And the cycle begins anew. While this is good at reducing opposing SOG totals, it’s even better at doing the same to the Devils. The result: three straight games of 20 shots on goal or less. Surprisingly, they lost all of them.
I don’t think “lack of offensive talent” explains everything, even though all of these games happened after Zacha went on IR. When you can count on seeing this happen during every Devils game, it’s only natural to avoid watching them. Some fans say that the defense isn’t good either. But I don’t think that explains everything. Jon Merrill has exceeded my wildest expectations after his atrocious start, turning out to be a solid cog in this frequently malfunctioning defensive machine. Many fans clamored to see a call-up for Steven Santini since the season began, and they got their wish. Since then, he’s doing a good job flanking Merrill. Andy Greene and Ben Lovejoy provide a solid veteran presence. John Moore and Damon Severson are offensively-minded while sacrificing defense- quite noticeably with regards to Severson- but they’re still young and have room for improvement. In spite of all that, they keep playing five steps behind the opponent on a given night.
So who’s the root of the problem? With every game I watch, and with every box score I browse that shows off a terrible shot total for the Devils, I get more confident in pointing the finger at the head coach. John Hynes, in addition to looking like The Judge in the Cormac McCarthy novel Blood Meridian, keeps running this low-event system like there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s easy to forget that Ray Shero, when he was hired as Devils GM, said he wanted a “run and gun” system. The Devils aren’t giving him what he wants. If they’re lucky or energetic enough to get an offensive opportunity, they inevitably give it back 10 to 15 seconds later. After the Hall deal, people questioned whether Adam Larsson could potentially tip the balance slightly for the Oilers. One doubt I heard: his inability to create chances. As fate would have it, he’s currently their number one left-handed defenseman and enabling Connor McDavid and his crew to score. If Larsson were still here, he’d be a slave to this system, much like he was last season.
“It makes no difference what men think of war. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.” -John Hynes
With Kevin Shattenkirk hitting the free agent market this year due to Washington’s cap space squeeze, Devils fans have salivated at the prospect of seeing him wear the red and black. With the money they can spend in the offseason, it’s easy to see why. I’d certainly welcome Shatty with open arms. But as long as Hynes is forming the Devils in his own undead image, I don’t think he’d help out all that much. The defensive system is the anchor holding them down. It’s not due to lack of talent, it’s due to a boneheaded playing style. Shero needs to stop showing loyalty towards his coach- a trait sorely lacking in today’s NHL- and tell him to go away. Maybe he can go back to collecting scalps or whatever the hell he did before he screwed up the Devils.
Also, Shero shouldn’t have let Scott Stevens walk to Minnesota, but that’s a tale for another time.