With just 40 games remaining in New Jersey’s schedule, playoff odds are diminishing.
The first half of the NHL season has come and gone, and the New Jersey Devils, after starting 9-3-3 have fallen into a woeful tailspin in which they have gone 7-15-5 and for all intents and purposes, torpedoed the Devils season.
It began to come undone for the Devils on November 17th at the Honda Center in Anaheim with the Devils on a five game winning streak. The west coast has generally been a nightmare for the Devils, but winning five in a row can do wonders for a team’s confidence, and with the adrenaline pumping, the Devils were able to jump out to a 2-0 lead in the second period, and looked like they would would be on their way to a sixth straight victory.
However, with just 2:36 remaining in the second, the Ducks started to come to life thanks to a goal by Rickard Rakell and just 16 seconds later, Anaheim’s Jakob Silfverberg had the game all knotted at two heading into the third period.
Usually, a 2-2 tie heading into the third on the road is pretty good for the Devils out west. And the teams would trade chances in the first 16 minutes of the third, so it looked like the New Jersey would at the very least gain a point to continue it’s point streak. Ryan Kesler however, had other ideas. With 3:40 left in the third, Kesler’s go ahead marker would prove to be the game winner with the Devils falling 3-2 in regulation. Win streak over, point streak missed.
After that painful game in Anaheim, the Devils never recovered in the first half which saw goaltender Cory Schneider have a rare outburst in which he questioned New Jersey’s commitment to doing the little things, following an empty net goal by the Pittsburgh Penguins on December 27th.
“For whatever reason, I was maybe particularly frustrated after that empty-net goal went in,” he said. “Maybe it doesn’t mean anything but just finishing the game out and having pride. Maybe we’re not going to score or win the game but let’s not let them get another one. I think that’s just the mentality we have to have just permeating through our room. I can’t give up any pucks, I can’t get beat and these guys can’t get beat either in one-on-ones or whatever.”
Schneider himself is having a very poor season by his standards. Coming into the year, a +.920 save percentage and a sub 2.20 GAA was a forgone conclusion. This year however, his numbers have ballooned to the tune of a 2.73 save percentage and deflated to a .909 save percentage.
The Devils season can be summed up in one picture from Micah Blake McCurdy’s twitter.
Looking at that scale the Devils are on an island of their own. They fall right in between the spectrum of bad and dull hockey. This combination cannot continue if the Devils are to try and miraculously save their season. New Jersey is going to have to figure out a way to get more creative in the offensive zone, and squeeze every bit of offense it can from the back end to help the forwards out.
Coming into the season, the Devils were excited about their addition of Taylor Hall from the Edmonton Oilers. General Manager Ray Shero felt that the addition of potential 30 goal man Hall to the likes of 30 goal men Mike Cammalleri, Adam Henrique and Kyle Palmieri would make the Devils a team to be feared on the offensive side of the puck.
Gone, were the third and fourth line types that littered the Devils offense for the past four seasons, and youth was served with the injection of Miles Wood, Blake Speers and Pavel Zacha to start the season. The forward group was remade and it looked like they had the right balance of scoring and grind it out types to make the Devils an exciting brand. To top it off, right before the start of the season the New York Islanders inexplicably waived Pierre-Alexander Parenteau and the Devils jumped all over him to add another potential 20 goal threat to the lineup.
Unfortunately for Shero, it seems like last year’s goal totals by Henrique and Palmieri were aberrations and age caught up to Cammalleri. Teams then started focusing solely on Hall, and the Devils best threat was neutralized. While Henrique and Palmieri are streaky scorers and could bust out of their slump, they’ll need to do it together if the Devils have any hope of salvaging this season.
For New Jersey, it’s best forwards have been Hall, Parenteau, Travis Zajac and Wood, who is just two years removed from prep school.
The rest of the Devils forwards have been mediocre to downright bad, constantly getting out shot on a nightly basis and much to Shero and head coach John Hynes chagrin, out worked.
When the Devils traded for Hall, they made a choice to move their best defensive asset in Adam Larsson. At the time, the thinking for management was that the defense by committee and the additions of Ben Lovejoy and Kyle Quincey could work together to fill the hole left by Larsson on the right side. And with Schneider in net, just a passable defense would look good thanks to an all-world goaltender backstopping them.
That hasn’t worked out quite as planned for the Devils. New Jersey’s defense as a group has struggled mightily and outside of Damon Severson, they lack true puck moving capabilities on the back end and that has led to a lot of the Devils woes.
For a while it looked as if Yohann Auvitu would be able to add another element to offense from the back end with a lethal shot and good offensive awareness, but Auvitu has struggled to adjust to the smaller ice surface of North America and on the defensive end which has led to him being shuttled back and forth from Albany.
Andy Greene has taken a step back this season as well as his age has started to creep in just a little bit. Greene is still a very good number three defenseman, but with the Devils needing him to be their number one, he hasn’t been the same as he was last season when paired with Larsson.
Luckily for the Devils, they have found themselves what looks to be a gem in Steven Santini. For now, Santini is playing limited minutes in his first season in the NHL following a three year collegiate career at Boston College but with each game is earning Hynes’ trust with his steady play.
The Quincey signing has been tough for New Jersey as his poor decision making on when to pinch and when to back off has led to many odd man rushes the other way. At other times, Quincey has been caught being lackadaisical in his own zone which has led to goals against. Just watching Quincey on the penalty kill here encapsulates how his season has gone so far.
Lovejoy has been steady in his own end and is a very capable bottom pairing defenseman, but at a time when the Devils need top pairing shut down defenseman, that isn’t good enough.
The defensive shortcomings have really been a pain for Schneider this year. For a while, he was doubting himself as well and things came to a head when he sat back to back outings against the Washington Capitals after Keith Kinkaid had played brilliantly in a 2-1 shootout win at the Verizon Center.
That time off gave Schneider a bit of a breather and allowed him to reflect on why his season had gone sideways.
“It’s just maybe getting set a split second sooner or maybe not overthinking it or worrying about a back door or tip option, just focusing on the shooter,” Schneider said last week. “Maybe just small readjustments in your game, moving your feet too much. So we’ve been looking at all of that. It was good to get some work in … and just get back to tracking pucks and keeping your head on them and finishing out plays and all that kind of stuff.”
Coming off that benching Schneider pitched a shutout against the Boston Bruins and followed it up with a 3-1 win against the Carolina Hurricanes the following night. Other than a blip against the Toronto Maple Leafs in which he was shellshocked allowing three goals on just five shots, Schneider has allowed just four goals in four games, picking up a win in only two.
Kinkaid has been serviceable in the crease when called upon and is the least of the team’s worries at this point. His 2.74 goals against average is a product of the team in front of him, but his .917 save percentage is quite respectable and above his career average of .911.
Overall this season has gone quite sideways for the Devils, and perhaps it’s just a blip in the radar and they will be better in the second half and next year. But as it stands right now, a fan base that is already impatient will really be tested if Shero and Hynes cannot pull New Jersey out of it’s nose dive.