By Max Herman
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As bad as it’s been for the New Jersey Devils this year, anybody who has kept up with my column knows that I have been what you might call optimistic. I prefer to call it reserved judgment. But now I’ll allow you to go ahead and call it what it really was: denial.
While much of the fan base threw in the towel on this season long before now, I decided to wait and let things play themselves out. Coming off a stretch in which they were able to win three out of four games, including triumphs over the Capitals and Flyers, the Devils were poised to go on a run that they so badly needed to get back into the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference…
And then the schedule turned ugly… and so did New Jersey’s results…
The Devils had an opportunity to keep the ball rolling against some very good teams with a home game against Montreal followed by road tilts against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. I decided to hold off comment until after this stretch. Well after failing to register a point in any of the three games, I am officially putting the Devils’ playoff hopes to bed.
Expectations may have doomed this team from the start. Perhaps we were duped into thinking this team would be an offensive force simply because Ilya Kovalchuk re-signed this offseason and John MacLean was supposedly bringing an offensive mindset to the head coaching position.
Now we’ve talked ad nauseam about how Kovy has underperformed this year, but is that really the issue at this point? Injuries have slowed the team’s progress, no doubt. But when you look at the Devils’ roster, you realize it really shouldn’t be that big of a surprise that New Jersey is struggling with putting the puck in the net…
There are only four guys on the team that have consistently been 20+ goal scorers for their career (Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Patrik Elias, and Jason Arnott). Of those four, Parise has been a non-factor due to injury and Kovalchuk has been an enigma.
The scoring depth beyond those guys then starts dipping into the likes of Jamie Langenbrunner and Dainus Zubrus. Nothing personal against Jamie or Zubie, but I don’t think I’m saying anything audacious when I say that they shouldn’t be guys that a team relies on for the bulk of their scoring.
Travis Zajac has struggled to build off of what was a very strong campaign for him last season. If there is one guy who misses Parise more than the others, Travis is that guy. Zajac has done well in the faceoff circle, but the responsibilities of a first-line center go far beyond that. His 11 points are tied for third most on the team, but with only three goals it’s fair to say he has fallen short of expectations to this point.
But perhaps the biggest roadblock the Devils have faced in trying to establish scoring depth this season has been the difficult task of trying to develop young players without sacrificing wins. Nine different guys have made their NHL debut for the Devils this season. Considering we’re not even 30 games in, that’s a pretty staggering number. And even though many of them have played very well at the NHL level, you can only expect so much out of guys who are just getting their feet wet in the league.
The team’s youth also plays a prominent role on defense, and with it has come the expected growing pains. Guys like Olivier Magnan, Matt Taormina, Alexander Urbom, and Mark Fayne were expected to play big roles for the Devils this year. Except that it was the AHL’s Albany Devils that were expecting to get the most out of their ice time.
When you take a step back and look at how the team is currently constructed, maybe it shouldn’t be such a big surprise that the Devils are having trouble compiling victories. They are who they are. A young and inexperienced team with an inexperienced head coach (at least from a coaching standpoint).
When a team loses at this rate, it becomes easy to heap the blame on the head coach. When you add high expectations to a losing record, the fire under the coach’s seat burns even hotter. But between the head coach MacLean and the great hockey minds standing to either side of him – Larry Robinson and Adam Oates – you mean to tell me that coaching is the reason the Devils keep finding ways to lose games?
Is the reason why the Devils have scored two goals or less in 20 of their 27 games because MacLean isn’t getting on his players enough? Is coaching really the reason they are 10-for-81 on the power play?
If you want to take issue with the fact that MacLean at times looks deadpan on the bench and doesn’t seem to be particularly fiery when his team is down, then that’s fine. I’m not saying he has to kick and scream every time a penalty gets called against his team, but sometimes a fan just wants their coach to show that he’s just as upset as they are.
But any way you slice it, the math is really quite simple. If the Devils are going to make the playoffs again this year, they are going to have to play close to .750 hockey for the rest of the season. If you’re the kind of fan that wants to buy into the notion that a team that has won 8 of its first 27 games is all of a sudden going to turn around and win an average of 7 out of every 10 going forward, then bless you. You have a lot more faith than I do. But I do know of a bridge in Brooklyn that you would just love…
Devils’ fans have been a little spoiled by year after year of postseason play. Far be it from me to tell you to abandon all hope. But at this point, I just can’t create a scenario in my mind in which this team can make it happen. In the words of the late, great Don Meredith, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over.”
Max’s Three Stars Of The Week
Call it a cop-out if you wish, but I have decided to bypass my 3SOTW segment this week. I’m officially instituting a new rule that if the Devils don’t win a single game during any given week, no one will be anointed as a star. Apologies to Johan Hedberg and Mattias Tedenby, who have both been reasonably consistent over the last couple of weeks.
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