By Steve Lichtenstein
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Historically speaking, the Devils enter their “bye week” in very good shape, a five-game losing streak notwithstanding.
One theoretical model I saw suggested that New Jersey has over an 80 percent chance to end its five-season playoff drought.
Don’t be so sure.
Though the Devils have much to be proud of at their midpoint — starting with an out-of-nowhere 22-11-8 mark for 52 points, good for fourth-best in the Eastern Conference — this has been no ordinary season.
The Metropolitan Division has become a virtual land mine, with just nine points separating the first-place Capitals from the last-place Islanders (the Isles, Flyers, and Hurricanes are one point out of the second wild card and three behind the Rangers, who own the first spot). Of their remaining 41 games, the Devils play 20 against division foes.
Any repeat of this past week could easily flip the standings.
When head coach John Hynes pow-wows with general manager Ray Shero over the course of New Jersey’s league-manded five-day vacation, the main topic of conversation should be the cause of the team’s 0-2-3 slide, its Swiss cheese defense.
Shero’s trade on Nov. 30 for Sami Vatanen, in which he sent forwards Adam Henrique and Joseph Blandisi plus a conditional third-round pick to Anaheim, has not produced the desired results.
On the contrary, instead of providing a calming veteran influence, Vatanen has proven as unreliable as all the other right-handed defensemen Hynes has tried on the top pair.
Of course, that could be the problem. Most scouting reports on Vatanen noted that he was a solid top-four guy, not one who should be leading his team in ice time (21:54 per game since the trade). And he has played hard minutes at that, with extensive service on special teams in addition to facing opponents’ top lines.
The cracks from the stress have been obvious. Following a disastrous outing in Dallas on Thursday in which he committed three penalties and a crushing turnover, Vatanen was a bystander as Islanders right wing Cal Clutterbuck waltzed down the slot to tie Sunday’s game at 4 with 4:17 remaining. The injury-depleted and previously reeling Islanders eventually won in a shootout.
If only the Devils had others on their back end who were on top of their games and could step up to defend goaltender Cory Schneider’s honor, if not his crease.
It hasn’t been the case.
Damon Severson, the presumptive heir after signing a six-year, $25 million contract last offseason, showed why he had been a healthy scratch for the previous two games when he failed to lock up Anders Lee’s stick during the first period on Sunday. The Islanders’ goal machine knocked in a rebound from his office in front.
Not even 35-year-old captain Andy Greene, who has seen his workload lightened by Hynes since the Vatanen trade, has been immune from gaffes. Dallas took over Thursday’s game early in the second period when Greene’s ghastly blind pass from behind the net landed right on Stars forward Alexander Radulov’s stick in prime scoring position. One quick move and the puck was behind Schneider to tie things up.
Greene was quite steady on Sunday, but, while he should not be faulted for a handful of his blocked shots this season that were directed to unfortunate areas only to end up in the Devils’ net, let’s not sugarcoat all his bad pinches that have led to opponents’ odd-man rushes.
These season-long issues are the reason why the Devils have given up 2.95 goals per game, a tick worse than last season when they owned the puck far less often. You could have expected the Devils to be more susceptible to transition this season given their increased attacking bent, but it’s the goals like Islanders wing Anthony Beauvillier scored in the second period that have to be limited.
It started when defensemen Steven Santini was knocked off the puck in the corner by Jordan Eberle following a dump-in. John Moore was neither in support nor in position to cut off Mathew Barzal’s cross-slot pass to Beauvillier for the easy one-timer.
This is not a call for panic, however. The Devils’ rebuilding process may have accelerated due to their fast start this season, but even with about $8.3 million in salary cap space, according to CapFriendly.com, no one expects Shero to mortgage the future to go for it prior to the Feb. 26 trade deadline. He just has too many assets to further develop.
It’s just a recognition of where the Devils stand at this crucial juncture. They have a week off to gather their thoughts before heading back into the Metro jungle.
Maybe over the break the Devils’ defensemen should constantly watch tape of teams like the St. Louis Blues, who were 3-2 victors over New Jersey in a shootout on Tuesday. They make it their business to box out opponents and tie up sticks in front of their net.
It would be disappointing if the Devils were to squander what they have built so far, especially considering left wing Taylor Hall’s spectacular campaign to this point. If they don’t clean up their act in their own end, making the playoffs will be far from a lock.
No matter what all the scientific formulas say.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1