By Steve Lichtenstein
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The news that center Brian Boyle, who came back from a diagnosis of chronic myeloid leukemia in training camp, was selected as an injury replacement for Taylor Hall at this weekend’s NHL All-Star Game in Tampa did nothing to brighten the mood in the Devils’ locker room Thursday night.
New Jersey had just been beaten in regulation for a fourth consecutive game — and shut out at home for a second straight contest — courtesy of a 3-0 defeat to Nashville.
Many of the Devils will literally limp into this break. Leg injuries to Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid forced New Jersey to dress two goalies on Thursday who never started an NHL game for the first time since 1986, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
In addition, New Jersey was without top-six wingers Hall (thumb) and Marcus Johansson (concussion), plus third-leading goal scorer Brian Gibbons (hand) against the Central Division-leading Predators.
The Metropolitan Division leader heading into New Year’s Eve, the Devils are now hanging by a thread in a wild card slot with 56 points in 48 games, just four points away from the brutal division’s basement.
Something’s got to give for the Devils to avoid a sixth consecutive season without a playoff berth. I’ll give you three things that must happen in order for them to end the streak, but bear in mind that I do not believe that any of these will happen:
All teams have to work through injuries, or that’s how the saying goes. It just seems like the Devils have been hit harder this season than most. Hall, who I believe is their most valuable player, has now missed five games. The Devils are 1-3-1 in that span. A lot of production was expected from Johansson and Kyle Palmieri, but they have each been out of action 19 times and counting. Johansson is currently out with his second concussion of the season, this one thanks to the elbow of suspended (but unpenalized) Brad Marchand in Boston on Tuesday.
Many of the injuries to forwards over the first 48 games have occurred while blocking opponents’ shots, one of those little things coach John Hynes continues to require of his players.
Hynes told the postgame media crowd on Thursday that injuries can’t be an excuse.
“It’s not about getting people back,” Hynes said. “It’s about the players that are in the lineup. They have to play better than we played tonight. We’re not going to be healthy the whole year.”
That’s standard coach-speak, since skill level obviously matters. Ken Appleby played fairly well in net against Nashville, but no one should expect him to be as good as Schneider. And if Hall is out for an extended period, you can write off the season.
Re-establish their identity
This is something Hynes talks about all the time and something he CAN control, but there seems to be some disconnect about what exactly this team’s identity is.
The Devils roared out to a 9-2 start by playing a speed game. They were hounds in puck retrieval and dynamic in transition.
What happened? Well, I believe the underlying cause for the subsequent 15-14-8 record can be traced to simple subtraction by addition. Boyle and Travis Zajac returned to the lineup. Both veterans are solid in a structured game, but they do not skate particularly fast. So, how can the Devils roll four lines with speed when either Boyle or Zajac is on the ice for half the game?
At least Boyle had a hot stick in December, registering nine points, including five goals, during one six-game stretch. Zajac has been pointless in 26 of his 31 games since coming back from an offseason torn pectoral muscle. That’s the production level one would expect from an old-time goon, not a forward with the team’s second-highest average ice time (17:34).
I can’t see Hynes giving anyone else on the team that much rope. Now consider that on Thursday night Zajac also lost the second-period defensive zone draw cleanly that led to Nashville’s opening goal by P.K. Subban. And consider that late in the third period he had a pass picked off on a Devils’ power play by Subban, who then sprung Viktor Arvidsson for a two-on-one short-handed goal.
The solution, since an outright benching of Zajac seems to be off the table? Play Zajac and Boyle on the same line, maybe alongside a player with bite like Stefan Noesen. That’s your checking line. Then on the rest, go back to the young guns with speed in the middle — Nico Hischier, Pavel Zacha and Blake Coleman.
At least get Zajac off the power play. He’s of no help with zone entries and he’s not a sniper, a net-front presence, or a creative playmaker. Other than that …
Before he was injured, Hall was on the same unit as both Zajac and Boyle. That’s like having Tom Brady play with the scraps that finished the Giants’ season at wide receiver and on the offensive line. Sure, the otherworldly talent comes out every now and then, but it’s mostly a waste of time.
Make a big trade
Devils general manager Ray Shero thought he could cross this one off his checklist after dealing forwards Adam Henrique and Joseph Blandisi to Anaheim for defenseman Sami Vatanen on Nov. 30.
Instead of the big splash Shero hoped, it barely made a ripple on the Devils’ beleaguered blue line. Vatanen has been inconsistent at best since the trade.
New Jersey has the cap space (approximately $7.5 million, according to capfriendly.com) and the assets (past and future draft picks) to really go for it this season, should Shero choose. What would it take, for instance, to pry workhorse Erik Karlsson from penny-pinching Ottawa?
Again, don’t bet on it.
The Devils are more likely to be sellers at the Feb. 26 trade deadline, just like they’ve been in the other two seasons of the Shero/Hynes regime. Which is why I just don’t see a breakthrough this time around.
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