The New Jersey Devils busted out of the gate as one of the hottest teams in the NHL. They posted a 9-3-3 record in their first 15 games. With eyebrows raised and the hockey community beginning to take notice, it appeared that Jersey was back on track to being the perennial power they used to be with Brodeur. From that moment on though, the Devils have devolved back into their state of mediocrity. Only winning 7 of their next 27 games, the Devils have fallen out of playoff contention. Now, they are more likely to contend for the basement of the Eastern Conference, rather than a playoff spot.
The real question to be asked though is, “Why?” While the Devils never were viewed as an elite team, this roster does undoubtedly possess its most talent in years. Other than the brief absence by Taylor Hall, there have not even been injuries to throw the burden of blame on. Nonetheless, the Devils have squandered a promising start and appear destined to miss the playoffs for a fifth straight year. Here are a few reasons why the Devils have massively underachieved in year two of the Hynes and Shero era:
- Over Compensation– It was no secret that last year the Devils were offensively challenged. The Devils formula for success was to cross their fingers and let Schneider do all the work.
Last year the Devils ranked 29th in Corsi, 30th in Goals Scored, and had the highest percentage of faceoffs that took place in the defensive zone in the NHL. Somehow, through all of this the Devils managed to remain semi-competitive. They held a playoff spot until February 6th. In the hopes of invigorating a lethargic offense and catapulting the Devils up the standings, Ray Shero made a move Devils fans had been yearning for. Fans and analysts were in a state of disbelief when Shero traded away Adam Larsson to Edmonton for Taylor Hall. While the early returns on Hall, the individual player, are promising, the team still finds itself 28th in goals. Additionally, they are eight points out of the final wildcard spot at the midway point of the season. What is even more alarming though, is that they have completely lost their defensive composure and structure.
This year the Devils have allowed 2.86 goals per game as opposed to the 2.43, (8th best) last year. The over-emphasis on putting pucks in the net has mutated into a dissipation of their overall game. We often see Damon Severson or John Moore taking risks to generate offense. As a result, they forget about their defensive assignment. The Devils system has been broken because they are taking too many risks to try and generate offense. As a result, the team has turned prevention of goals, once a strong-suit, into their biggest weakness.
- Poor Goaltending– This one is pretty black and white. There is no advanced stat I can quote to enlighten fans on the “why” behind it all, but Cory Schneider is stopping pucks at a lesser rate this year than ever before. By a LARGE margin too.
Coming into this season the one surefire strength of the Devils was goaltending. To put in perspective how poor Schneider’s play has been so far this year, all of last season Schneider only surrendered four or more goals seven times. In 32 starts this year Schneider has given up four or more goals in a game 11 times. Schneider not keeping the Devils in low-scoring games (like fans have grown accustomed to) is basically a death sentence. Of the 18 games Schneider has allowed four or more goals in the past two seasons, the Devils have only won twice. Yeah… you don’t need to be great at math to figure that one out. Not good.
In Schneider’s defense, there have been some issues with Devils screening Schneider, (Henrique in OT @ Chicago) but for the most part Schneider’s play hasn’t cut it so far and he knows it. *Watch this cringeworthy gaffe by All-Star Goaltender Cory Schneider to get a live glimpse into the Devils season*
Connor Brown strips Cory Schneider of the puck and scores a 2-0 shorthanded goal for the Leafs. Not Schneider's finest moment of his career. pic.twitter.com/X8C1GqgV8x— Jeff Veillette (@JeffVeillette) January 7, 2017
- Coaching– As a mere spectator, on the outside looking in, it is impossible to know how a coach operates on a day-to-day basis, and if he owns the teams overall respect. One area I am able to pass judgement on is suspect usage of personnel and direct comments made by players. Last year, I was an adamant supporter of John Hynes. I thought that what the team lacked in depth and talent, they made up for in compete level and Hynes deserves full marks for that. In his sophomore season, it appears Hynes has not built off of a positive rookie year and may have lost command over his club in the process.
This year there have been many decisions regarding personnel that really cause fans to scratch their heads (or smash their TVs). Whether it be scratching Pavel Zacha or Beau Bennett for the black hole in possession that is Luke Gazdic, the irritating and seemingly never-ending juggling of the lines, or my new personal favorite: Kyle Quincey quarterbacking the powerplay, it is getting hard to defend Hynes any longer.
Another indictment of Hynes’ poor job this season is the disaster that is the Devils powerplay unit. The Devils currently rank 29th on the powerplay with a 13.3% success rate. The powerplay is definitely one of the more coachable aspects of hockey. With it being this abysmal, it should raise red flags immediately. Especially considering that the Devils had a top ten unit last year with the same group, minus Taylor Hall.
Lastly, there have been some coming to the defense of Hynes by pushing the narrative that his current roster lacks the necessary talent to succeed. This is specifically on the backend due to the loss of Adam Larsson. Do not get me wrong, the Devils D corps is thin (thin is a generous way of categorizing it). But we are not five years removed from Pete DeBoer, in his first season with the Devils, reaching the Finals. His defense consisted of: Andy Greene, Bryce Salvador, Anton Volchenkov, Marek Zidlicky, Mark Fayne, and PETER HARROLD. Outside of our current captain, how many of those guys are NHL regulars today? None. Hynes has a team talented enough to at least remain competitive.
- Lack of Effort– As arbitrary as the concept of “effort” may seem, it has definitely been floated around as a reason the Devils have not been able to save their season from spiraling out of control. I am not jumping to any outlandish conclusion in accusing the team of lacking compete.
We have seen a plethora of unambiguous comments made by Hynes and players regarding the lack of compete. Even GM Ray Shero came out of his in-season hibernation to make headlines. When asked what the Devils could do to start winning again, he said “Play harder. Really. Play f—ing harder,”. Cory Schneider also had choice words for the team after a loss to Pittsburgh at home. The frustration is certainly piling up in Jersey and players are pressing a little bit. But effort is always controllable and the Devils playing some games with a lack of pride and effort is concerning.
More Schneider: "I just didn’t see the urgency from everyone to really want to tie that game." Says empty-netter could have been prevented.— Andrew Gross (@AGrossRecord) December 28, 2016
The Verdict– While it is not inconceivable for the Devils to overcome an eight point deficit in the standings to clinch their first playoff berth in 5 seasons, it is far from realistic. To anyone who does still think that the Devils can climb out of their rut and somehow squeak in, I implore you to try to find one overall positive aspect of the Devils play this season. All phases of the game are bad right now, and that is putting it lightly.
I have full confidence that Cory Schneider will bounce back and return to his elite form from last season. Unfortunately, I also feel that it is not enough to right the ship this late into the season. The best course of action from this point forward is to find continuity for next year and further develop the younger players (Zacha, Wood, Santini, Severson). Taylor Hall has not found chemistry with anyone in particular yet. That is partly due to the constant line adjustments. Set lines, especially with Hall and the younger guys, and let them develop throughout a whole year.
While it would be foolish to fire Hynes without an immediate replacement waiting in the wings, it is going to become clear whether or not he is the long-term coach for this team. I question whether or not Hynes still has a command over the locker room. If players have begun to tune him out due to the adverse state of the team, he will not last much longer. The Devils may be a long shot to make the playoffs, but if Hynes wants a chance to keep building on the foundation he has laid so far, his team has got to get it together in the second half of the season. That all starts by playing with a little bit of pride.