Of course it’s stating the obvious at this point that with fifteen games to go in the Devils’ season, the Devils will not be going to the postseason for a fourth straight year. After four months where the team actually kept the fans interested and stayed in the playoff hunt longer than most expected, perhaps to a degree the team’s recent collapse was inevitable and only a matter of time. The line of demarcation of the Devils’ season (and maybe the Flyers’ too for that matter) turned out to be February 16 when New Jersey was still in a playoff spot coming off three straight wins while the Flyers were teetering on the brink of being knocked out when Philly was I believe seven points back of the final wild card spot at the time. That horrific 6-3 defeat started the avalanche of bad things rolling downhill for the Devils while it was the precursor to a Flyer hot streak that’s gotten them back on the precipice of the last playoff spot.
In the three weeks since that game literally everything that could go wrong has from losing eight of ten to crash and burn out of the playoff race, along with one-time leading scorer Mike Cammalleri reaggravating a suspected arm injury with no imminent return and losing Cory Schneider in Dallas to a sprained MCL, with no word on him other than a scheduled ‘reevaluation’ in two weeks. Perhaps the Devils need to reevaluate their backup goaltender this offseason as Keith Kinkaid continued his poor season by getting embarassed at the Rock on Sunday in a 6-1 defeat that effectively ended any case you wanted to make for the Devils to make a miracle run to somehow get back in the race (they would have been three points back of the Pens with a win, keeping hope alive for a while at least). Not that Kinkaid was the only one to play poorly…our young defense which is supposed to be the strength of the team going forward has largely sagged in recent weeks. John Moore’s been terrible in the last few weeks since coming off of injury, Jon Merrill’s been terrible offensively all season and lately his defense has slipped as well and Damon Severson continues to take up residence in coach John Hynes’ doghouse somehow despite only underwhelming, and not horrifically bad play.
I don’t really want to recap that disaster, which marked the second straight home game where I peeled out of the arena midway through the third period which is normally a rarity for me…but when you’re four goals behind with a popgun offense playing like crap well I’d just about run out of patience watching the team either game. As much as I want to rip on Jordin Tootoo for yet another stupid, selfish, mind-boggling penalty on Sunday where he jumped Tom Sestito (it was so obvious that the ref had to seperate them even before the faceoff, I knew there was a meltdown coming) it’s hardly worth ranting about at this point. Although even more frighteningly the Devils tried to sidestep any criticism of Tootoo by suggesting Sestito had time to get his gloves off as well, though clearly the refs didn’t see it that way. All that said, unless Ray Shero and John Hynes are oblivious to reality Tootoo will be gone at the end of the year anyway with a -26 and 102 penalty minutes – many of them the stupid variety like his five minute major against the Isles or that fight with Sestito which led to the Pens’ first goal of the game after the Devils had started off well.
Truth be told there’s still a lot of work to be done with this Devil team and many questions to be answered going forward if they’re going to end their four-year drought of missing the playoffs sometime this decade. There’ll be plenty of time to hash out all of that going forward but first the team needs to play the last fifteen games of the season and eventually get into evaluation mode down the stretch. With Schneider out probably for the season, the Devils can get a long look at Kinkaid and if he plays well he’ll certainly be around next year (I doubt they’d be able to flip him in a trade at the moment). If he continues to play poorly they may need to make a change for next year unless they’re planning on Cory playing all 82. Clearly there’s a lot to evaluate on the defense with Moore, Merrill and Severson all going through hard times. This defense is going to need to be a strength going forward and to be fair for most of the season the Devils were at or among the league leaders in goals against, but clearly a big part of that was Cory along with the top defensive pair of Andy Greene and Adam Larsson and shutdown center Travis Zajac. With Cory starting to slump even before he got hurt – or perhaps he already was playing through the injury? – now their warts have been more exposed these last three weeks.
Perhaps the less said about the offense the better…already bottom of the NHL in goals scored it certainly hasn’t helped matters that their top two scorers a month ago are now out of the lineup (Cammalleri via injury, Lee Stempniak via a trade). It says everything when a new deadline acquisition – Devante Smith-Pelly – immediately goes onto a top line here after being mostly a fourth liner in Montreal and Anaheim. To his credit Smith-Pelly’s been one of the few bright spots lately putting up three points in his first three games as a Devil including two goals, one of which tied up a game in Nashville late that the Devils stunningly won in OT, one of their rare wins in the last three weeks. Pretty much that’s it as far as positives go at the moment. Even rookie Joseph Blandisi and third-year winger Reid Boucher have cooled off though in Boucher’s case he’s mostly played with offensive black holes on the third line while Blandisi’s had just two assists with a -10 in his last ten games. If you want to give me Travis Zajac’s ‘bounceback’ from a 25-point wasteland season last year as a reason for optomism…eh okay, he’s got 33 points in 59 games, which is more or less on pace for a 40-point season, barely acceptable for a top six center who gets icetime in all situations though his defensive responsibilities have to be taken into account. Maybe the most important part of the stretch drive will be seeing more improvement and hope from Boucher, Blandisi and Smith-Pelly, who’s still young enough to be considered potentially part of the future too.
Right now all you can do as a fan is take pride in individual performances…but I’m not going to lie, I probably won’t watch a minute of most of the games I don’t go to the rest of the season (certainly not staying up for the expected West Coast bloodbath this week) and I’m probably only going to four at most. Which also means my posting will probably be scarce for the next few weeks or so. It’s doubly hard to watch these games now cause losing benefits the team in an obvious way though it’s not in my DNA to root for a draft pick, at least not until the last couple of games or so. It’s a lot easier for fans who only watch on TV and can turn it off to scream let’s tank and lose every game for five years, but I’ll save my anti-tank rant for another day.