Since my last blog on the Devils sadly nothing has changed. In fact, the last two games things have actually gotten worse. I wasn’t even sure it was possible but right now it looks like there’s no end to the Devils’ ineptitude after the team suffered their fourth straight blowout loss in St. Louis 5-2 last night. Mercifully I saw little of this game, but I watched enough on Sunday night for two weeks’ worth of aggravation. While I’m relieved over only having to go to one more game before the holidays right now I’m dreading the fact this team has 30 home games left that look like largely meaningless affairs. Our recent ineptitude combined with the monster Metro has combined to put us a whopping nine points out of a playoff spot already. And after what now seems like an illusory 9-3-3 start to boot!
Clearly our rebuild, retooling, whatever you want to call it has taken two steps back this year after the one step forward last year. One of the few people associated with the team I feel bad for right now is Taylor Hall, who must be thinking he brought the Edmonton cloud in with him. To be fair this franchise is starting to get to that level of ineptitude all on its own, it’s now pathetically obvious both that this team’s not going to the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season, but it’s also just as obvious they are a long, long way from even being a good team. Anyone can be mediocre in this NHL, and yeah if the Devils were in the Atlantic division or the Western Conference they’d still be reasonably close in the playoff hunt but just like with my football Jets dealing with life in the division of the Evil Empire, you have to play the cards you’re dealt.
Honestly I don’t think any of these division teams are going away anytime soon. Pittsburgh and Washington have stacked teams that should still be solid contenders, Columbus and the Flyers have a lot of good, talented, young players in the pipeline (some of whom are already maturing before our eyes, like the Jackets’ amazing rookie defensman Zach Werenski). Even the Rangers who most of us thought their window might have been coming to an end with cap problems, draft pick problems and the age of all-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist might have just stumbled onto Lundqvist’s successor in Antti Raanta, and have somehow incorporated more quality youth and skill into their starting lineup without high draft picks. Of course it helps when you can sign guys like Kevin Hayes and Jimmy Vesey for free basically, because being an Original Six team in NY has its benefits after all. Even the Islanders and Hurricanes can be a pain in the neck here and there.
So where does that leave us now and in the long-term? I bristled over the suggestion that the last couple of seasons were about evaluation more than winning but if that was the case I don’t like what I’m seeing, from just about anyone. What this team is telling me is a lot of these guys aren’t going to be here when we get good again. Maybe the real scary part is the Devils have only had five division games. I shudder over what’s going to happen when we start playing the division behemoths more and more. It sure wasn’t pretty at the Garden on Sunday night, which brought back bad memories of the end of the Lou Lamoriello tenure when the Rangers clowned a noncompetitive Devil team in a home-and-home series toward the end of the season, and more or less signaled the end of a long era with their fans booing our players off the ice on our own Fan Appreciation Night.
Could the 5-0 blowout on Sunday be the signal more changes are neccesary? It’s disconcerting to think that eighteen months into a new regime and one blowup later, we need another blowup so soon. Granted I’m not advocating firing GM Ray Shero, but he clearly has his work cut out for him in year two – and somehow finding a way to build a good team with players that either can’t play hockey, won’t play hockey, or are feeling sorry for themselves. Of course it’s harder to fire all the players than it is to fire the head coach. As I said a few days ago, if this were Lou’s team, coach John Hynes would not only be on the hot seat but might have already gotten a pink slip for Christmas. Last night was the point where I really started to think this was a possibility even post-Lou. After three straight blowout losses, intense practices and a dressing down on Tuesday, the Devils’ early momentum surge in St. Louis yesterday only lasted fifteen minutes. I was encouraged to see they jumped out to a 2-0 lead but after Vladimir Tarasenko scored late in the first the Devils did what they usually do lately – they turtled, choked and then quit. Even down two in the third period felt like it was being down twenty with this team.
I don’t want to fire Hynes for losing with what’s clearly a substandard team, and I think he’s a good man doing his best but clearly he’s running out of answers to try to get something, anything at all out of this group. Right now it looks like this team’s going to be realisitically eliminated from playoff contention by New Year’s which is just unacceptable, tough division or not. Losing is one thing but being utterly noncompetitive game after game is another story, the Devils haven’t looked this hopeless since the John MacLean era. Too bad there’s no Jacques Lemaire to come to the rescue this time. In fact my list of potential replacements for Hynes more or less begins and ends with Rick Kowalsky in Albany. From afar it seems the 44-year old has done a good job not only winning but getting the most out of his young talent. Of course the last time we promoted an Albany coach that seemed to be doing a good job that was…MacLean. Not that Shero should be thinking of that if he wants to make a coaching change, after all division rival Pittsburgh’s won two Cups in the last decade with in-season firings promoting its AHL coach, one of whom was a Shero coaching change from Michel Therrien to Dan Bylsma.
Would Shero really pull the plug on a handpicked coach for a developmental team so soon? Like new beat guy Andrew Gross said last night, while clearly Shero believed in Hynes hiring him in two different locations, this kind of play just cannot continue before something gives. If you were going to try to make changes in other avenues, it might be time to start incorporating even more youth into the lineup. There are actually options in Albany – forwards Joseph Blandisi and John Quenneville could both be candidates for callups, as could defensemen Steven Santini, Yohann Auvitu (strangely scapegoated and sent down recently) and Vojtech Mozik. If you are going to call these guys up though, give them – and fellow youngsters Nick Lappin and Miles Wood – a real chance to make an impact. I don’t care if you have to waive, trade or demote someone else, the level of play on the current roster is just unacceptable up and down the line. That includes goalie, but there are no real options for replacing Cory Schneider or Keith Kinkaid. It is overdue to pull a Lundqvist on Cory and sit him 3-4 straight games, whatever’s going on with him whether it’s a slump or him suffering PTSD playing in front of this joke of defense, his own play has not been up to standard. Clearly the Rangers’ extended break sitting Lundqvist had its desired effect over the last few games.
There’s also the option of a Lou-like chemistry trade where talented players like Jason Arnott and Petr Sykora got dealt cause they no longer fit in with the team concept. As harsh as it would be to dump 2012 hero Adam Henrique right now he’s playing like a guy who doesn’t care. Of course the rub is so many people are playing badly that you’d be selling at fifty cents on the dollar in a lot of cases, including with Henrique. Maybe you consider something even more radical like stripping the C from Andy Greene, who clearly hasn’t ‘led’ the team anywhere, particularly this season. Greene’s comments about the team showing improvement last night were laughable and completely detached from reality and Greene’s been culpable in some bad coach-killing periods for this franchise. Whatever happens though, needs to happen soon. With thirty home games left I’m not exactly looking forward to going to the majority and won’t be able to give away tickets to these games. Still, this team does have to think about selling tickets – which clearly was the motivation for this ridiculous schedule in the first place – even if the playoffs look increasingly remote you can’t lose your fanbase for another long period of time. Especially a fanbase getting increasingly jaded and aggravated with being a joke.