At arguably the Devils’ high water mark of the season just after Christmas, the team was sitting pretty at 22-9-5, two points up on the Caps for first place in the Metro with two games in hand and also eight points up on a playoff spot nearing the halfway point of the season. However, their post-holiday swoon has now been extended for a month and a half after dissapointing losses at Ottawa and home against the Flames this week. Things have now changed with the Devils having gone 5-9-3 since December 27. At seven points behind the Caps the division is a pipedream as it should be, but their once firm grip on a playoff spot is also slowly evaporating, with just a three point cushion on Carolina (two games in hand) and four points on Columbus (one game in hand) with a huge head-to-head game this evening.
Our last two weeks have been a perfect prism for how the entire season’s gone. Following the All-Star break the Devils put up a nice three-game winning streak including beating the Penguins and Flyers that had many including me hopeful they’d finally busted out of their January doldrums. Guess again! A dissapointing loss in Ottawa where foolish penalties and bad goaltending put them hopelessly behind the ball against a team that’s been a dumpster fire all season followed by a frustrating loss at home against the Flames where the team dominated late but couldn’t quite make the same late-game comeback this team frequently is the victim of put the Devils right back on the griddle.
As is the case with teams in a prolonged skid, there’s obviously more than one cause but right now the focus (for me) is squarely on the goaltending, in part because after playing just one and a half games in a month’s time, there’s still no timetable for the return of Cory Schnieder to the Devils’ net. With Schneider out the Devils’ goaltending has been sub-optimal to put it mildly, and almost entirely with Keith Kinkaid in net. Although Kinkaid played decently during the three-game winning streak, his stretches of good play have been few and far between with a 3.12 GAA and .893 save percentage. It’s a wonder Kinkaid’s won ten of his seventeen starts with numbers like that but make no mistake about it, this also isn’t the same team of the first half that could compensate for bad goaltending with an offense hitting on all cylinders – more on that later.
One way or another they’re going to need better goaltending and if they’re not going to get it from Kinkaid, GM Ray Shero needs to think about bringing someone in or coach John Hynes needs to be willing to give the other in-house options a chance. Granted, Eddie Lack hasn’t been anything great his last couple years either and Ken Appelby is struggling in the AHL but the definition of insanity is doing the same failed thing and expecting different results – plus sometimes you can catch lightning in a bottle. Just ask Brent Sutter, whose best moment as a Devils coach was when he quickly shelved Kevin Weekes and gave Scott Clemmensen a chance in 2009 when the Devils were faced with a four-month absence for Martin Brodeur. Hynes hasn’t been nearly that bold, giving Kinkaid his sixth straight start in the huge road tilt at Columbus this evening.
Obviously goaltending’s not the only issue right now but it seems the most pressing (and correctable) one with the defense continuing to struggle, and the staff now defaulting to playing vets – re: Ben Lovejoy – thus leaving Mirco Mueller and Steven Santini on the outside looking in. Although Lovejoy’s been okay in his third pairing role, the team’s periperhals and record have suffered with him in the lineup. Not to mention Mueller seemed to be improving after getting off of IR, but he and Santini have fallen victim to a numbers’ game, especially Santini who went from the penthouse (first pairing) to the outhouse (playing for a bad AHL team). You would think at some point coach Hynes would want to shuffle the deck a little bit and at least give the other youngsters the same soft landing role he’s given Lovejoy.
Not that it really matters when your #1 defenseman (Andy Greene) is more or less playing like he should be a #6 defenseman, but still eventually you need to find someone besides Damon Severson or in-season acquisition Sami Vatanen to play at a legit top four D level. Despite his impending free agency John Moore still seems to have immunity from the accountability hammer for bad mistakes but at some point the Devils are going to have to choose between Moore and Mueller since Greene’s not going anywhere through the end of next year at least, and rookie Will Butcher shouldn’t go anywhere among our LD options.
Of course, Butcher (like the other rookies on offense) does seem to be hitting a wall offensively, which isn’t a terribly big surprise to this blogger and why I never truly felt a playoff spot was a given, even at our high water mark in December. When a big chunk of your offense is dependent on two teenagers and a college D all playing their first pro seasons, a downturn in production was inevitable. At that high water mark on December 27, the Devils had 116 goals in their first 36 games, but have scored just 43 in the 17 since. Along with the rookies you also had guys like Brian Boyle and Brian Gibbons playing over their head offensively early on, but both their goal-scoring binges eventually ran dry and now Gibbons – a key penalty killer – is on the shelf for multiple weeks, which partly facilitated our weeklong fascination with an 11-7 lineup configuration.
As a result, you now have an offense with an enormous gap between Taylor Hall and everyone else not named Taylor Hall. To wit:
- Hall 54 points – 48 GP
- Hischier 31 points – 53 GP
- Bratt 31 points – 52 GP
- Butcher 29 points – 53 GP
Not to mention Hall’s 20 goals leads the team by a healthy margin over Miles Wood’s 14 in second. Those numbers show not only how important Hall is (and perfectly illustrate why the offense was hopeless in the games Hall missed before the break) but how much of the load the rookies have taken on.
Two names missing on those lists are Kyle Palmieri and Marcus Johansson, both were expected to be top six forwards and big contributors to the offense but injuries and inconsistency have slowed both with Palmieri mostly struggling (and having missed 19 games due to various ailments) after the first month of the season, while Johansson was having a poor season (Fourteen points and a -11 in 29 GP) even before Brad Marchand cruelly took him out with his second long-term concussion of the season, and without being too fatalist both his struggles and his concussion issues might put his future as a Devil in peril given he’s only signed through next year. Clearly this team could at least use a return to form from Palmieri and perhaps someone else to step up whether it’s Johnasson returning or an in-season callup like John Quenneville or Nick Lappin being given a chance to make a splash.
Writing all this out only tells me that Shero shouldn’t be going nuts trying to improve the team at the deadline unless a long-term solution on D is found and Shero indicated as much lately. Not quite the theatrical display or headline grabber that the Rangers’ white flag letter is, but prudent nonethless. They have too many internal options on D they need to evaluate as is, though certainly an improvement there would be welcome. Up front it doesn’t make sense to expend assets for a big acquisition given the Devils’ youth already on the team and in the pipeline. Could another goalie be brought in assuming this injury to Cory keeps him out for a long period? Perhaps though even with the state of mediocrity at the goaltending position it’s hard to envision us spending to get someone better than our internal options for approximately 15-20 starts (if that).
Besides, the only realistic goal this season should be to make the playoffs. Doing anything in them is gravy. That said, after the team was in such good position it would be a bitter dissapointment to not make the postseason, especially with the rest of the Metro inconsistent or struggling outside of the Caps and a woken-up Pens team. It would be especially bitter for Hall, who still hasn’t made the postseason in his NHL career between his time in Edmonton and last season here, and for a fanbase looking to get rejuvanated after five straight years in the wilderness.