Who’s responsible for the Devils mess?

They gave it the old college try late. But a desperate Devils rally fell short against the Capitals tonight. Instead, goals from Nico Hischier and ex-Cap Marcus Johansson weren’t enough to prevent a pair of empty netters from Alexander Ovechkin and the game’s number one star, Nicklas Backstrom. The underappreciated playmaking pivot recorded a hat trick with an assist for a four-point game, highlighting Washington’s 6-3 win over the Devils on home ice.

The Capitals are very formidable. They’re defending champs for a reason. It was on full display Friday. There’s no shame in losing to them. But it’s been happening way too frequently for the Devils, who find themselves near the bottom of the division. In fact, they’re tied with the Flyers for the fewest points (22) in the Eastern Conference. A Florida overtime win over the rejuvenated Sabres got them back to NHL .500 with 24 points. So, it’s now old I-95 rivals Philadelphia and New Jersey who find themselves in a dicey situation.

As our Devils blogger Hasan is well aware, it’s been all downhill since a perfect 4-0-0 start. Since then, the Devs are only 5-11-4 with a disastrous 14 of a possible 40 points. That is unacceptable. Especially for a team that was coming off a feel good ’17-18, surprising many by making the playoffs. Taylor Hall was unbelievable carrying them to take home his first Hart Trophy, edging Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon. They both were sensational, but Hall’s performance was a little more valuable. His 93 points (39-54-93) were 41 more than then rookie Hischier (20-32-52).

As clutch as Hall was highlighted by a ridiculous 26-game point streak (18-20-38), he had help from teammates. Kyle Palmieri rounded into form after missing 20 games to finish with 24 goals and 20 assists. Eleven were power play goals. He also was second in game-winners with his five trailing only Hall’s team best seven. Hall paced them in power play goals with 13.

The ’17-18 Devils featured key performers such as Brian Boyle, who scored a good chunk of his 13 goals in the first half. An inspirational leader, who valiantly overcame cancer, #BoyleStrong continues to deliver signature moments this season. How about his first career hat trick in a road win at Pittsburgh on Hockey Fights Cancer night? He also scored another goal when the Devils hosted Hockey Fights Cancer recently.

Blake Coleman became a valuable checking forward who scored 13 goals, including three shorthanded goals to tie ex-Devil Brian Gibbons for the team lead. As a team, they totaled 12 shorthanded goals, turning the penalty kill into a weapon. Coleman has continued his renaissance this year with two more shorthanded goals pacing the team. He already has eight goals and looks poised for a breakout year.

The problem is that other key pieces aren’t getting the job done. Last season, Miles Wood was a big part of what was right, registering a career high 19 goals with 13 helpers for 32 points and 84 penalty minutes. That included a hat trick. This year, he’s been invisible with a disappointing two goals and four assists. There isn’t a more disappointing player on the roster.

With a goal tonight, that gives Johansson four points (2-2-4) over the last four games. He didn’t play in the overtime loss at Florida. Another example of the Devs failing to get the extra point in three-on-three. They basically let Mike Hoffman beat Keith Kinkaid twice. Only the second counted. Johansson has only nine points so far. When GM Ray Shero acquired him in 2017, it was because of what Johansson did with the Capitals. He scored 20-or-more goals twice and topped 40 points five times including a career high 58 (24-34-58) in ’16-17. But a dirty cheap shot by former teammate Tom Wilson cost Johansson most of last season due to a concussion.That wasn’t his fault.

Wilson is a troubled player with a bad reputation after serving 16 games of an original 20-game suspension for a ugly hit on Oskar Sundqvist in preseason. The Blues forward played in his 16th game tonight after missing the rest of preseason and the first seven this season. As for Wilson, it took just nine games for him to get into trouble. In tonight’s game which he had a goal in, a late hit on rookie Brett Seney from behind resulted in a match penalty for a illegal check to the head. After watching several replays and slowing the controversial play down, he didn’t contact the head, but rather the back of Seney’s right upper shoulder and side. It was a reputation call that will now result in an automatic suspension and in person hearing. This is how it’ll be for Wilson, who does himself no favors.

The good news was Seney was able to return. He finished with 9:45 of ice-time with three shots. However, his teammates didn’t take advantage of Wilson’s latest loss of discipline. Yes. They failed to score on a major penalty that spanned the end of the second period and start of the third. The power play was basically split up with the first 2:21 to conclude the second, followed by the remaining 2:39 to start the third.

Rather than draw even in the game which saw Travis Zajac score shorthanded from Coleman to end a six-game pointless streak, the Devils lost their discipline in the third. A Wood double minor for butt ending was followed by a Sami Vatanen hook to hand the dangerous Caps a two-man advantage. Already victimized by Andre Burakovsky for a breakaway goal that squeaked off Kinkaid and in, Backstrom found plenty of shooting room to fire home his second of the night for a 4-1 deficit.

Hall set up Hischier to cut it to two with 7:25 left. Johansson scored his fourth from Hall and Hischier with 1:50 remaining. However, it only took Ovechkin 20 seconds to gather a loose puck in from 150 feet and fire it down for an empty netter just as Kinkaid left the ice. Backstrom added one more for the final margin.

The problem when you play good teams like the Caps is they make you pay for every mistake. I saw it a week ago in a Rangers’ home loss to these Caps, who still were without Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie. It didn’t matter. They took full advantage of a dreadful second period to score three in a row. Even after Ryan Strome tied the score in the third, John Carlson set up Brett Connolly’s winner.

The moral of the story is if you have a chance against a good opponent, you better take it. The Devils didn’t and paid for it dearly on the scoreboard. Even if they came back, it reminded of how they’ve played too many nights so far. You have to play 60 minutes. Inconsistency won’t get it done. Whether it’s Wood underperforming or Will Butcher’s sophomore slump, the Devils need these players to step it up soon. If not, it’s gonna be a long season.

Which brings us to the issue with this roster. Whose fault is it? Of course, you can point to some players not playing up to par. Stefan Noessen was a fixture last year, going 13-14-27 with a plus-12 rating. This season, he’s fallen back to earth. In 17 contests, he has two goals and two assists. Noessen was a healthy scratch at Washington.

Pavel Zacha returned from a brief stint in Binghamton and scored three goals in two games. The 21-year old center is a former 2015 first round pick taken sixth overall ahead of notables Ivan Provorov and league leading scorer Mikko Rantanen. Who knew? Zacha is a good skater, but still is searching for consistency in his third year. He’s got four goals so far, but hasn’t recorded an assist in 19 games. The last three without a point despite skating with more purpose. It doesn’t mean he won’t become a good player. Some prospects take longer to mature. The Devils are counting on him to improve production.

Maybe that’s where Shero went wrong. By expecting too much out of Zacha. His first two seasons in the NHL were almost identical. He went 8-17-25 in 69 games last season. In ’16-17, he was 8-16-24 over 70. Counting the four markers he has this season, Zacha has 20 goals and 35 assists totaling 55 points in 160 career games. There’s not much to add here.

Only Damon Severson has performed up to expectation on the blueline. His three goals and 11 assists for 14 points pace all New Jersey defensemen. Vatanen has a goal and nine helpers. Both he and Severson are each minus-seven. Butcher has only a goal and seven assists despite being a minus-two. In his rookie year, 23 of his 44 points came on the power play. He still did okay at even strength going 2-19-21. Thus far, six of his eight points have come on the power play (6 PPA). The Butcher is being depended upon for offense. He’s their best skater and offensive defenseman.

Andy Greene isn’t a top pair guy anymore, but supplies grit. His 68 blocked shots lead all Devils. He still gets over 21 minutes a night. Vatanen has 34 blocks and 30 hits. Ben Lovejoy isn’t going to give you much either, but will finish checks. Mirco Mueller is the sixth defenseman. A defensive defenseman, the ex-Shark sat out a couple of games for Yegor Yakovlev. A move from coach John Hynes that didn’t make sense. Mueller returned on Friday night finishing plus-one in 15:04.

What’s problematic for this roster is that outside of Hall, Palmieri and Hischier, there aren’t any impact players who can make a difference. Unless the supporting cast is chipping in regularly, the Devils won’t have much success. With two assists, Hall raised his point total to 26 (7-19-26) in 24 games. Right in line with where he was at this point last year. Palmieri has a dozen goals to pace the club with a team-leading five power play goals. But he’s cooled considerably since a hot start. That means Hall must pick up the shooting. His 84 shots lead the team, but he’s been more unselfish this year using his shot as a decoy to find the open man. Don’t expect him to remain at a 8.3 shooting percentage. The same way it’s unlikely Palmieri can sustain a 16.4.

What must happen is the skaters must pick up their play both offensively and defensively. There are too many games where they leave Kinkaid hung out to dry. He didn’t have much chance on three of the four goals he allowed on 29 shots against one of the league’s elite teams. He made a mental mistake on the Wilson goal. Maybe he could’ve stopped Burakovsky, who blew past Severson and Greene like they were standing still. Kinkaid has played the role of starter with the winless Cory Schneider reduced to a little used backup. The 29-year old Kinkaid has been a workhorse getting into 20 games while winning all nine games for the Devils with three shutouts, a 2.79 GAA and a .910 save percentage. He can’t do it by himself.

Schneider will likely get the start tonight against the Winnipeg Jets in Newark. The way Patrik Laine has been going lately, yikes. In general, a rested Jets team is scary. So far, Schneider is 0-5-0 with a 4.27 GAA and .863 save percentage in six games. At some point, he has to stop the bleeding. He’s not being paid $6 million per year to be used for mop up duty. The scary part is the 32-year old is signed thru 2022.

There haven’t been many sparks. Jesper Bratt has played well since returning from a broken jaw. The second-year forward has been a solid player complementing Zacha on the second line. In 11 games, he has seven points (2-5-7). His speed certainly helps. He also plays penalty kill.

With Joey Anderson having successful surgery on his broken ankle, he’s out indefinitely. The 2016 third round pick is a hard worker, who is capable of developing into a solid third liner. 2016 first round pick Mike McLeod made his NHL debut on Friday, but only received eight shifts (5:36). Hardly enough time to do anything. He went 1-and-5 on faceoffs.

Here’s the thing. Shero hardly spent any money last off-season. He opted to stick with mostly the same group that Hynes got to overachieve last season with 97 points to squeak into the postseason. They were no match for the Lightning, falling in five games. Ironically, Schneider replaced an ineffective Kinkaid to win Game Three. However, the Bolts took the next two games to eliminate them.

Basically, it’s up to the current roster to turn it around. By the looks of the East, nobody is running away aside from the Maple Leafs and Lightning. As well as the Sabres have played, it’s hard to see them sustaining their current level. The Bruins are a one line team with a mess of a defense that’s actually being carried by Jaro Halak. Go figure. Aside from the Caps and Blue Jackets in the Metro Division, nobody else has played well. Even the Penguins have struggled due to a shaky defense and the injuries and inconsistencies from Matt Murray. The Rangers and Islanders have played better than expected. The Hurricanes have come back to the pack.

It wouldn’t take much for the Devils to move up the standings. But is there any help on the way? Probably not. Is Hynes suddenly a bad coach with the same personnel? I don’t think so. It’s up to the players to perform better.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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