The Devil Dilemma

Andy Greene defends a Senator during a disappointing 4-2 home loss for the Devils. AP Photo by Bill Kastroun via Getty Images

One of the real mysteries of the early season is the inconsistent play of the New Jersey Devils. Somehow, a team that improved its roster through the NHL Draft with top pick Jack Hughes, then trading for defenseman PK Subban, and signing well respected veteran forward Wayne Simmonds, has not found its footing.

Even a promising 2-0 start to a five-game road trip with back-to-back wins at Carolina and Winnipeg was tarnished by awful performances in consecutive losses to Calgary and Edmonton. At one point, they were outscored 8-0 after jumping out to a 2-1 lead against the Flames. Such implosions have been a frequent occurrence under veteran coach John Hynes. No longer the fresh face he was when GM Ray Shero hired him from Wilkes-Barre Scranton in the Penguins organization, the fifth year Devils bench boss isn’t getting it done.

Most discouraging is that following a feel good 2-1 win at Vancouver to conclude the Western Canadian portion of the road trip 3-2-0, they laid another egg in Wednesday night’s 4-2 home loss to the Senators. Like many games they’ve blown for mind boggling defeats, it was a game they should’ve won. Instead, they wasted a 2-1 lead courtesy of Simmonds and Will Butcher goals that had them up a goal after the first period.

Unable to add to the lead in a second that featured a brilliant rush from Hughes, who split two Senators before being denied by veteran goalie Craig Anderson, the Devils left the door open for an Ottawa comeback. Having seen them first hand outplay and outwork the Rangers last week in a well earned Senators 6-2 win at MSG, they play the game hard. Despite not being the most talented, they continue to work hard under first-year coach DJ Smith.

If you let them hang around, it’s at your own risk. Ottawa has posted wins over the Hurricanes and Lightning. If you don’t bring it, they can beat you. Last night’s victory was their third over the last four. In fact, that made it four of six for a team that lost six of their first seven games at the start.

Having stated that, you cannot lose games like the one the Devils did at The Prudential Center in Newark on Wednesday. Not when you have higher expectations. This is a roster that’s supposed to challenge for a playoff spot. If we are judging it off the first 17 games, it’s a colossal failure. New Jersey finds itself with a 5-8-4 record for only 14 points. That puts them in last place in the Metro Division. In fact, their five wins and four ROW (regulation overtime wins) are the fewest in the Eastern Conference. A far cry from what’s expected.

The Devils are currently without top defenseman Sami Vatanen. I said top because after having trouble with injuries establishing himself following a trade with Anaheim that sent 2011-12 playoff hero Adam Henrique to the Ducks, he’s been the one constant on this year’s roster. In 15 games, Vatanen leads Devil defensemen in goals (4), points (8), plus/minus (4), and ranks second behind team captain Andy Greene in blocked shots (25). He’s also tied with Butcher with four assists. He missed a second straight game with an “upper-body” injury.

It definitely hurts the back end. Even with key addition Subban, who has yet to establish himself following a trade with Nashville, the Devils still lack depth on the blueline. Without Vatanen, the top four consists of Subban, Butcher, Greene and Damon Severson, who isn’t known for his defense. Yesterday, Hynes was forced to play both Mirco Mueller and Matt Tennyson as the third pair. They were on for a goal against in approximately 20 shifts.

The Senators got a signature performance from breakout star Jean-Gabriel Pageau. A name I’m quite familiar with unfortunately. His four goal game against the Rangers in a Senators comeback win in overtime was a crusher during the second round of the 2017 Playoffs. While Pageau isn’t as skilled as other forwards, he makes up for it with good skating and a consistent work ethic. He was at the center of the 6-2 win last week at MSG. He’s been on fire lately.

Since the two goal game on Nov. 4, the pesky center has eight goals over his last half a dozen games. That included a hat trick in which he victimized the Devils. Already having one back in the first period, Pageau got the game-winner with 2:01 remaining in regulation. It followed up a tying goal from physical defenseman Mark Borowiecki 4:29 earlier. One that Devils netminder Mackenzie Blackwood needed to have. There was some traffic, but the shot from Borowiecki went right through him.

Following his second of the game, Pageau anticipated what Taylor Hall wanted to do. The former league MVP who once carried this team to the playoffs only two years ago telegraphed a shot that Pageau easily blocked. He quickly fired the puck down ice into a vacated net for the hat trick at 19:34. An intelligent play by a complete hockey player.

Maybe that’s the biggest issue plaguing the Devils. Aside from getting unsteady goaltending from the tandem of Blackwood and Cory Schneider, who isn’t the same guy laterally due to the injuries, they don’t have many complete players that can lead the team.

Subban was brought in as much as a gate attraction as much as he was to help stabilize the defense. Two goals (one empty netter in a win over NYR) and three assists is hardly enough for a player of his caliber. While I’ve always admired his cool personality and what he does off the ice with charities, this is a former Norris winner who must perform better. If not, it’s going to be a long season in New Jersey.

The Devils know they’re not getting much from Greene aside from five-on-five play, penalty killing and the grit that comes with blocked shots. The reality is the well respected veteran just turned 37 and is in the final year of his contract. He could be on the move to a playoff contender that can use a guy with his character as a depth defenseman on a third pair. Similar to Marc Staal in New York, Greene plays a bigger role out of necessity. Listening to him speak to reporters after the loss is reason enough to respect him.

AP Photo via Getty Images courtesy

Then there’s Hall, who again failed to hit the score sheet. He remains stuck on two goals in 17 games. His shooting percentage is an anemic 3.2 percent. It’s not going well for the birthday boy. Hall turns 28 today. Two seasons removed from a awe inspiring Hart that saw him achieve career bests in goals (39), assists (54), points (93), plus/minus (14), power play points (13-24-37) while matching a career high in game-winners (7), the Devils leading point getter as legendary former New Jersey voice Doc Emrick would say, is without a goal in six straight.

Hall’s 15 points including 13 assists pace the team. However, they need him to start finishing. Two goals on 62 shots isn’t getting it done. Neither is no power play goals or game-winning goals. He’s in a contract year. Unless things dramatically change, the Devils organization might decide to trade him. How much is a skilled player, who has a Hart Trophy under his belt gonna be worth? He currently is being paid $6 million this season. The cost next summer could be astronomical. Or out of the price range.

With Shero recently extending third-year pivot Nico Hischier for an average cap hit of $7.25 million through 2027, he’s looking to build at center led by 18-year old phenom Hughes and the 21-year old Hischier. The dependable right wing Kyle Palmieri is signed at a discount AAV of $4.625 million through 2021. He will cost significantly more by then. Considering that they’re probably going to lose Hall, Palmieri is a must keep.

Here’s the question for the Devils. Who else fits into their long-term plans? Simmonds is signed for a year which means his $5 million salary can come off the books. Vatanen also can become unrestricted next summer. He has a solid AAV of $4.875 million that expires following the season. The 28-year old right shooting Finn could be gone by the trade deadline. Especially with top D prospect Ty Smith in their future. Even though he didn’t make the roster, the 2018 first round pick is expected to make the jump from Spokane next year.

Which other forwards are worth keeping? Shero invested nine million over two years in former KHL star Nikita Gusev. A small 27-year old Russian forward he acquired the rights to from Vegas for a 2020 third round pick and a 2021 second round pick. A pretty good price to pay for a player who never played in the NHL until now. So far, it’s been mixed results. Gusev has four goals and two assists, but has also been a healthy scratch in three games. That’s not a ringing endorsement. If you are paying him an AAV of $4.5 million, he has to play. Their scoring depth isn’t great.

Hard working two-way center Blake Coleman is a good bargain that earns $1.8 million through ’20-21. He’s a good penalty killer and shorthanded threat. The 28-year old American has three goals and two helpers. He is a diligent checker who delivers hits. But he’s a third liner that must contribute. Last season was a breakout with a career high 22 goals, 36 points and 71 penalty minutes.

Two younger players they’re counting on are Miles Wood and Pavel Zacha. Each are signed through 2022. Wood gets $2.75 million AAV while Zacha costs $2.25 million towards the cap. Of the two, it’s the former first round pick Zacha who’s been one of the club’s most consistent players. No longer being used at center, he’s shifted to the wing and provided offense with a pair of goals and six assists for eight points. Consistency remains the key to his growth.

As for Wood, he remains a frustrating player for Devils fans. The 24-year old from Buffalo is a player who plays with a lot of energy. Sometimes, he can be too wired and take ill advised penalties. In their playoff season, Wood scored 19 goals and added 13 assists with 84 penalty minutes. 2018-19 was disappointing as he wound up only 10-14-24 with 91 PIM in 63 contests. So far, it’s much of the same. He is on the fourth line and has five points (2-3-5) with a minus-six rating and 10 PIM. He’ll sometimes create breakaways due to his work ethic, but doesn’t possess good hands.

Jesper Bratt is in his third year. The 21-year old Swede with the great speed has four goals and two assists while getting into 14 games. I don’t understand why he doesn’t play every game. He isn’t a top six forward. However, he can be helpful on the third line due to his skating and ability to create scoring chances. The other Jesper is Jesper Boqvist. A rookie who’s been used sparingly despite a good camp. He scored in a shootout, but doesn’t have an official NHL point yet in six games. Pretty soon, the Devils must decide what’s best for him.

One Devil that hasn’t been discussed is Travis Zajac. Believe it or not, the 2004 first round pick taken one spot after Lauri Korpikoski, is still in Jersey as one of the team leaders. Even though his production suffered following the bitter departure of Zach Parise, the two-way pivot has remained a solid player. Sure. The big contract former Devils architect Lou Lamoriello gave him was frowned upon. But the $5.75 million on average no longer looks that bad compared to some other contracts.

Last season, Zajac had a good year posting 19 goals and 27 assists for 46 points over 80 games. He was healthy and proved he can still be a key contributor. However, it’s been a bad start for him. He only has one goal and three helpers in 17 games. While his role might not be what it once was, Zajac is still a dependable guy on face-offs as well as the penalty kill. He can be used as a match-up center at five-on-five. Though that’s gonna be Hischier’s role very soon.

When you look at the roster, you can argue that key stars Hall, Subban and Hischier can perform better. Palmieri has 11 points (6-5-11). Hughes is 4-5-9 so far and continuing to learn. Simmonds is 3-5-8. If he’s not producing on the power play which has been a issue, that’s a problem.

So, is this team really this bad? Probably not. Unless the scoring picks up via Hall going on a hot streak and Subban finding the range, they’ll be hard pressed to win consistently. Blackwood is the better goalie. He’s only in Year Two. If Schneider’s struggles continue, would they recall Louis Domingue? It could be worth a shot.

This team will go as their key players do. Hughes will improve. He’s got that kind of talent. I would put him back between Hall and Palmieri. Let Hischier work with a second line of either Gusev or Zacha with Bratt.

What about Hynes? That all depends on Shero, who remains loyal to his friend. Obviously, it’s gotta be frustrating for Hasan and the Devils fans. They don’t have that look. When my friend Rob has thrown in the towel this early, you know it’s bad.

Whatever happens, the roster could look very different a few months from now.

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 Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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5 Responses to The Devil Dilemma

  1. hasan4978 says:

    Good piece…they weren’t worth my further angst last night getting home from the game when I had a headache and needed sleep and don’t have enough time to do it now but rest assured I’ll write my thoughts on last night and in general later. I’ll start with Pageau has more heart than almost the entire Devils team put together, they quit on the game after the tying goal.

    It also occured to me last night I didn’t even remember the Ottawa coach’s name, and forgot to look it up until you posted it. I guess I’d better learn cause he already looks better than Hynes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Derek Felix says:

      I think when a team blows as many leads as they have, it’s psychological. It doesn’t help when the coach says they have to hold on. Not in today’s league. Boston blew a 4-0 third period lead. It’s much easier to score unless you’re facing the Islanders.


      • hasan4978 says:

        They certainly got burned on the whole hold on approach the other night but in this case I almost understand it given the error-prone D is capable of gaffes at the worst times (exhibit A Tennyson in the third period against Ottawa) so it’s as much trying to minimize THAT as anything else.


      • Derek Felix says:

        When you blow as many leads as they have, it makes you tentative. I see they got a brilliant performance from Blackwood. I knew I should’ve grabbed him for last night. Oh well.


  2. hasan4978 says:

    Yeah last night was as angry as I’ve ever been after a win probably…the last two periods were straight trash from everyone not named Blackwood.

    Liked by 1 person

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