Last week in this space I said the Devils were about one or two wins away from turning me back into a believer after their stirring win at Nassau last Thursday, finishing off a 6-2-1 run through the new year. However, with a January schedule that has no mercy, the Devils hit a wall losing at home to the Avs and Isles before no-showing at the Garden on Thursday. Honestly, the only game I really watched as a whole this week was the maddening Isles one where mental mistakes from the usual flogs such as Damon Severson condemned them to a blown third period lead, then in OT they somehow failed to win despite Jesper Boqvist getting a breakaway before Sami Vatanen flubbed a 3-on-1. We didn’t even get a shot on net with either chance. Finally, Anders Lee put home the dagger of a frustrating night that dropped my record to two wins in 11 home games attended this year.
That and the Colorado loss (though I didn’t attend last Saturday) pretty much turned me off to the team the rest of the week so I saw none of Thursday’s disgrace at the Garden or yesterday’s surprise late Christmas gift from the Caps, who no-showed and got booed at home. I remarked to a friend I missed the days where our fans would boo a first place team for the sin of a bad period. Not that I like fans acting spoiled per se, but it’s more a commentary over our situation right now. When moving out of 30th place in the NHL for the first time in several weeks is noteworthy. Even more surprising than the win over the Caps was the fact it came without Mackenzie Blackwood in net. Apparently playing him through a cold/flu, teeth dislocation and whatever other mystery injury allegedly cropped up after the Ranger game finally caught up to the overworked rookie.
With zero hope of winning last night I ignored the game and enjoyed the late Spring-ish weather, and was summarilly shocked when I saw the Twitter updates pouring in during the game. 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 4-1…guess this was just one of those WTF nights during an 82-game schedule when down was up and up was down. Although give the team and specifically Louis Domingue credit. Arguably, the deposed Cory Schneider is starting to breathe down his neck for playing time after a good stretch in the AHL with Domingue failing to impress at the NHL level thus far, till last night where he made 31 stops and kept the league’s best team at bay. Even a win like last night isn’t enough to really get me pumped up again, though I did get a chuckle from the viral few seconds from Nikita Gusev at the end of the video above.
Reminded me of the apocryphal (or true) story of Mariano Duncan with the 1996 Yankees when he said ‘we play today, we win today – that’s it!’. Sometimes not knowing much of the language can be a benefit, you don’t know enough to throw in a bunch of cliches and platitudes. In Gusev’s case the money quote after about five seconds of his game puck speech was ‘we need to win next game’. Really, that’s all you can do this point if you’re the Devils. Just concentrate on each game individually and don’t get caught up in your situation although it’s harder for guys like Vatanen, Wayne Simmonds and other non-FA’s who could be on the move in the next few weeks. It’s also harder for the fans, considering the team’s still thirteen points out of a playoff spot with the season more than half over.
As per the new normal, the second half is all about looking for signs for next year, and that starts with the coaching staff, specifically whether GM Ray Shero sees enough from Alain Nasreddine to remove the interim tag or if he goes elsewhere for one of the available big-name coaches (Mike Babcock, Peter Laviolette, perhaps others like Jon Cooper after the season). The fact deposed coach John Hynes got a plum job so soon after being relieved of his duties here really puts Shero on the griddle. Either Hynes fails again and it’s a further strike against Shero’s ability to pick coaches, or Hynes succeeds and Shero looks like a buffoon for not giving him enough to win with here. Personally, I think it’ll be more the former seeing how the Hynes ‘system’ was either ineffective or too high-risk to work though it’s certainly possible with better defense and goaltending in Nashville Hynes will look better at least in the short-term. Certainly Shero has a ‘type’ of coach to hire historically…assistant/AHL guy who’s never coached in the league before. All three coaches in his thirteen years of a GM including Nas have fit that simple description so (unfortunately) I don’t think it’ll take as much for him to keep Nas as most people do.
I will give Nas credit for showing some fight over a bad call (see below) last night though, especially after he arguably didn’t push back enough over the contreversial no-call on Colorado’s fourth goal last Saturday when Blackwood got slew-footed behind the net and had no chance to make the save. Whatever happened last night was enough to set the mild-mannered coach off:
Plus just the fact the team responded off a rare dog performance lately was enough to suggest at least the coach still has their attention. You don’t always have to do it in an overtly showy way.
Of course a big part of whether Nas succeeds will have to do with what he can get out of the younger players in the second half. Certainly two of the most important ones (Blackwood and Nico Hischier) have stepped up, with Nico putting up six goals and ten points in the eight post-Christmas games including two goals last night. Blackwood’s overall numbers might not show it – especially after the Ranger game – but he’s given an outmanned team a chance to win most nights and done that while being a 23-year old rookie starting in the NHL. However, it’s been a mixed bag at best from their other younger players. Boqvist has a dissapointing total of four goals and zero assists in his first 30 NHL games. Pavel Zacha has just three goals in 40 games with a -15, only a bunch of secondary assists are making his point total look better than he’s played.
Unlike Zacha, #1 overall Jack Hughes has played better than his point total looks with just six goals and sixteen points in 36 games, though he finished 2019 with a flourish getting a shootout winner against the Bruins before going on the shelf the last several games, more on that below. Jesper Bratt’s yo-yoed in and out of the lineup due to health and performance issues and his performance level has stagnated with just 8 goals and 15 points in 36 games. Our young defensemen (which was Nas’s perview before ascending to head coach) have more or less stagnated too, with Severson still making the same old mistakes, Will Butcher and Mirco Mueller still having the same physical and mental limitations – in that order.
Perhaps the most annoying thing the last couple of weeks hasn’t even been on the ice though. It’s more the fact that for the second year in a row we have a vague mystery injury to one of our best players. Last year Taylor Hall was day-to-day for months, insulting everyone’s intelligence with that designation before finally getting the inevitable knee surgery that ruled him out for the season. This year it seems like it’s Hughes who’s got mystery injuryitis. He’s been ‘day-to-day’ for two weeks with a suspected shoulder issue and really no accurate timeline of how much longer he’ll miss on the shelf. It would be nice to have a little more transparency for one of the franchise’s most important players going forward. If you’re going to hold him out through the All-Star break fine, at least say so and don’t be vague to try to sell a few extra tickets that aren’t selling for a dog team.
Not to mention how they’ve handled Blackwood. I get they have no other reliable goalie and Nas is coaching for his future employment, but this isn’t exactly a playoffs or bust train here either. There’s no reason to keep playing Blackwood every other day through the flu, dental surgery and whatever else was bothering him this week, which finally caught up to him in the Ranger game as he allowed five goals at the Garden before being pulled. You have to handle your younger studs carefully (which they arguably have with Hughes, making their Blackwood overworking more head-scratching) but at the same point be a little more transparent with the fans who are already ticked off enough at the team. I get the media doesn’t care enough to ask these questions and hold management accountable but fans do, and most hockey fans are smarter than to buy the party line. Don’t treat us like we’re idiots.