In the previously on part of this blog, to recap since it’s been a while – the last time I really paid any serious attention to a Devils game was the Ranger weekend fiasco. I mentally shut off entirely after the Islander three-game sweep, only paying cursory attention on Twitter and to recaps for reasons I already got into before. After losing three straight to the Isles, this team went on its now usual junktime surge beating the Pens two of three, finally squeezing out a win over the Sabres, beating the Flyers and their tire fire goaltending and then shutting out the Bruins on Sunday. Of course we lost twice more to the Caps but when don’t we lose to the Caps this season? Literally we’ve lost in every which way to them this season, from blowing leads to falling behind and coming up short in a comeback to losing late, and more recently giving up entirely in a 4-0 whitewashing at the end of a six game in nine day stretch. And oh joy – we get them twice more on deck.
Still, it seemed this team was picking up their play against everyone else to the point where yes, tonight I turned the game on when we were up 3-1 on the Bruins (again) in the second period. Our bizarre season-long hex of the Bruins aside, another win over them would have given us six in nine games and represented a true cause for optimism. I was even starting to write a more positive blog at 4-2.
Then the Devils proceeded to remind me why they suck and I emotionally had peaced out on the season weeks ago.
Maybe it’s not fair to ask them to beat the Bruins for a fifth straight time (4-0-1 in our first five with them this year) but watching the Devils blow it at the end just annoyed me though, in a manner I haven’t been annoyed this year other than the Ranger sweep. I said after the Ranger sweep I was checked out to the point where I don’t even feel like ranting, welp here comes one now. First of all, the last two seasons are proving why you can’t go nuts over second-half surges when the team’s long since out of the playoff picture. They’re the very definition of low-pressure, low-expectation games. As a Jet fan I saw how meaningless an illusory second-half surge was in 2019 when the 2020 season capsized on an iceberg. Clearly the Devils’ 2020 second half didn’t have much relevance when 2021 blew up after our illusory first several games of the season.
I really wanted to be sitting here talking about the positives from the last few weeks – how Jesper Bratt’s all-around game has been picking up since a temporary demotion to the fourth line (albeit he still has only three goals, but he’s putting up assists and actually playing well away from the puck for maybe the first time in his career), how Mackenzie Blackwood until tonight looked back to his early-season form in recent games, how Dmitri Kulikov has become a more stabilizing defensive presence we needed. In other words actually enjoying this team again.
Instead I’m sitting here cursing them out after blowing it in the third period, in no small part due to the NHL’s worst special teams….again. It figures that right when I saw the graphic about how we’re only killing off 73% of penalties my thought was at least that’s an improvement from the 60% or so it was for a while. Then of course we give up another PP goal right after I had that thought. It didn’t help that Blackwood had an off night, giving up at least a couple of goals he’d like to have back and getting straight punked in the shootout. It would be nice if this team could give him enough support to pick him up on an off night though. And it actually looked like that was going to happen at 4-2.
Of course it would also help if your PP could actually you know, get some quality chances on net and occasionally score on one. Considering we have one of the best scorers in NHL history (Mark Recchi) coaching our PP you would think, even factoring in the lack of practice time that he’d be able to draw something up on the blackboard in-game or over Zoom that’s better than the crap the Devils have been putting out game after game on the man advantage. Failing on consecutive power plays late in the third AND in OT without getting diddly poo in terms of quality chances is the perfect coda for our special teams of doom this year. Maybe better personnel choices would help too, I’ll forever like Sami Vatanen for what he did in 2018 and the fact he’s a fun personality but I’m sorry, 2021 Vatanen and crest-killer Damon Severson (who is good otherwise but historically has stunk on the PP) shouldn’t be getting PP minutes over Ty Smith, who’s our leading scorer on D this year. I did at least find it somewhat amusing that the Bruins fans obsessive booing of P.K. Subban at the end of one power play made it sound like a crowd at the Rock booing our ineffective man advantage.
Speaking of crest-killers, it’s time for our only healthy #1OA pick to start producing like one. I realize we’re barely into his second season’s worth of games, but Jack Hughes’ production has been straight out disappointing to this point. So far in his career he’s been a guy who flashes for 8-10 games of a season then craps out after that. Obviously there are different reasons for it this year, compared to last year but at some point if you’re going to be a star player you need to be a heck of a lot more productive and consistent. After his first eight games this year things looked great with three goals and five assists. Since then, he’s produced just four goals and four assists in 26 games getting consistent first-line minutes. Before the haters come at me with ‘but he had COVID! but the schedule sucks!’, I understand that – I’m in no way saying Hughes is a finished product. But for a guy who’s supposed to be an elite playmaker, he hasn’t been able to lift the level of his wingers so far and he sure as shooting hasn’t shown enough of a scoring touch to match his supposedly great analytical numbers – which dovetails right into another pet peeve of mine.
And before the nerds come at me for ranting on analytics, I understand they should be a part of the game as a complement to the eye test and intangibles. My main consternation with analytics is twofold – one, they sure as shooting aren’t perfect yet. It’s hard to expect any metric to be perfect with a game that has as many variables as hockey, and for the people that are the analytics believers to treat them as if they are some perfect finished product that can’t be questioned is mind-boggling. My other annoyance with analytics is people who believe in them give them more weight than actual production and any deviance from the belief that analytics = good player gets dismissed as just luck. If you have bad analytics and are producing it’s just unsustainable luck, it you have good analytics and aren’t producing you’re unlucky. It can’t possibly have anything to do with actual talent or on and off ice stuff that hasn’t been measured with a stat yet.
So when I hear Hughes or Bratt have such great analytics and it’s only a matter of time before they score I roll my eyes, even if there might be some truth to that. It’s hard to take the stat nerds seriously when I had to see things like them saying Hughes was a good player LAST year, when he had 21 points in 61 games and did nothing else particularly well. I don’t deny that he’s looked much better than last season in 2021, even if his recent 20+ games haven’t exactly shown that but that’s also a very low bar to clear for a #1OA. And as far as Bratt goes, this idea he’s going to have a scoring breakout isn’t borne out by his career where he hasn’t hit twenty goals or forty points yet. He’s put some assists (and one very big goal) up on the board in recent games, and all credit to him for improving his all-around game in recent weeks but long-term I’m not sure how sustainable his point production is unless a goal spike also happens. You don’t often see ten goal, forty-five assist forwards in the NHL.
Welp I’m about tapped out on this one…I suspect the next blog I post will be a trade deadline preview (or recap since it’s only two weeks away now) and more griping about how deadline day is once again the highlight of our season.