In what’s become a weekly, or at least semi-weekly ritual of bemoaning the current state of the Devils it seemed fitting to open with a Charlie Brown clip, and not just because it’s raining outside this morning. I’d like to sit here and stress the positives but quite frankly there really aren’t many at this point. Even that nutty junktime surge against the Penguins on Tuesday night when they somehow turned a 6-0 rout after two periods into a missed it by that much 7-6 defeat seems a bit laughable, when you can’t even get to OT after a six-goal third period because you just sucked that badly in the first two. Not to mention that game came on the heels of our futile late-game surges against the Rangers in the previous two losses.
You can say we were – ahem – competitive in four of our last five games, whatever being competitive means once you fall behind 4-0, 3-0, 3-0 and 6-0 in all of those games. YOU STILL LOST THE GAME! It reminds me of an infamous Mike Francesa rant on WFAN when Yankee fans wanted to go gaga over Joba Chamberlain striking out a bunch of guys in a mediocre four-inning start or whatever it was. At some point you have to have actual results beyond advanced stats while just blaming lousy third-string goalies and other outside factors, while going 1-11-1 this month including a nine-game regulation losing streak (all against the Penguins and Rangers). Even Lindy Ruff sounded like he was ready to go full John Tortorella on his goaltending after the wacky loss to the Penguins.
I do agree inasmuch as it doesn’t help your young kids develop when every mistake and even some non-mistakes wind up in the back of the net. Aaron Dell has been noncompetitive all season and Scott Wedgewood has crashed down to earth and then some, the 80-foot dribbler he allowed in the first period on Tuesday (the third goal in the 6-0 deficit) was quite possibly the worst I’ve seen in the last several years – which is saying something considering the state of our backup goaltending over that time. Ruff has even been quick to call out Mackenzie Blackwood at times this season, and while Blackwood’s been too inconsistent for my taste, you can see the difference in having an NHL goalie yesterday versus not having one the rest of this week when Blackwood’s injury kept him out of the first two Penguin games.
Still, this team’s problems go way beyond the goaltending, especially after we lost two of our top three (remaining) defensemen due to COVID and injury. Somehow PK Subban avoided the surge of COVID cases that derailed the Devils season in February, but the timing of him finally getting it now couldn’t have been worse for the team considering breakout rookie Ty Smith has also been on the shelf this week with an unspecified body injury, and coach Ruff didn’t sound too optimistic about him coming back anytime soon.
Even with all our defensemen healthy and pre-trade deadline liquidation, the special teams has been an utter joke this season. 29th on the PP looks downright great compared to our dead last (by a mile) on the PK. Currently we’re at 69.5% on the kill, only one other team – the Flyers – is even below 75%, much less 70%. There’s only so much of this you can blame on the lack of practice time and coaching. At a certain point you just have to keep it simple, s…you know the rest. Especially with said lack of practice time. You can excuse it for being below average but not historically bad like this. You don’t need great talent or great coaching to have a competent PK.
It’s not as if we’ve been much better 5-on-5 though, we’re 27th in goals per game and 29th in goals allowed per game. Our young forwards are supposed to be the backbone of the team – and right now they are the ‘whole’ team – but it would be nice to get some goals when we aren’t already at like a 1% chance to win a game. Even when you want to get excited about something like Nolan Foote getting a goal and assist in his first two NHL games, the Devils take the starch out of that by demoting him back to the taxi squad, presumably for long enough so that he doesn’t play in the seven games where his ELC will start this year.
Are we in MLB or the NHL here guys? I mean what’s the point of GM Tom Fitzgerald calling Foote up with thirteen games left if you’re only going to play him ten minutes apiece in two games, then sit him after he actually produces points? It’s not as if we’re loaded with forwards that need icetime, especially before Pavel Zacha and Jesper Bratt returned to the lineup this week. But sure Fitzy, Devil fans are really dying to see you continue to audition the awful Andreas Johnsson in a top six role (four goals and ten points in 47 games) just because you acquired him and he’s got two years left on an almost unmovable contract.
At this point the only thing good about 2021 is it’s almost over, with just nine games left. It’s too late in the season for me to be impressed by any sort of junktime surge. Maybe if they win seven of nine and look competent in doing so, but does anyone really see that coming? Even if five of our games are against the Flyers, who are also struggling. Two non-playoff teams in a series of meaningless games is the definition of unwatchable, rivalry or no rivalry. Our other four games are against the Bruins and Islanders (two apiece), but by the time we play them next week they may well have clinched playoff spots already. So basically all nine of our remaining games will likely be glorified preseason games. Am I really supposed to get excited if we finally gain some traction against one team whose goaltending is possibly even worse than ours and another team we’ve had a weird hex over all season? You can pretty much count the Islander games as losses now, whether they’ve clinched or not.
Of course a useless junktime surge still beats the alternative, which is just continuing to get embarrassed on a nightly basis. We are now on the verge of falling behind a Sabres team that just had an eighteen-game losing streak not too long ago. Then again we could theoretically match it by the end of the season. I don’t want to hear about draft picks and improving our draft position when we have two now-healthy #1 overalls in the lineup, and our best healthy players at this point may well be a couple of middle-round guys (Bratt and Yegor Sharangovich). Not when one of my other sports teams just jettisoned its #3 overall pick after three years to draft another QB at #2 overall this offseason. Any ‘process’ is only good if it eventually leads to somewhere out of the wilderness.