It’s basically become a yearly ritual for me to post this classic scene from Wargames whenever crap completely hits the fan for the Devils, symbolically going to DEFCON 1 is my version of pressing the panic button. And make no mistake, there’s real reason to panic in Newark now after the Devils got popped in their third straight game, and have only won two of their last ten games overall. Yes the Devils are still technically at NHL .500 but come on now…they’re well off any playoff pace (playoffs? PLAYOFFS?!) with a goal differential of -11 and sinking fast. Losing by a combined score of 18-8 in their last three games is just inexcusable, and though the Wild and Sharks are apparently good teams this year, these games shouldn’t exactly be mismatches on the level of Rutgers going to Ohio State in college football here.
Even worse than the overall results are the fact this team continues to find different ways to lose – as losing teams will do. If it isn’t the power play letting us down, it’s the goaltending…or the coaching…or the offense…or the defense. Frequently it’s most or all of the above at once. I haven’t even needed to see the last two games to get annoyed, well I did turn on the third period tonight but this team’s already got me back in the apathy zone. Just like Lucy with Charlie Brown and the football, they make you think maybe this year’s gonna be different with another good early start, then the inevitable crash comes and you feel like a blockhead for even entertaining the thought this year’s gonna be different.
I’m gonna start my post-Thanksgiving carving up of of the team with someone I don’t want to carve up, and that’s the head coach. Make no mistake, I was a Lindy Ruff fan going back to his days in Buffalo. As such, I was more supportive of the hire than many Devils fans. But you have to wonder about the coaching in general when the team continually gets off to poor starts in games, it’s become an alarming trend in particular during this ten-game stretch. Other than the Philly win last Sunday you have…fall behind 2-0 to Minnesota, 3-0 in Nashville, 4-0 to the Sharks, 3-0 in Minnesota and 3-0 tonight in Winnipeg (shockingly rebounding to take the lead early in the second before the roof fell in, again). Even one of our two wins in the last ten games required us to fall behind 2-0 in Tampa. It’s hard to rebound when you continually go down by multiple goals early, especially when your power play sucks and you don’t exactly have the best offense in the world.
And someone’s gotta get the memo to Lindy that this is 2021, not 1985 or even 2003. First of all, there’s no excuse for the head coach to give a fourth-liner like Mike McLeod fifteen minutes of icetime a night. But he wins faceoffs! Who cares, you now literally have three centers on the roster you’re hoping to build the franchise around. Yet we’ve been giving Jack Hughes shifts on the wing since his return from IR, and now tonight even shifted Dawson Mercer and Nico Hischier to wing on and off. Yet McLeod (no goals and four assists with a -6 in 21 games) still gets his fifteen minutes of icetime a night, and got just thirty seconds less than Hughes did tonight, in a game we were trailing almost from puck drop. You would think being behind would lead you to play your offensive players more but nah, gotta win those faceoffs and match lines! Not to mention putting guys on the wing who aren’t used to playing wing is just asking for trouble, Hughes certainly looked like a fish out of water in his first couple games off IR playing wing while Mercer was a -4 with no points tonight. Coincidence? I doubt it.
Also, the coach needs to get it through his old-school skull that no-talent goons do not protect players anymore, and the proof of that should have been the second game of the season when Mason Geertsen being dressed did not stop Jack Hughes from being drilled along the boards and taken out for two months. Geertsen’s not even a good goon but the head coach continues to find excuses to play him, whether it’s throwing Marian Studenic into a black hole after some solid early-season games, or scratching Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen (granted, both probably deserved it) and using that as excuses to keep Geertsen in the lineup. It may seem like a little thing to argue about a fourth liner’s icetime, but in stretches of six games in ten days, it can make a big difference in managing icetime and juggling lines when you have a forward who can’t take a regular shift.
I’d even take the coach to task for his goaltending rotation – i.e. just handing Mackenzie Blackwood back his job when Jonathan Bernier was getting it done early in the season and letting Bernier cool off on the bench (starting just one game in the next three weeks after a 4-1 start) while overplaying Blackwood, and it hasn’t served either goalie well. But at a certain point both goalies just gotta make a bleeping save too. Goaltending was supposed to be a strength of the team with Blackwood and the vet Bernier finally giving us a 1-2 tandem but Blackwood’s given up four or more goals in three of his last six starts, including nine in his last two, while Bernier’s gone from god to clod giving up 4, 3 and 6 goals in his only three starts since early November. Quite simply he gave the team zero chance to win tonight with multiple soft goals allowed and deserved the hook after two periods, but the staff’s gotta manage their goalies a bit better too.
I’m certainly not going to let the players off the hook with this mess…if you’re going to give the keys to the franchise to the young guns then it’s only fair that they’re the first guys under scrutiny when the team continually comes out dead-legged in games. It’s harder to get on Hughes than Nico given the fact Hughes missed two months, but again we’re gonna have to see elite stretches from him that last longer than 7-8 games before he starts living up to his recent extension, or his hype. Don’t give me advanced stats or pretty moves, show me tangible production. Still, to me Nico’s the bigger problem at the moment. When you’ve been getting first-line center icetime (19:24) a night and you have three goals in 22 games, that’s a big problem. I don’t want to hear about his advanced stats either or all the chances he creates that wingers miss, heck that’s all the more reason why Nico needs to bring more scoring to the table. I understand he does all the little things well, but having a less durable version of Travis Zajac isn’t exactly what anyone had in mind when he signed his seven-year extension in two years ago. And it’s always easy to go the scapegoat route with the captain when things aren’t going well, but that’s fair game too when this team’s early-game jump is so conspicuously lacking, and the losing culture continues to persist despite vet additions in the offseason and a vet head coach.
As if the production from our #1OA’s wasn’t underwhelming enough, the powerless play continues to be a thorn in this team’s side. Sure they actually scored a power play goal tonight – against the 31st ranked PK in the sport – but they have a long way to go just to get back to being respectable after a month where they barely scored more goals than they gave up on the man advantage. At least our own PK’s been somewhat respectable lately but the D as a whole, not so much. For all the crap the goalies deserve for leaking goals, the shot totals and chances have also skyrocketed over this stretch. Ty Smith’s been certifiably awful this year (a -11 in 18 games with just five points), to the point where he may well deserve a demotion and Damon Severson, bro if you want a big contract after next year you’re gonna have to do better than six points and a -9 in 22 games.
I’m not even attempting a chalk recap of the last two games, what’s the point? Thankfully I only watched one period tonight and none of the previous two games, mainly because this season already is getting that ‘same ol same ol’ feeling to it (plus I actually wasn’t able to watch the Shark game, though I did see the third period on replay later) but that hasn’t prevented me from being annoyed over another season going up in smoke with no end in sight. I won’t be able to avoid the three-ring circus Monday, in what’s basically as close to a must-win as you can have in December against Ottawa. With any luck maybe the coach will stop forcing our top centers to the wing just to get scoreless McLeod and Jesper Boqvist more icetime, that’d be a nice start at least. More competitive first periods would be just peachy too…start giving me a reason to watch you guys again beyond the games I’m more or less obligated to be at.