A few hours before actual Groundhog Day, I feel like the Bill Murray character in the movie watching this Devils team, or barely listening to the latest disgrace for this franchise, falling behind 5-0 to the Leafs at home in the second period of another dead effort, a night after blowing three two-goal leads and not even coming up with a point in regulation (as if it still matters). Now we’re at 6-0 and I still don’t know what to say really. I feel compelled to write something, anything since we’re coming up on the All-Star break in a month where mercifully there isn’t going to be a lot of hockey, just a handful of the makeup games from earlier in the season during what would have been the Olympic break.
It’s hard to know what to say in part because there’s too many things wrong with this team, and organization to really focus on any one thing. You want to slag on the coaching? Okay but this ain’t the night to do it with Lindy Ruff on leave after the death of his father. There’ve been plenty of other nights to criticize the coaching, whether it’s Ruff or perennial stand-in Alain Nasreddine but we’ll leave that for another day. So let’s start higher up on the food chain, specifically with Tom Fitzgerald, whose face will be on a milk carton if he doesn’t address the current state of the team during the All-Star break. His corporate-speak assessment of the answers being in the room looks even more laughable after a night like this (currently 7-1 in the third).
While it’s obviously too late for the GM to do anything to affect this season for all intents and purposes, it’s never too early to start on next year – and maybe send a message that some people who have been sacred cows aren’t going to be spared a ticket out of town or any form of punishment if these kind of ‘efforts’ continue. As much as I love the guy, Fitz clearly made a mistake going all-in on Nico Hischier as the captain too soon. There’s nothing you can really do about it now, but I do sometimes wish the C wasn’t so sacrosanct that you couldn’t take it off a player’s jersey for a game as a punishment in the vein of bumping someone down lines or healthy scratching them. Even when someone as respected as Jacques Lemaire tried to do it with Jamie Langenbrunner in 2010, it became a controversy.
Sure, Nico’s by all accounts a first-class individual. It’s just too bad he kinda…sucks right now on the ice. It’s also not ideal to have a locker room full of milquetoast people – nice kids most of them, but with any winning group you need some guys who aren’t afraid to get in people’s face when it’s required, whether they’re wearing a C or not. In our obsessive quest for youth, youth and more youth we haven’t had a player with any hint of an edge personality-wise in a long time. Even post-Scott Stevens there was still a certain amount of accountability with the veterans on the team that filtered down from team Czar Lou Lamoriello. You need that in any locker room, I don’t care if you’re a win-now team or looking to learn how to win.
It just speaks to the lack of balance in this organization on multiple levels. Many of the problems date back to Ray Shero and his overreliance on small, skill players without any regard to balancing out the roster with size and toughness but we still haven’t done enough to alleviate that issue. It says something that one of our better players the last few weeks has been fourth-liner Nathan Bastian, a pickup from waivers. Maybe in a vacuum, or on a different team a guy like Tomas Tatar would be a nice piece. Here he’s just redundant. We have six or seven perimeter finesse guys like Tatar and only one Bastian.
There’s certainly plenty of blame to go around with the players themselves, especially after an ‘effort’ like tonight. They gave about as much effort in the first two periods as I have toward going to games lately, which is to say none. I’ve no-showed at the last three home games (all losses), which I couldn’t even sell online and after about fifteen minutes – or however long it took Toronto to get its first four goals in the first period – I wasn’t regretting my decision to no-show either. Really the only reason I kinda sorta wanted to show is that there’s only one other home game for about a month that I could even go to, after cashing out on the Pittsburgh makeup game on Super Bowl Sunday for my last account buyback credit toward next season’s tickets. Of course next season it’ll really only be one ticket…or none if they don’t let me keep my aisle seat solo.
Honestly what’s the point of going right now anyway? Apart from the team losing, it’s not exactly a communal atmosphere with everyone in masks and nobody else I know actually going to games right now either. If I’m going to watch the games solo in an sterile atmosphere, I’d rather just watch them at home or get other things done while having the game on in the background, if I bother turning it on at all. I don’t really envy the sales reps who are supposedly going to be sending out renewal information any day now. Good luck with that one, after a month of Devil tickets being completely worthless on the marketplace or in game experience.
It’s not like I have any great attachment to this team at the moment regardless. It’d be one thing if we still had guys here part of the winning teams but that’s over with now. Now it’s just a bunch of kids who still don’t know how to win, and who knows if they ever do figure it out? You know Nico given his C and long-term extension is going to be here for a while. So is Jack Hughes, after the long-term extension he signed earlier this year. Other than those two, Jesper Bratt – who’s pretty much been the team MVP this year – or Dougie Hamilton (who’s still recovering from a broken jaw and COVID), I wouldn’t exactly take anyone else off the table in terms of moving them in the right deal. Of course there’s very little left apart from those four that anyone else would actually take in a trade, other than more futures or a kid like Dawson Mercer who I wouldn’t want to move. But doing nothing is no solution either.
Fitzy can start by figuring out how he’s going to prevent a repeat what happened with the goaltending this year. Sure it was incredibly bad luck to have both Mackenzie Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier injured before the season even started but that’s no excuse to then run both guys into the ground while they were still hurt (this team’s injury management on the whole has been pretty suspect at times the last couple years), needlessly burn through your #3 option in Scott Wedgewood – lost to waivers during the five minutes both goalies were actually playing at the same time – and have nothing left but raw kids who aren’t ready for the NHL and a career minor league scrub who’s doing his best but doesn’t belong in the league. Harsh but how can you say any different with numbers like these:
That isn’t to say all of our woes in giving up goals are on the minor league goaltenders themselves. God only knows you need to look at plays like this in Toronto last night and the forever mercurial Damon Severson for proof of that:
I mean really now…it’s one thing to fail to take away the pass, another to let the shooter shoot, but to not even attempt to do either is just either mind-bogglingly stupid or actual sabotage. This is what Severson’s been his whole career though, the minute you want to like the guy he reverts back to his cowboy up inconsistencies. I give Fitz credit for trying to address the D with offseason additions like Hamilton and Ryan Graves plus Jonas Siegenthaler late last season, but clearly more needs to be done. Even accounting for the fact Hamilton hasn’t been around lately, they haven’t gotten what they needed out of guys like PK Subban and especially Ty Smith, who would have probably benefitted from a stint in Utica, but heaven forbid we get rid of Jack’s roommate and buddy.
Even with our defense and goaltending woes, we still need more from forwards not named Bratt or Hughes, although I would have preferred not to have Hughes get a charity berth in the All-Star game coming off a hideous game like this, even if he did get the only goal in junktime. Representation is kind of a joke when you have the three-on-three format and eight teams to pick eleven players from to begin with anyway, plus to be truthful Bratt deserved it more on merit but not surprisingly the golden boy with the bigger name got the representation selection. Still, at least Bratt and Hughes are pacing around a point a game so far and Bratt’s pretty much been a driver of whatever line he’s been on. Third in points is Andreas Johnsson, who’s actually gone back to being a ghost the last two months since no longer having Bratt to prop him or the rookie Mercer up. Nico’s gone back to being a ghost for the last two weeks, while Pavel Zacha has been haunting houses for the last couple months and Janne Kuokkanen’s still in witness protection.
Like I said earlier though, too many problems with this team to harp on any one, and not enough solutions now. Your move Fitzy, something needs to be done – if not to change the fortunes of the team then to at least help the culture.