The New Jersey Devils opened up the 2010-11 very poorly with a 3-8-1 record in October. In November, there was improvement in terms of results but it wasn't at all consistent in terms of performance as New Jersey put together a 5-6-1 record for the month. Would there be a turnaround in December?
No. Not at all.
The Devils won a mere 2 out of 13 games in December. 5 straight losses before a win in the middle of the month over Phoenix, and then 6 more straight losses before a win at the very end of the month of Atlanta. Plus, several of these losses were not close games where the Devils were just unfortunate to lose. 6 of their 11 losses saw the Devils lose by 3 goals or more; and in only 4 games all month did the Devils score more than 1 goal - and earned a 2-2-0 record in those games. Many of these games saw the same problems we have seen all season with this team: dumb errors in the defensive zone costing the Devils and an incredibly unproductive and unlucky offense unable to score goals.
Needless to say, the state of the Devils' 2010-11 season went from bad to horrid in December and the playoffs became pretty much out of doubt.
The month opened with the Devils coming off a 3-1-0 run in the final week of November. Any hopes of a turn around were demolished with a 5-game losing streak. In short summary: The Montreal Canadiens pasted the Devils 5-1 on December 2. The terrible loss to Les Habs was followed up by the Philadelphia Flyers making short work of the Devils 5-3 on December 4. The disappointment continued when the Pittsburgh Penguins remained the then-hottest team in the league in a 2-1 win on December 6. The Devils looked more like a hockey team against the Ottawa Senators but still lost to them 3-2 on December 10. Whatever small victories they earned in Ottawa was quickly dashed, as the Detroit Red Wings pounded the Devils 4-1 on December 11 at the Rock not unlike how Montreal beat on New Jersey back on December.
John MacLean still had a job at this point.
A few days after the loss to Detroit, there was some actual action: Brian Rolston was put on waivers on December 14. Not that Brian Rolston has been the only Devil not pulling his weight, he was targeted since he was the one Devil making the most money ($5 million) doing the absolute least (not playing well enough to be on a third line). The apparent plan would be that after a few games while on waivers, he'd be officially sent down and brought up through re-entry waivers. Perhaps another NHL would be willing to take him at half-price. Alas, Rolston continued to play like someone who deserved to be waived since being waived; he was brought up through re-entry waivers after the roster freeze ended; and he cleared waivers. He remains a New Jersey Devil, though he is essentially persona non grata and his agent has been given permission by Lou to look for a trade.
Anyway, back to the games. On December 15, something amazing happened. The Phoenix Coyotes came to the Rock and managed to look worse than the Devils. Even more amazing: the Devils didn't shoot themselves in the foot and played a tidy game for 60 minutes. Martin Brodeur got a shutout, Ilya Kovalchuk got 2 goals, and the Devils won their first game of the month 3-0. This was a Good Thing for all (except for the Coyotes) involved. The team got a win, the players had reason to feel good, the fans saw an actual effort in the victory, and there was perhaps an inkling that things would get better.
The Devils would then go on a 6-game losing streak where upon they would score a total of 6 goals and allow 27. And believe it or not, the majority of those 27 goals wasn't because Brodeur and Johan Hedberg did Vesa Toskala impersonations. No, terrible and fundamental errors in New Jersey's own end were usually the cause for the goals against; an affliction compounded by New Jersey's own lack of offense. While the special teams play was good, the Devils were simply steamrolled at 5-on-5.
A summary of the second significant losing streak of the month: The Devils followed up the first win of the month with a big let-down game at the Rock on December 17 in a 3-1 loss to the Nashville Predators. The very next night, the Devils would suffer their most lopsided loss of the season so far in a disasterous 7-1 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers. On December 21, the Devils continued to play as they did on December 18 only the final score wasn't nearly as bad; the Washington Capitals only smashed the Devils 5-1.
At this point, enough was enough and John MacLean was mercifully canned on December 23. Yep, on the morning of the Devils' game against the Islanders, Lou Lamoriello fired John MacLean and announced Jacques Lemaire as the interim head coach of the team. Kevin summarized the initial reaction here. Before the Isles game began, Lemaire got a big cheer when announced as head coach at the Rock. In my mind, the fans understood and accepted the move, if not outright applauded it. If only the coaching change was made earlier in the season, but one was actually made.
Unfortunately, the Devils haven't hit rock bottom yet and so they did in a 5-1 loss to the Islanders in Lemaire's first game as coach this season. This defeat finally dropped the Devils into 30th in the NHL, which was exactly the caliber of hockey they played. What was different about this loss as opposed to the others thus far is that Lemaire expressed a desire to have this team at least play competitive hockey - something they have not consistently done all season. To me, at least, this confirmed that naming him the interim head coach was the right choice; and the players need to decide whether to deal with it or look to be elsewhere in due time. (Aside: This move also led Scott Burnside to write one of the worst articles about the Devils I've read in some time.)
With Christmas on the horizon, Lemaire didn't get a chance to have a practice with the team until after their game against Toronto on December 26. Amid a snowstorm, the Devils played like they have been this month, and deserved their 4-1 loss to the Maple Leafs. Then came practice and Lemaire worked them hard; not that it was undeserved.
In the final two games of the month, the effects of the first two practices with Lemaire showed themselves. Against Our Hated Rivals, the Devils played a much smarter game on defense, they were successfully aggressive on offense, and the Devils put together one of their best performances all season. Unfortunately, Henrik Lundqvist stood on his head; the game winner was a bounce off an elbow; and an empty net goal turned the close game into a 3-1 loss. Strange as it sounds, it really was an improvement and it continued on December 31 against the Atlanta Thrashers. The Devils played as they did on December 29 against the Rangers, only the Devils caught a few breaks instead of the opposition. The Devils won their last game of the month 3-1, a fully deserved victory after a month of near-constant futility.
They are in dead last in the league, they have the worst offense in the league, and they will need 68 points out of the potential 88 left in this season. Thanks to a 2-11-0 December record, the 2010-11 season is all but lost for New Jersey.
Therefore, the goal is to establish how this team should play in 2011-12, who can fit in the systems to be implemented for next season, who should be jettisoned, and at least stop being the Oprah Winfrey of NHL games ("And you get a win, and you get a win, and you get a win, &c."). It's not going to happen overnight, though. Ergo, good performances are to be praised or at least appreciated in spite of results. It sucks, but that's the reality of the situation.
The Devil of the Month
When it comes to the Devil of the Month, I look to see who the best New Jersey Devil was, the player who provided the most consistent positive impact. Given the horrible, terrible, very bad, no good month of December, that's really hard to do. To be fair, I could simply say "no one" and leave it at that. While the goaltenders were largely held out to dry, I have no real basis to say Brodeur or Hedberg were exceptional. I certainly can't name a defenseman, not after detailing in recaps over and over about how the Devils shot themselves in the foot defensively. I could easily just give you a link to this song and proclaim it to be an appropriate musical representation of December 2010.
However, that would be the easy way out. It would also ignore the one area that was mostly good about December: special teams. The Devils' power play was a success through the first part of the month, as Matt detailed here, and ultimately converted 11 out of 48 opportunities (22.9% conversion rate). The penalty killers were even more effective, with only 4 goals allowed out of 45 shorthanded chances (91.1% success rate). Ergo, while these two forwards haven't been perfect, their contributions to the special teams play are enough to note.
|Dec. 2010 - Ilya Kovalchuk||13||5||5||10||-15||7||3||4||1||+7||38||13.2|
With the power play getting hot in December, it only makes sense to give some credit to the winger with the blistering shot who scored 3 power play goals and assisted on 4 other PPGs. Kovalchuk's month saw him move about, from being ineffectively double shifted with the fourth liners, to having mixed up linemates from week to week, and having some games where the opposition defense knew to key on him and him alone.
Nevertheless, Kovalchuk managed to be a productive player for the month (led the Devils in goals in December) in spite of all of these obstacles. Moreover, his shooting percentage for the month actually finished at a percentage comparable to prior months in his career. Perhaps we shall see this continue, which can only be good for the Devils. Many will look at the plus/minus and wince, but it should improve if he stays with linemates he plays well with like Travis Zajac and Mattias Tedenby. Kovalchuk is not a driving force with the puck as he finished the month with a 0 Fenwick and a +7 in Corsi, but Zajac can drive the puck forward, and if anyone is apt to finish off a play, it's Kovalchuk.
Of course, Kovalchuk wasn't nearly as important as this player in December:
The December 2010 ILWT Devil of the Month: Patrik Elias
|Dec. 2010 - Patrik Elias||13||4||6||10||-8||0||4||3||0||+49||36||11.1|
Jacques Lemaire recently told the media that Elias has been the best player on the team this season, per this post by Rich Chere of the Star Ledger. And he's right. He's the team's leading scorer. Like Kovalchuk, his shooting percentage shot up to a more respectable level for the month (11.1%) after a miserable November in shooting. Unlike Kovalchuk, Elias put up more PPGs than Kovalchuk last month with 4 while he assisting on 3 more. What's more is that Elias has been a part of the highly successful PK unit this month. Elias has played a major role on both ends of the special teams, and so deserves credit for it.
Even at 5-on-5, where the Devils especially sucked this month, Elias was still contributing to the team by getting the puck forward in positions to shoot more often than not. Elias continued to be a very big Corsi force on New Jersey in December. His total Corsi per the Time on Ice charts was +49 for this month; and his total Fenwick (Corsi without the blocks) was +39. Not as big as November's total Corsi, but still quite good.
So far this season, Elias has been way better than "quite good" when it driving the play in the right direction. Per Behind the Net, he's got the highest on-ice even strength Corsi rate and relative Corsi rate on the team among Devils who have played at least 10 games. More impressively, he's got the twelfth highest on-ice Corsi rate in the NHL among all players who have played at least 10 games. When Elias has been out on the ice at even strength, good things tend to happen. Except for goals, unfortunately, but that will eventually come as Elias continues to get the puck forward on his shifts.
Essentially, in a month full of bad hockey games, Elias was the most reliably good player, and in all situations. Even when the team totally flopped like a fish out of water in a game or got torched on a defensive zone error, there was only few times where one could point a finger of blame at Elias. I hope Elias goes from strength to strength for the rest of this season, but for now, I name Patrik Elias the In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month for December 2010:
#26 / Left Wing / New Jersey Devils
Apr 13, 1976
With that all said, January 2011 hasn't got off to the best of starts. Since December all but killed any hopes for hockey beyond early April at the Rock, they have plenty of time to at least correct themselves and prepare for 2011-12. At least it would be very difficult for the Devils to do worse than 2-11-0.
Please feel free to give your take on the past month and my selection for Devil of the Month (incidentally, Travis Zajac was close to being the honorable mention) in the comments. Thank you for reading.