The Devils are now nearly at the quarter pole of their season, and they have looked anything but impressive to this point. They now have 18 points in 19 games, a pace that does not bode well for postseason hopes (78 points, for those uninterested in doing the math), and there are a number of concerning trends forming with the team, particularly on offense. Last season, the Devils dug themselves a hole on an early trip through Western Canada that they were never able to fully emerge from. After a woeful offensive performance in Winnipeg on Tuesday to start the trip, are they in danger of falling into a similar hole in this season's visit to the western provinces? And if they continue to slide should Pete DeBoer be feeling the heat upon his return to New Jersey?
Fans in New Jersey are getting restless with the Devils coach in his fourth season, and it is easy to understand why that is the case. The team has missed the playoffs in two consecutive seasons and has failed to piece together any really significant stretch of winning hockey for most of that time period. If they continue to lay an egg on this road trip, the Devils could find themselves four or more points out of a playoff spot by the time they get home (where the schedule doesn't soften up much, by the by). For a team that has amassed exactly two three-game winning streaks since February of 2013, it's understandable to see why people have trouble seeing them climb the ladder if they create a significant deficit.
What is Going Wrong?
The Devils have looked mostly uninspired in their play for a couple weeks now. They have been able to eek out a few wins, but they haven't looked particularly impressive in any game in the past two weeks, save maybe a good game versus Washington that they still could only muster one goal in. The issue is that they are playing a bit of Whac-a-mole with their problems right now. It seems like every time they plug a leak, they spring a new one. If the offense clicks, the defense falters; if the defense is tight, the team can't score; if both are playing decent, they are submarined by goaltending. Perhaps the biggest example of this is the special teams play, though. When the Devils were converting power play opportunities early in the season, they were dismal on the penalty kill. Now that the penalty kill appears to be playing better, the power play has gone into hiding. It seems to be a team following the same frustrating script of the last two seasons and doing just enough to lose games.
Perhaps more troubling than the more nebulous feeling of the team being inconsistent is that the territorial numbers have slipped for the Devils this season. At 5-on-5, they are now 14th in Corsi%, 22nd in Fenwick%, and 22nd in shots for % in the NHL. That is not like the past where they have been possessing the puck like a top team. At evens, they are playing like a team that deserves to be right around where they are in the standings. If they want to start winning more hockey games, they have to start controlling more of the puck. Peter DeBoer has been able to squeeze strong territorial play out of past iterations of this roster, but if they continue to falter on that front this season, the outlook for the team could be somewhat bleak.
Beyond possession, this is a team that appears to be sinking like a stone back to their former offensive struggles of past seasons. With 17 non-empty net goals in the past 10 games, the team is once again struggling to find the back of the net. The Cammalleri addition has bolstered things, but almost the entire rest of the lineup has taken a step back in production, so the Devils are only faring a little bit better at scoring than last season. Without stepping up their output to an extent, the team will again struggle to stay afloat.
Why They Can Turn It Around
Simply put, this is a similar roster that was able to control play at evens last season. Yes, Mark Fayne and, to a lesser extent, Anton Volchenkov are gone, but with the emergence of Damon Severson and Adam Larsson seemingly turning a corner, the defensive personnel are at least comparable to last season. And at forward, they have only gotten better and deeper with the additions of Mike Cammmalleri and Martin Havlat. This is a team that should be able to win the possession battle on most nights based on how past DeBoer teams have looked, but that is something that will have to start to materialize here in a hurry.
Looking for other reasons why things should improve, a big one is the play of Cory Schneider. He is likely to rebound, as the franchise goalie has had an uneven month to start the season, but for him to do that, I think his workload needs to be throttled back. He can't start all 82 games, so the coaching staff is going to have to put their own desperation on the shelf at some point and start the backup if they want him to be who they need him to be. If the Devils are going anywhere, they have to be a team the believes they can win some games with a backup between the pipes.
One encouraging sign of late has been how the penalty kill has rebounded over the past week-plus. If they can return to the top-flight unit they've been in years past, that will assist them in righting the ship. They've also been harmed by some significant injuries in the early going, and with the roster close to being healthy again now, hopefully they can put out better efforts than the one we saw on Tuesday in Winnipeg. I do believe this is a team that is capable of playing better, they are just going to have to find that gear here before it's too late.
Fate of the Team and Coach
It's hard to predict what any team will do over a two-or-three game stretch in hockey, but if the Devils play the rest of their trip similarly to the way they looked most of the game in Winnipeg, they'll be lucky to get a point. And if they come home with an 8-12-2 or 8-11-3 record, is their season in danger of getting away from them? With them unable to assemble winning streaks for a while now, playing catchup may be a difficult prospect for this team. Even in a crummy Metropolitan Division, a team besides the Penguins and Islanders is likely to snap out of its funk at some point, and if the Devils can't find their legs here in western Canada, they will have an uphill battle to climb back into the thick of things.
So if they do spiral on the rest of this road trip, is it time to start wondering how much longer Peter DeBoer is at the helm? When looking at the type of burden the early season schedule was going to put on the team, the thought was that they basically just needed to survive a road-heavy/tough stretch over the first couple months of the season. But what counts as "surviving?" Is this team heading into December a couple games under NHL .500 enough to keep the coach out of the coals, particularly when their even-strength play seems to be slipping overall? I've been a supporter of DeBoer since his hiring, but how long will management be okay with the Devils floundering outside the playoff bubble for another season? Devils fans may be a bit on the melodramatic side about DeBoer, with each small tweak to the lineup yielding meltdowns and every move being first-, second-, and tenth-guessed, but at some point I do think it's fair to wonder how long it's necessary to continue down the same path.
The final three games of this road trip are important ones for New Jersey and they are not necessarily easy ones. Even the Alberta teams are no walk in the park at this point. Edmonton still sits in the basement, but they have improved their possession stats this season and could be a hassle. Calgary are playing way over their heads, but they are a team running hot right now and Vancouver is also playing decent hockey and banking wins. At a minimum, you would like to see the Devils take 3 points from these last three games before returning home. If they fail to do that, they are flirting with a season starting to slip away from them before Thanksgiving. Maybe that's a little bit dramatic, but in a league where making up ground is always a pain, a four- or five-point deficit looms very large for a team like the Devils. It would behoove the team, and their coach, to start playing like a team that belongs in the playoff discussion soon, or we could be headed toward another quiet spring in Newark and the coach could be headed for the unemployment line.