I don't think anyone will dispute that the goal for the 2014-15 New Jersey Devils is to make the playoffs. After missing the postseason two seasons in a row, anything less would not be acceptable. One of the reasons why the Devils missed the playoffs in 2013-14 was that they had a horrid start to the season that they did not truly overcome. In this season, the Devils avoided that fate. They not only won their first of the season, but also their first three games of the season. There was a winless stretch, but ultimately finished the month with a record of 5-3-2. That's certainly a step forward.
At the same time, I sense a lot of tension among the Devils faithful. There are many fans who have lost confidence in Peter DeBoer for one reason or another. The three wins to start the season staved that off, but a four-game winless streak rose their ire. Ire at who was and was not in the lineup. Frustration that Bryce Salvador was still playing. Unhappiness over leads (not entirely warranted), the penalty kill (very warranted), and how the team was performing (somewhere in between) mounted. For a team that ended the month sitting in a playoff spot with an improved record over what it was in October 31, 2013, this doesn't seem quite right to the outside observer. There are areas the team needs to improve on; but unless one was thinking the team was going to be a strong contender heading into this season, the Devils did what they needed to do. Let's review the month, game-by-game, as to what happened in October.
The Month That Was
The Devils opened their season in Philadelphia and did something remarkable: they scored a lot of goals. They took an early 3-0 lead over the Second Rate Rivals. However, the Flyers erased that deficit in less than five minutes in the end of the second period. The team took many calls and paid the price. The third period was a see-saw of goals, but ultimately the Devils prevailed with a game winner by Dainius Zubrus and an empty netter by Mike Cammalleri. The Devils won their first game on their first night, 6-4. As great as it was, the penalty kill got beaten twice, Cory Schneider didn't impress in his first start, conceding an uncomfortable amount of shots, a number of players entrenched in the lineup struggled, and a lead was lost. One could say this first game had many of the sources of complaints and issues that would trouble New Jersey all month long.
Still, the team moved on to Florida. They rang up four goals in the first period, tacked on a fifth goal in the second, and cruised to a 5-1 win. Discipline was a sore spot as the team conceded eight power plays to the Panthers.
Yet, a 5-1 win isn't going to drive many complaints. New Jersey visited Tampa Bay next on their four-game road trip to start the season, arguably their first quality opponent of the season. Despite an initial storm, Schneider kept the team in it and the Devils won a close game. They held on to win 2-1. Not a decisive win, but still a quality win given the opponent. Their road trip was not a complete success given their final game in Washington D.C. They played the Capitals. Schneider did not have a good game, the team did OK in the first period but struggled in the rest, and the Caps just blew things up in the third. The Devils lost their first of the season, 2-6. At least the Caps power play only beat them once.
Following the four-game road trip would be a three-game home stand. It is at this point of the month where the Devils hit their low point. That it was all live in Newark, I think, added to the frustration. Whereas being on the road means you're at the mercy of travel and not having the last line change, dropping games at home is a disappointment. Further, the Devils didn't play particularly well in those games. They put up a dreary performance against San Jose, where the Sharks' PP and a soft goal allowed led to a 2-4 loss. Against Our Hated Rivals, it was embarrassing. Management showed they couldn't sell out the Rock for a hated rival. Players and coaches saw a 3-1 lead in the third period disappear and the night ended 3-4 in overtime. The solace of picking up a point was not enough to make the Devils faithful feel better (myself included). The team honored Chico Resch that Friday before a game against Dallas. Again, the Devils did not play particularly well. They did tie it up against the Stars in the third and dragged out a point despite their play. Yet, they lost in a shootout to make it a 2-3 final score.
The team was winless in four games at that point and few were happy. Schneider was conceding some goals he shouldn't have. The penalty kill, which didn't start off all that successfully, cratered. This was exacerbated by the team taking a large amount of penalties. Damien Brunner didn't get a chance until Martin Havlat got hurt. Jordin Tootoo was in the lineup and doing little until he got hurt; he has been replaced by Jacob Josefson. The switching out of Adam Larsson and Eric Gelinas was a sore point for many fans. That was further irritated by continued poor play from Bryce Salvador (how he is still in the lineup is still a common question I still get), poor decisions with the puck by Marek Zidlicky, and increasingly less-than-impressive performances from Jon Merrill. Patrik Elias didn't seem as effective; the Newfoundline was finding itself playing a lot of defense; and there were many switches among forwards. The team was not doing so well in possession, which is a bad thing for a low-event team like New Jersey. I think I covered just about all of it. When a team struggles, it's easy to point out the issues with the team. The Devils were no different.
That being said, the Devils would rebound. The night after Dallas, the team went up to Ottawa. The two teams traded periods of dominance: the second ten minutes of the first period and the second period for New Jersey, the first ten minutes of the first period and the third period for Ottawa. The game was tied at two, special teams featured for both teams, and overtime was necessary. Zidlicky got high-sticked in overtime and the Devils were able to turn a negative moment on the power play into a positive. Gelinas found Jaromir Jagr the puck in the neutral zone, Jagr went in one-on-one with a defender, and beat him and the goalie with a shot to win the team's first game in over a week and their first in overtime. It was dramatic stuff in Kanata, Ontario. The Devils would not build on that in their next game in Pittsburgh. The game started off fine, actually, with the Devils taking a 3-1 lead early in the second period. But, like the Washington game, Schneider and the skaters had some bad times and the Pens just blew things up. The final score was 3-8; just a thrashing by the home team.
The month ended on a high note, despite how poorly as it was performed. The Devils hosted Winnipeg on the night before Halloween. The game itself was a fright to anyone expecting smooth play, particularly through the neutral zone. The Jets went up early and both teams just struggled to get much going. Each side had a few glorious chances to score, but they could not. The Devils would equalize, thanks to Michael Ryder (scorer of the first goal of the month) lifting a puck over Ondrej Pavelec's shoulder from his knees in the third period. The game would go to a shootout. For the first time since March 2013, the Devils won a shootout. The Jets misfired, Josefson scored, and the team finally snapped a shootout losing streak that lasted 18 times. That's a definite positive in spite of how sluggish the team played in the 65 minutes beforehand.
General Thoughts & Events in October
Ten games into the season, and it's clear the Devils have some work to do. First and foremost is their shorthanded play. The penalty kill success rate remains at the bottom of the league. They only had two games where they did not give up a power play goal against (at Tampa Bay, vs. Winnipeg). They also conceded more than one power play goal in five of their ten games. The PK has a hand in the defeats the team has suffered. Everyone needs to improve in that regard. I don't think anyone will disagree with that.
Second, the team needs to work on their zone entries in general. Part of the reason why the Devils' recent games have been a struggle on offense is due to how they're getting through the neutral zone. With missed passes, bad receipts of the puck, and dump-ins, the team's not able to generate as much offense as they really could. As a result, their Fenwick% in close-score situations at evens - a good metric of how good a team is at possession - is at 50.83% per War on Ice (and it includes the November 1 game, so excuse me for that). That's still above the breakeven mark, but it's closer to the league median instead of where they were in recent seasons: near the top of the league. If the Devils can manage to carry the puck into the opposition's zone more and not concede the puck right away when they do, then they can not only generate more offense but also cut back on the sheer number of shots stopped.
Third, DeBoer needs to identify his best lineup. I think he's been doing a good job in terms of making adjustments in game. Those who complain about mixing up lines within a game tend to ignore that it's often done because someone is getting worked over. This just needs to carry into lineups at the start of the game. The injury to Tootoo has forced DeBoer to include someone else on the fourth line, which was markedly improved since Tootoo was out. Adam Henrique, Ryane Clowe, and Michael Ryder weren't a good unit together and has since been broken up. Yet, Patrik Elias having early struggles and Cammalleri's absence from the Travis Zajac line means there's still some figuring out to be done as for the top nine. The lamenting over Salvador's play is legitimate and he should be sheltered more and more. Likewise, Merill's struggles have been increasingly apparent; yet he appears safe over Gelinas or Larsson. I will agree that Gelinas and/or Larsson making a definitive case for themselves will help the cause of reducing Salvador's minutes, but DeBoer may have to consider making that switch as needed.
That all said, there were a number of positives from October. We would be lying to ourselves if nothing went right with the Devils considering they earned over half of all potential points in the month. First, while the offense has cooled down since a hot first two games, they have not been shut out whatsoever. That may not seem like much (especially since their first two games were the only ones won by more than one goal), but it means the team has found ways to produce regardless of how the play has been going at even strength. Second, the power play has been rather successful. Almost in contrast to the penalty kill, the Devils' power play finished over 25% - among the best in the league for the month. Whereas the PK has cost the Devils dearly, the PP has given the team some results like their wins in Tampa Bay and Ottawa; along with getting a point from Our Hated Rivals. It hasn't been so consistent, but they have scored them in bunches. Third, the Devils haven't been too bothered by injuries. The Cammalleri one hurts, but the team has figured out some results regardless of his absence. Damien Brunner has done a decent job in place of Havlat and Josefson has filled in Tootoo's spot on the fourth line. While it was frustrating to some (and to the players) to see them scratched at the start of the month, they have both made good cases for regular play by the end of it.
Devil of the Month
The team also received a number of good individual performances. Cory Schneider may have been beaten on the PK plenty, had some bad nights (I'd say two), and conceded a number of goals he should have stopped. Yet, he's been a reason why the team is sitting at 5-3-2 and not at a worse record. Schneider's even strength save percentage for the month was 92.7%, which is rather good. Provided he doesn't lose pucks behind his net and takes better angles on shortside shots, he'll likely continue to be great for the Devils. Before getting elbowed in the jaw in the Dallas game, Mike Cammalleri had five goals, two assists, and 25 shots on net in six games. He looked to really fit in well with Jagr and Zajac at even strength, while providing minutes on both sides of special teams. Hopefully, he comes back soon. Adam Henrique led the team in scoring for the month. Despite getting pinned back several times, Henrique had three goals and five assists. Good production despite some poor possession.
The real standout player for October was someone I honestly didn't expect to be on the team this season: defenseman Damon Severson. I wasn't all that impressed with his preseason. My thinking was that the 20-year old who just finished his excellent junior career should begin his professional career with Albany. Fortunately, the coaches know better than me. They saw a defenseman who could take Mark Fayne's old spot next to Andy Greene. They have done so right from the get-go and it has gone very well.
Before the Columbus game, Severson's Corsi For percentage was 56%. That means whenever he was on the ice at even strength, the Devils attempted a good number of more shots than their opposition. What makes that figure more impressive were the situations he was utilized. Severson's offensive zone start percentage roughly 40%, which means he often started in his own end of the rink. He and Andy Greene regularly went up against the best the opposition had to offer. Look at the opposition section of his player page at Natural Stat Trick, sort by time on ice, and you'll see a lot of top names. Going up against players like Tyler Seguin, Steven Stamkos, and Alex Ovechkin and coming out ahead in terms of possession is fantastic. When he has been beaten, it isn't by too much and hasn't been too costly. Severson has benefited from great goaltending behind him at evens and has been prone to some poor decisions at times. But he's also demonstrated that he can be effective in one-on-one situations and he doesn't panic or freeze up when things go awry. In ten games, he has shown that he can handle tough competition next to Greene on a regular basis. He's not getting nearly 22 minutes a night and playing in all situations because he's liked or anything like that. He has earned those minutes.
If that wasn't enough, look at the production. Severson was second only to Henrique in points for the month of October. His four goals is second only Cammalleri. Severson doesn't have a wickedly strong slap shot like Eric Gelinas. It's still sweet given how smoothly he executes that and his snap shot. The three assists point to how good he is at moving the puck, which has earned him a regular spot on the power play. Most of all, Severson has not overthought his opportunities to shoot. With at least two shots in every game except for the big loss in Pittsburgh, Severson's got 30 shots on net to lead the entire team. Combined with his possession numbers and defensive play, he's not a flash in the pan like Ray Giroux or Sean Brown. There may be some growing pains to come, but it's clear he is where he belongs on the blueline. Therefore, Damon Severson is the In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month for October 2014. Now enjoy this sweet interception in Ottawa that led his fourth of the season:
October was undeniably a step up compared to last season, but the team has many more steps to take for improvement. What do you think they will need to do in November to do that? What will you remember the most from the month? What do you think was the Devils' best game? Their worst game? Do you agree that Damon Severson was the Devil of the Month? If not, then who would you pick and why? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils' play in October in the comments. Thank you for reading.