Last year, the New Jersey Devils went 3-5-4 in November but they were still right behind third place by month's end to stay competitive in the standings. This year, the New Jersey Devils went 4-8-2 and are sitting in fifth place, four points behind third place. Unfortunately, the Metropolitan Division remaining a mess in the middle is something the team cannot bank on. The lack of points in the month have hurt and will require the team to get hot later to get back into any realistic playoff picture. The performances throughout the month have been very ugly at times, making this squad a difficult one to watch. The team as it stands has not succeeded so far and there is an understandable demand for change. Whether it's Peter DeBoer being fired, a trade to shake up the roster, or something else - something has to give. Needless to say, November was a bad month for the New Jersey Devils.
The Month that Was
November started well enough. The team beat the Columbus Blue Jackets at the Rock, 3-2. It was the second home win of the season and it was on the strength of a shot by Adam Larsson, who went on to have one of the more somewhat positive months among the players. Things went south very quickly as the Devils suffered a four-game losing streak.
The next four games were hosting St. Louis, then traveling to St. Louis, visiting Detroit the night after the game in St. Louis, and then heading up to Boston before returning home to host Minnesota. The first game was a 0-1 loss. But not a bad 0-1 loss. The Devils hung with the Blues, a deeper and more talented team than New Jersey and featured one of the hottest scorers in the league at the time. The next game in St. Louis did not go as well. The final score was a 3-4 loss, but the game wasn't that close. The Devils were down 0-3 for much of the game and struggled to find a way to beat Jake Allen. They did so with a late flurry, but the mountain was too tall to overcome. The following night in Detroit would set the stage for the theme of this month: the Devils' real struggles at passing and controlling the puck. Despite an early score, the Red Wings beat on the Devils for the better part of forty minutes, went up 1-4 and cruised to hand New Jersey a 2-4 loss. In Boston, a good start was foiled by errors and getting out-played by the home team. The Devils did manage to answer Boston's first two goals; but once it became 2-4, all the Devils rolled on were score effects and couldn't mount another comeback. That would be the fourth loss in a row and nobody was happy.
Like an oasis in the desert, there would be points to come. The Devils did return home to host Minnesota. A certain someone wasn't there, Cory Schneider played great despite one dumb error, and the Devils actually sealed a game off with an empty net goal. The Devils beat the Wild 3-1 in a game where both teams weren't sharp, but the Devils made the most of it. The win ended a losing streak and it wouldn't be long before the next one. That Friday, the Devils returned to D.C. to play Washington. The last Devils-Capitals game was a route. This one would be one of the better games the Devils played all season. While the Caps got their rubber on net, they conceded few odd man rushes, they withstood the might of Washington's power play, and Mike Cammalleri accepted a gift from the opposition's goalie. Schneider got his first shutout of the season in a 1-0 win. Alas, the good times would not last. The Devils hosted Colorado on the following night and could not hold the Avs back. They came from behind somewhat for another Devils loss, 2-3. In that loss, many of the same issues from their four-game losing streak would appear: struggles to move the puck through the neutral zone, unable to not dump pucks to exit their zone or enter the opposition's, and keeping control of the puck.
That was on display for much of the following four-game road trip through Western Canada. Winnipeg beat them decisively 1-3 in a hideous performance by the Devils. The Devils would get a win on this trip. Thanks largely to Cory Schneider, the team shutout Edmonton 2-0. The Oilers heavily out-attempted the Devils for two periods. It really was all on Schneider's shoulders. The next night in Calgary, three notable events happened. First, Cory Schneider did not start this game; Scott Clemmensen got the first start by a goalie not named Schneider for this season. Second, the Devils scored four goals; surpassing three goals for the first time since the second game of the season. Third, the Devils gave up an equalizer within the final minute of the game - with five seconds left to play, specifically. While the Devils played a far better game, Calgary crashed the net over and over and they got two bounces in desperation to force overtime. The game went to a shootout and the Devils fell there, making it a 4-5 loss. As heartbreaking as that was, it was better than the last game of the trip in Vancouver. Again, Schneider was the main reason why it was a one-shot game deep into the third period as the Canucks just steamrolled a Devils team that struggled to string three passes together. One bad play by Marek Zidlicky later and it was 0-2 in favor of Vancouver. That score held and so the trip through Western Canada yielded one win, one blown win, and two decisive losses. Not at all what the team needed.
November ended with a back-to-back set after Thanksgiving. Both were losses of a different sort. Black Friday had the Red Wings come to Newark. The Devils took an early 4-1 lead in front of a very large crowd at the Rock. Said large crowd witnessed Detroit clawing their way back into the game and ultimately tying it in the third period. The Devils could not break through for a fifth goal and neither could Detroit. In the shootout, the visitors got their first shootout win of the season while the home fans lamented another botched lead for a 4-5 shootout loss. On the very next night and without Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique, the Devils visited the New York Islanders. The Islanders and Devils conceded plenty of shots, though the Devils' struggled with puck movement reared it's ugly head throughout the middle period when the Devils were down 1-2. The third period featured something different: the Devils steamrolling an opponent for the better part of twenty minutes in a crazed effort to tie it up. Alas, despite the power plays, 40 shooting attempts, and 16 shots on net, there would be no equalizer. It would be a 1-2 loss at Nassau. The effort may have been commendable but it wasn't enough and so the Devils ended the month with their eighth loss.
After reading all of that, it's not really unreasonable to demand some kind of change. The last two losses are bothersome in their own ways, but it has a larger impact because it's after many other losses. Most of the losses and even parts of the wins featured a Devils team that struggled to execute passes and had issues with getting clean zone exits and zone entries. It's this area where I'm hesitant to demand a coaching change and more appropriately, believe that a new coach will fix all of that. This isn't a team full of young players or guys who are still working things out with each. Most of the roster has played on this team last season and even fundamentals like reading where teammates are without ignoring the defense should have been sorted out early on. This is the second month of the season; preseason is basically an eternity ago. It is because of these struggles the Devils are far from being one of the league's top possession teams, something the Devils have been in the previous three seasons coached by DeBoer. That has meant more opportunities for the opposition to attack and fewer opportunities for the Devils, both were plain as day to see in many games last month. The struggles in execution of passing and puck control points to a root cause of that. I have doubts if that can be fixed all that quickly.
Further, this month further proved to me other issues with the team as they are. First among them, the Devils do not have a functional second line. Patrik Elias has clearly declined. Martin Havlat is playing at the level of Mattias Tedenby. Various combinations have not yielded much in the way of results from a possession or production standpoint. That's a big problem as most opposing teams have at least two quality lines and someone's got to play against them. And when the first line of Travis Zajac, Mike Cammalleri, and Jaromir Jagr has a bad night or doesn't win their match-up, then that issue is only exacerbated. DeBoer has switched up the lines to find something else, but it remains to be seen whether it'll work. Early results suggest otherwise.
Second, only a third of the defense has been able to get the puck forward. That third is the top pairing of Damon Severson and Andy Greene. Those behind them have had mixed results. Adam Larsson and rookie Seth Helgeson have been good in their own end of the rink and Larsson has been better at getting his shot off quickly. Yet, there were several games where they largely played in their half and while it's not entirely their fault; it does not help the team if they can get stops and push it forward. Marek Zidlicky and Eric Gelinas have received cushy zone starts and competition, but whenever they get stuck back or concede an odd man rush, then there's a lot of breaths being held to hope they don't blow it. Unfortunately, they have. Zidlicky still distributes the puck enough to keep him playing. Gelinas has deservedly played himself out of a regular role. It's not DeBoer's fault Peter Harrold and Helgeson knows what they're doing in his own end better than Gelinas. That all undercuts the attack as well.
Third, special teams have been a problem but in the reverse of last month. The penalty kill not only stopped the bleeding, but they went on an impressive streak of kills throughout the middle of the month. When that broke, the Devils didn't collapse in shorthanded situations; they kept up being somewhat solid. Credit the inclusion of Larsson and his own defensive play along with more saves by Schneider and generally better positioning by the skaters for that. As Alex noted recently, the team still takes a lot of minor penalties. At least they're not spotting the other team a goal or two every night with it. The other end of special teams, the power play, had issues. While going 7-for-37 isn't bad, the issue was that since the win against Columbus the team had one power play goal in seven straight games - and that was into an empty net. They found more success later in the month, but chances went begging more often than not. Especially with two significant 5-on-3 situations in the final two games that could have made a difference.
Fourth and most sadly, I think the forwards are a collection of risks made that have all went sour. On paper, the Devils would be strong down the middle with Zajac, Elias, and Adam Henrique. Elias has went south, Henrique has been awful in possession, and Zajac hasn't produced to the level that his contract may demand. Their wingers were a mix of big players who could win pucks along the perimeter, like Jaromir Jagr (though he does it all) Dainius Zubrus, Ryane Clowe, and Tuomo Ruutu, and shooters who could get those pucks and make opponents pay, like Cammalleri, Havlat, Michael Ryder, and Damien Brunner. Clowe has been out with a concussion and wasn't effective before that. Ruutu and Zubrus have been relegated to bottom six lines, where they've been OK. Brunner hasn't played his way to stay in the lineup, Havlat ended the month on his way out, and Ryder is still Ryder in that if he's not shooting, he's not helping. Cammalleri, Jagr, and to an extent Zajac have been the only consistently good or at least not bad part of the top nine. Yes, Jacob Josefson has been good in his spot as has Steve Bernier; but a quality team needs quality players up front. I don't think the Devils have enough of them and I don't think one or two trades will fix that. Neither will a coaching change.
That said, DeBoer is not long for this team. October wasn't bad but 4-8-2 in November isn't good for anyone regardless of whether I think the issues can be rectified with a new bench boss. It is a results oriented business, after all. The only ways I see him staying behind the bench in 2015 is either the Devils have a great December and get back into the playoff picture or the team decides there's nothing much to play for and decide to just let DeBoer go at the end of this season rather than pay him to go away. I suspect it may be the latter at this point. Overall, this isn't a good place for the team to be in and there's not much of a reason for any fan to be positive unless something good happens and fast.
Devil of the Month
Picking a Devil of the Month is a stretch since no one really dominated in a significant fashion. A part of me wants to say it's Jaromir Jagr. Jagr was tied for the team lead in scoring in the month with two goals and six assists. He also had a 52.55 Corsi% in the month according to War on Ice. Considering that Jagr has continued to draw the other team's best defenders and forwards at even strength, that's impressive. More than the other four forwards who had better Corsi percentages in November: Steve Bernier, Tuomo Ruutu, Jacob Josefson, and Stephen Gionta. Incidentally, the Devils now have a bottom six that is functional. That's a small positive at least. At the same time, it takes some shine off the idea that Jagr was the most impressive Devil of the month. So does the fact the player he's tied with in scoring for the month was Marek Zidlicky, who has been, well, himself all month long.
Another part of me wants to say it's Mike Cammalleri. He scored more goals than any other Devil in the month with five. His seven points in ten games were welcomed because when he was out, the offense was visibly worse. Cammalleri's excellent shot and his willingness to shoot is an asset to the team. It justifies, in part, this summer's contract. However, he was negative in possession (47.98% Corsi) and that's with playing mostly with Jagr and Zajac. The few games at the end with Elias certainly did not help, but it puts lie to the notion that he was the most impressive Devil this month.
So I am left with a more controversial pick: Cory Schneider. Yes, he went 4-7-1 in the month. How was he the most impressive? Simply because he continued to give the Devils a chance to win on most nights. DeBoer didn't start him in all but one game because he was playing poorly. Schneider cut down on the soft goals, he was able to make stops on the PK, and his save percentage soared. In October, he was at 90.6% overall; he finished with 92.2% within November, which is quite good. Schneider put up shut outs for half of the team's wins and, while he gifted one to Minnesota, he was the key reason why they won that game. In games like the first one against St. Louis, Winnipeg, Vancouver, the Isles, Schneider did what he could to keep a Devils team that didn't deserve a close game to keep it close. And if he got beaten multiple times, it was rarely his fault. The fact that he still has a 93.1% save percentage at even strength for this season further establishes that among all of the problems the Devils have, it's not in net. Good goaltending like the one Schneider has supplied can yield results but only if the skaters in front of him executes better and attacks more to get goals. The team has lacked in the latter more often than not in November. Not in the former, who's been good way more often than not in November. So I will name him the In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month for November 2014.
The month was bad, that much is not in doubt. What can be salvaged, that remains in doubt. My own choice for Devil of the Month, well maybe you doubt that too. Please share your doubts and let it be known what you think of the team's performance in November. Thank you for reading.