The Devils are now 32 games into the 2014-15 season, and with only 11 wins in those games, they are about as likely to finish in the bottom 2 at this point as they are to make the playoffs. This is not how this season was supposed to go for the Devils. Many people (like me) were optimistic that this was a team that would make noise in a shaky Metropolitan Division. They were supposed to be a team that finally got over the hump after a couple of seasons where their play and their possession numbers belied their finishes outside the playoff picture. With a stable goaltending situation and a top-line winger to help with the team's scoring ills, it didn't seem too far-fetched to hope for a return to the postseason. That optimism has instead been rewarded with a big ol' kick to the groin for anyone who dared to set their expectations even moderately high for this team. Now, with a season teetering on the brink of the abyss with about 60% of the games still yet to be played, nobody is feeling the warm-and-fuzzies with respect to the Devils right now.
It's not as if the Devils have just been unlucky to this point, either, they are just not playing strong hockey. Alex took a look at the numbers over the weekend and they aren't particularly flattering. The team is sitting in 20th in Corsi for percentage at evens with 49.8% of attempts, and they are worse in Fenwick (23rd, 48.2%) and shots for (23rd, 47.5%). For a team whose main strength was possessing the puck over the last few seasons, they have faltered significantly out of the gate. With a PDO now hovering around 100.1, their luck has been average at evens and their 48% goals for is pretty much what they deserve at this point. This is before getting into how horrific the penalty kill was for a while and how the once hot power play has predictably cooled off to an extent. You look at this team right now and there is a lot not to like. So now we go looking for reasons not to hit the eject button on this season.
I'd say this is probably the Devils biggest hope to finally get on a roll at some point. Cory Schneider has rebounded from a shaky October to return to the form the Devils expect. He put up a .922 sv% in November and has a .921 so far in December. Unfortunately for him, the Devils scoring has pretty much cratered for him again over that time, but he is playing solid in net, regardless. If he can put together a real dominant month or so like he did last season, he may be able to vault the Devils right back into the conversation. Of course, the Devils will have to average more than 2 goals per game to fully take advantage, but one thing at at time here.
Another thing to note in the Devils goaltending situation is the possibility that they have found a backup they are willing to use to spell Schneider from time to time. Keith Kinkaid has been a hard-luck loser in his first two NHL starts, but he has played very well and looked far from out of place in the big leagues. Nobody is expecting him to keep humming along at a .940 sv%, but having someone who the team can trust in spot duty could be a big factor in keeping Schneider sharp and rested as the season progresses.
The Devils have been hit pretty hard by the injury bug over the last month, which admittedly is not an unforeseen issue, but it has still rocked the Devils and forced them to explore their depth much more than anyone was hoping. The injuries have ranged from the predicable (Ryane Clowe, Martin Havlat, Bryce Salvador), to the somewhat predicatable (Mike Cammalleri, Patrik Elias), to the less predictable (Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, Jon Merrill), to the downright ridiculous (Zajac and Adam Larsson getting the freaking mumps). The injuries have ranged up and down the spectrum in significance but a few have definitely been harmful.
Zajac, for all the (somewhat justified) flak he gets for not producing, is an important piece for the team and they have struggled to maintain possession of the puck in his absence. Cammalleri, despite the time he's missed, is still the team's leading goal-scorer by a fair margin. Larsson was an important contributor on defense and the penalty kill before he went down. Henrique, the team's second leading scorer, also missed a few weeks. Elias, despite age seeming to catch up to him a bit, is still an important part of this team's forwards and is preferable to the alternatives (and would arguably be greatly aided by not being handcuffed to Marty Havlat anymore). So there are a lot of important pieces who have missed significant time for New Jersey. And yes, all teams deal with injuries, but some of the lineups the Devils have been trotting out for the last several weeks have been comical. A healthy team will be an improved team.
Pointing to the schedule my be perceived as a weak excuse, but it's hard to argue that the Devils schedule has been anything but brutal over the first two months of the season, particularly this last month. They have played 21 of their first 32 on the road (most in the league) with 5 road trips of 3+ games. In contrast, their 11 home games are least in the league and they have only been at home for more than a single consecutive game twice. The last time the Devils had multiple games in a row at home was the 3-game homestand that ended on November 4th. So even though the Devils have had a smattering of home games on the schedule (4) they've basically been continuously traveling for close to a month and a half now. That has to be difficult on any team, let alone the creaky-boned bunch the Devils are running out there nightly. Their home record isn't particularly impressive right now (3-4-4), but it's better than their road record (8-11-2) and is likely to improve if the team actually gets to sleep in their own beds for more than one night at a time.
The Bryce Salvador Factor?
The much-maligned captain went down with a mysterious lower body injury in early November, and few people were worried about the team missing him on the ice, but an unexpected thing has happened in his absence. The Devils, a 51.9% Corsi team before his injury have cratered to 48.1% of all attempts since his departure. It's quite a curiosity to see a team remove perhaps their worst possession player from the lineup and immediately sink in possession, but maybe Bryce Salvador is some sort of possession antimatter and removing him from the Devils has destabilized everything, leading to a complete collapse of the system. We can't rule out that the Prudential Center may be sucked into a black hole before the New Year due to the existence of what I'm calling the Bryce Salvador Paradox.
In seriousness, it likely has more to do with the fact that Salvador has been effectively replaced with a sort of Bryce Salvador clone in Seth Helgeson. Plus, the team has been dealing with the previously discussed litany of injuries over the same time period along with the grueling month of travel. Still, it serves as an important reminder that solving a teams issues is not nearly as simple as we all make it out to be, and often not as easy as firing the scapegoat du jour into the sun.
I know people are sick of silver linings and excuses and the like, and I have serious doubts about this team even getting back into the playoff conversation myself, but there are at least a few reasons to cling to hope a bit longer if you're into that kind of thing. A lot of people are understandably pulling for the team to sell and hope they maybe end up winning that McDavid/Eichel jackpot, and part of me admittedly wants that payoff too, but I think there are reasons to leave the door open just a crack for this team. They have time to turn it around, but that time is now wearing very thin. If a healthy and non-road-weary team can't rebound in a hurry, they may be doomed by January. For now, there are at least a few reasons to cling to that last glimmer of hope. Here's hoping this team rises from the dead soon.