At some point within the last month, the 2014-15 season became lost for the New Jersey Devils. I can't pinpoint a particular game or moment when that happened. But the results over the month has turned the postseason into a pipe dream in terms of probability. November was bad as the team went 4-8-2. Such a month requires better play in the following month. The Devils went 4-8-2 again in December, a run filled with injuries, the mumps, a weird coaching change, and many bad performances. They needed a better month and did not get it. Therefore, Devils enter 2015 with a only a remote chance of playing beyond April 11.
The Month That Was
December started off with Scott Gomez getting signed to the roster. He was patiently practicing with the team out of contract and got his shot when the team was ravaged with injuries at forward. The Devils got further hurt as Stephen Gionta, Patrik Elias, and Jaromir Jagr left the first game of the month - December 2 at Pittsburgh - early. Even with only nine forwards by the end of the game, the Devils played a relatively good game against the Penguins. But they would not be able to beat the goalie and so they lost 0-1. Moral victories aren't worth much, but at least a regular win would come soon. On December 4, the Devils would go into Toronto and step up in spite of missing several players. They would put up five goals, take a big lead in the third period, and then hold on to win 5-3. It would be the first win of the month. But the good times would not last. The Devils returned to the woes that befell them in November where they struggled to move the puck, make proper reads, and maneuver with the Washington Capitals. It was a stupid effort for lack of a better term and so the Devils deservedly lost 1-4. It would not get better from there.
In their following game, the Devils did get a result against the Carolina Hurricanes. They won the game 2-1. The score masks how the team was heavily out-shot, out-possessed, and out-played. It was very much the definition of an undeserved win and/or a game earned largely due to the excellent play of Cory Schneider. On the very next night, Keith Kinkaid made his NHL debut against Chicago. The rest of the team did not learn from the night before as Chicago drove the play like a bulldozer over a meadow. Kinkaid was excellent and the Devils at least earned a point in a 2-3 shootout loss. But poor performances like that rarely yield results and they would stop coming for New Jersey.
Let's run through them. The Devils put out a lame one against Philadelphia and deserved to lose 1-4. Then they did more of the same in a dreary 3-4 loss to Dallas. That score was close, but the game really was not. They put up a more spirited performance against the Islanders, but a 2-0 lead turned into 2-2 by midway through the third. Kinkaid did what he could to drag the game into a shootout, but the Devils fell so it was a 1-2 shootout loss. New Jersey returned home and actually outplayed their next opponents, the Ottawa Senators. Of course, in a throwback to the 2013-14 season, they did everything but score - and so they lost 0-2. The winless streak would end at four, though. An oasis in the desert would appear in the form a home game against Tampa Bay on December 19. Like the Isles game earlier that week, the Devils would get a 2-0 lead. That would not last by the end of regulation and a shootout was necessary. Only this time, and for the second time all season, the Devils won the shootout to make it a 3-2 win. Then history sort of repeated itself with a Saturday home against the Capitals, only they played dumb and were shut out 0-4.
The following week would a critical one for the Devils. On Christmas Eve's Eve, the team hosted Carolina. While they were not heavily out-played, they would not get a victory. A shinpad provided an equalizer, the Devils could not score a second goal, and they could not win in the shootout. So they lost 1-2 in a game I called "a lump of coal." That would be it for the team as we knew it. The day after Christmas (also known as Boxing Day), Peter DeBoer was fired as head coach. It was revealed on Saturday that not one man would replace DeBoer. No, Scott Stevens and Adam Oates would be in charge with Lou on the bench for a short period of time. It was different. Not much changed for their first game as they looked second rate against Our Hated Rivals. They lost that one 1-3 in a performance very familiar to several within November and December.
While no one may be the "coach of record," the first win under the new regime would come before New Year's Day. On December 29, the Devils hosted a Pittsburgh team that was undercut heavily by a combination of injuries, the mumps, and three winless games. The Pens looked unsharp and the Devils took some kind of an advantage. The third period effort was arguably their best since the Ottawa game or the first against Tampa Bay. The Devils got a lead and even added to it. They won 3-1, their first home win in regulation since November. But anyone who thought that game was a turning point got a cold dose of reality before the new year. The Devils went into Detroit to play a healthy and possession strong Red Wings team. The Devils played one decent period in between two bad ones and lost decisively 1-3. So ended the month and the calendar year; typical of a team that just isn't good.
Ultimately, that's the main conclusion I kept coming to within this past month. This is not a good hockey team. This is a bad team. Not a fun bad team. Not a bad team that has terrible luck. Not a bad team undercut by a coach. Sure, December was littered with players getting hurt to a point where the likes of Mike Sislo, Tim Sestito, and Jordin Tootoo have had to play regularly or in larger roles than usual. But it was clear that some of these players just are not what the team needs like Michael Ryder when he's not shooting; Marek Zidlicky being too aggressive at times for his own good; or Peter Harrold and Eric Gelinas having adventures with the puck. Most of all, the puck movement has been horrid. In hockey, that's damaging in two directions: the offense is undercut and the defense gets worked over because the opposition has the puck more often. Possession matters and that was proven in December. A team can't be a low event squad - relatively few shots and attempts, for and against - get out-done in those events and expect to succeed a lot.
The results is what did DeBoer in. Twelve wins by Christmas is bad news for any coach. While the players may not be good enough, he couldn't mitigate the issues as the zone exits and entries were a mess throughout another month. I cannot say it was an undeserved firing. I will say that I do not think a coach can fix what ails the Devils. Many of the problems we've discussed on this site still remain. The Devils will get healthier, but it's not like the shooting or save percentages were incredibly low and should rebound somewhat. I don't think the Devils are suddenly going to make a charge up the standings in the second half of the season. It is weird to see the team be co-coached. I don't think it'll work all that well, and ultimately Stevens and Oates may be competing for a job instead of trying to do one. At least something different.
Because December was so poor for the Devils, I think the team should be making steps towards 2015-16. Because that's all they can really look forward to. As a fan, a move towards being more competitive would simply be refreshing to watch. It would be vital if they want to avoid a similar fate next season, regardless of who will be behind the bench and who will be on the ice.
Devil of the Month
Given that the team was mostly bad throughout the month and hit hard by various injuries and illnesses, it's difficult to really highlight a player for being successful throughout December. Cory Schneider put up a 92.4% save percentage in spite of the guys in front of him. Keith Kinkaid was very fine in his first three starts in the NHL. But naming either goaltender would be more for sympathy than anything else. And so I mention both here because, well, I'm sympathetic to the fact they're doing their jobs fairly well in spite of the state of the team.
That being said, there were two Devils skaters of note. Consider this as an honorable mention: Steve Bernier. Believe it or not, he was tied for the most points in December. Given that any production out of Bernier is usually a bonus, that he picked up two goals and five assists is a considerable bonus. Further, it reflects the majority of his production this season. He was a mainstay of the bottom six throughout the month, which is important as the Devils have few right wingers capable of playing in the NHL regularly and he's one of them. That he's a bottom six forward along with a 45.3 CF% for the month (stat from War on Ice) means he wasn't amazing. Still, Bernier's goal for this season is to show he belongs in the NHL and he has done a very good job in December. CJ has noticed. I'm noticing it here. I'm hoping the rest of the league notices as well.
But the real honor of Devil of the Month goes to a player I honestly didn't think would be a Devil of the Month in this year or ever again. It's Scott Gomez. Like Bernier, Gomez has put up two goals and five assists. Unlike Bernier, Gomez was signed at the beginning of the month and put on a top line right away - both out of necessity. Gomez has taken that spot and has held onto it. Gomez has averaged 18:50 per night in December, he's faced difficult competition, and he has faring at least decently given his 50.9 CF% per War on Ice for the month. In fact, Gomez was one of the few Devils above 50% for the month, which is rather good given that he's not facing the opposition's lesser players. He has demonstrated that he can still lead a breakout, he's got good vision even though his execution isn't always there, and that he can actually shoot the puck sometimes. Gomez even averaged over a shot per game. I honestly didn't think Gomez really had it anymore and the fact he was unsigned throughout the summer and for two months justified that thought. He has proven me wrong as he was one of the (somewhat) bright spots of a month of darkness. I don't know if he'll remain in the top six throughout the season. I do know that I am naming him the In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month for December 2014.
Like November, December was a bad month. And the season appears to be lost. I don't think the question should be how one feels about another bad month. The question is, where do the Devils go from here? Also: would you agree that Gomez would be the Devil of the Month? And even if you do, did you expect it after he was signed at the beginning of the month? Because I sure didn't. Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the month that was in the comments. Thank you for reading.