On Christmas Eve, I issued an admission of being incorrect. Prior to this season, I predicted the New Jersey Devils would be dead last in the Metropolitan Division. At that time, the Devils have consistently been on a playoff bubble for over a month and a half. The handful of games since then would not change that reality. The Devils closed December 2015 in the same area around the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. Their record to end the 2015 portion of this season is 19-14-5. As the headline of that post states, maybe this won't be a last place team. The results cannot be ignored. They cannot after a December where the Devils went 7-5-3. That's not at all consistent with last place hockey.
However, a closer look at the performances themselves in each game should give most Devils fans pause about what the 2015-16 Devils can do. You'll note that I wrote that they probably won't be a last place team; I never said they were playoff-bound.
The Month That Was
The Christmas break meant the 31-day month was effectively a 28-day month. With fifteen games on the schedule, it would be a really busy time for the New Jersey Devils. Let's go week by week.
In the first week, the Devils kicked off the month with a home game against Colorado. While Colorado's possession woes this season have been well known, it wasn't on display at The Rock. The Avalanche played a structured game and essentially trapped the Devils' offense. The Devils lost that game, 1-2. The first win of the month would come in their next one, a road game in Raleigh. Making the road game a little more notable was that this was the team's first Dad's Trip. As in, many of the players' and staff's dads traveled with the team and attended the game. The Devils did their fathers proud at disappointing Carolina fans; they routed the Hurricanes, 5-1. The win would be their largest margin of victory in the month. The Devils and their dads returned home the very next night to play the Philadelphia Flyers. The Second Rate Rivals were anything but that evening. The Flyers played a controlling game and the Devils were fortunate to force overtime late in the game. Philly took it in overtime for a 3-4 final score. It would be the first overtime loss of the season for the Devils; though the performance didn't suggest overtime was really earned.
Two nights later, the Devils had another home game in the hopes of bouncing back. They hosted Florida. This one was an interesting one. The Devils built an early two goal lead and they added to it to stay ahead of the Panthers. Yet, the Panthers increasingly pinned the Devils back and back; effectively tilting the game in one direction. The Devils would survive with a 4-2 win. It was one of several victories this month where as nice as the result was, how the Devils did it was less than ideal, to put it nicely. Their next game was similar in terms of performance but not so in terms of the result of the game. The Devils traveled to Toronto for a Tuesday game. The two teams matched each other goal for goal in the first two periods and the Devils hung on to force a shootout. The Devils would fall in the shootout for a 2-3 final score; but again, the performance featured several of the same issues from that win against Florida and that overtime loss to Philly. The following game went much better. The Devils hosted Detroit and put up a spirited performance with Adam Henrique and Travis Zajac on the shelf. While Detroit went up two goals on two power play goals,the Devils battled back in the third to tie it up and earn an overtime situation. Overtime ended in a dramatic fashion with Lee Stempniak springing Kyle Palmieri for a breakaway on a long lob out of his end. Palmieri finished it to send the Rock home happy and end the week with a 3-2 win. This performance went much better than their previous three. However, it would not last.
On the thirteenth, the Devils went to Brooklyn to play the Islanders. The Isles put the pressure on early and just rocked the Devils. They chased Cory Schneider from the net with three goals and then tacked one more on past Keith Kinkaid. The Devils skaters were just beaten badly in a 0-4 loss, which would turn out to be their worst loss of the month. There would be a rebound - and on a Tuesday. The Devils went into Buffalo and played a much more structured game. They weren't bossed around as much. Of course, it helps when Cory Schneider plays incredibly well. The Devils gutted out a 2-0 win in Buffalo for their first regulation win on a Tuesday this season. The good times would not last. Florida returned to the Rock on Thursday. The Devils struggled mightily against the Panthers in a 4-2 win in the prior week. They struggled mightily only the goals went the other way. The Devils put up another F-minus of a performance in a 1-5 loss to Florida. Did they learn their lesson from that game in preparation for their next one, a home game against Anaheim? The answer was "not really." The Ducks have been hapless at scoring goals but managed to put up two early on. The Devils didn't play a smart game at all and while they pulled one back, there was little reason to believe there would be a second. And there wasn't; the Devils lost 1-2. With the results starting to match the performances, things were starting to look grim.
It didn't get much better on the following day after the loss to Anaheim. The Devils headed up to Boston. This game wasn't as stupidly played as the game against Anaheim and the Devils put up a stiffer challenge to Boston than other opponents this month. Then came the end of the game and overtime, where the Devils' skaters were free and Cory Schneider had to play on another level to avoid the OTL. Instead, there would be a shootout and the Devils lost that one for a 1-2 final score. At least the performance was a bit better. The winless streak would end at three, though. Before the Christmas break, the Devils visited Detroit. While Detroit got off to a fine start, the Devils stunned them and forced a goalie change with three quick goals in the first period. The Red Wings, playing to the score, really forced the Devils to scramble and defend. They pulled within one goal, the Devils got another for insurance, and needed that insurance goal. As with their win against Florida this month, they survived the onslaught and prevailed with a 4-3 final score. If that was a Christmas present, then their Boxing Day gift flopped. The Devils visited Carolina on the 26th and Carolina took the Devils to task. Their performance was strong, the Devils' were not. They were decisively beaten in a 1-3 score.
Whether the month would be an overall success or not came down to a back-to-back to end 2015. The Devils hosted Carolina on the 29th. The game would go better than their last contest. The game was even in play for two periods, although the Hurricanes ended the second period 1-2. The Devils put up only four shots in an effort to make it a game. Fortunately, two of them went in - one off a skate and one off the inside thigh of a defender. The Devils got the bounces to edge Carolina 3-2. Their final game of the calendar year would be in Ottawa. Mike Cammalleri put the Devils up 2-0 with two goals in a decent first period. Ottawa responded to score effects and then some as they dominated most of the remaining forty minutes in regulation. Despite a massive lead in shooting attempts and shots on net as well as just swarming the Devils, Cory Schneider ruled. He ruled so much, he stopped them all. Stempniak put home the team's lone empty net goal of the month, their second of the season, and sealed a 3-0 win. The two wins turned a 5-5-3 month into a 7-5-3 month and kept them in the playoff hunt.
Seventeen out of thirty potential points isn't exactly a great success. Yet, considering some of the performances by the Devils on the ice, I'd say it's a good amount. I'd even say their monthly record should flatter the Devils. Let's look at the numbers to confirm that sentiment, though.
By the Numbers
Thanks to War on Ice allowing bracketing their stats by date, I'm going to make a point of it to provide the team's stats month-by-month. For this section, the date range used is for 12/1 through 12/31 prior to Thursday's games.
At 5-on-5 Even Strength Hockey: As I've watched the Avs, Flyers, Panthers, Red Wings, Senators, Hurricanes, and others seemingly figure out the Devils' game plan, I wondered how their possession would look for this month. They had some really bad nights in that regard. War on Ice's numbers justify that. In fifteen games, they posted a Corsi For percentage of 44.3%, the second lowest in the league in December. If adjusted for score, the team's CF% remains at 44.3%, though it's the third lowest in the NHL.
As one would expect from such a poor Corsi For percentage, their Corsi For and Corsi Against rates have a big gap between them. The Corsi For per sixty minutes fell to 39.3, the lowest in the league. Their Corsi Against rate is still in the lower third of the league - which is a good thing - but at 49.3, it's a big gap between that and shooting attempts the Devils have taken. The shooting rates have followed with a 22 shots for per sixty minute rate and a 27.2 shots against per sixty minute rate. Again, this all justifies what I and many other Devils have seen in December. Opposing teams have been beating on the Devils.
There is a silver lining. The Devils have actually shot fairly well in 5-on-5 play. Their 8.3% shooting percentage was above the league median (7.8%). Schneider and Kinkaid both had solid months and so the team's save percentage was a healthy 93.3%. As a result, the Devils actually managed a positive goal differential in 5-on-5 play. Granted, that positive goal differential is only one (23 GF, 22 GA). Given how much the Devils allowed in terms of attempts and shots, a +1 is, well, a plus.
At Power Play Situations: The Devils' power play has ceased being hot but at least it wasn't ice cold. According to NHL.com, they converted eight out of forty four opportunities for a success rate of 18.2%. That rated just below league median in the month. Those eight include a Cammalleri breakaway near the end of one and a bounce-off-the-end-boards-put-back by Palmieri just at the beginning of another. So it's not as if the 8-for-44 came from their 1-3-1 setup. Going back to War on Ice, the Devils' power play shooting percentage dipped a bit further to 12.7%. Unlike last month where the shooting rate went up due to fewer conversions, the Devils' shots per sixty minute ratecratered from 56.6 to 43.3. I've often thought the Devils' power play was a feast or a famine. In December, there was no shortage of famine. With John Hynes and his staff making some changes to the lines at even strength prior to the end of the month, I'd like to see some changes on the power play. What they've been doing has not been so successful.
At Penalty Kill Situations: The penalty kill did not shine in December; it returned back to Earth, so to speak. Per NHL.com, the Devils conceded eight power play goals out of forty situations. Their 80% success rate was in the lower third of the league. The team's save percentage fell from an outstanding 94.7% to a more normal 87.7%. All of the power play goals were against Schneider; Kinkaid was perfect on the few shots he faced on man disadvantage situations. It wasn't just Schneider not being a superhero on the PK that led to the success rate dropping. The Devils' PK units have conceded many more shots. Last month, their shots against per sixty minute rate was 45.1. In December, it blew up to 61.5, one of the highest in the NHL in December. While Devils' PK has not been a massive weakness, their drop in December only adds to the concern of how the team is performing.
Additions and Subtractions
Injuries were much more prevelant in December for the Devils. Travis Zajac ended up missing seven games due to an injury sustained in the 5-1 win over Carolina. Adam Henrique missed two games after leaving the 1-2 loss in Toronto early. Jacob Josefson missed five games and was put on IR by the month's end. Patrik Elias suffered a more minor knee injury prior to Christmas, limiting his use to ten games. Bobby Farnham was put on IR due to an injury at points too. Throw in some illnesses (e.g. Tuomo Ruutu, who returned to the Devils earlier this month) and a tight schedule and so there were plenty of changes with the Devils' lineup from night to night.
The injuries broke such that the Devils did not have to make too many call ups. Brian O'Neill was sent down when the team was becoming healthier. When Henrique and Zajac became unavailable, Joseph Blandisi came up for his NHL debut. While he did not register any points, he did demonstrate that he could move and think at the pace of the NHL game. He went back down after three games once Henrique was back and Zajac was close to returning. I think we will see him soon with New Jersey if/when injuries strike again. At the end of the month, Josefson was placed on IR and Mike Sislo made a return to the NHL lineup. Sislo has been killing it in Albany; in his one game, he didn't look particularly great except that he kept firing away when he had the chance. So he had five shots in that sole appearance against Ottawa. Sislo will likely last until Josefson is ready to return; he may get a few more games in January.
Other than that, the Devils have been quiet in other dealings. There's been no word of any trade. There weren't any waiver wire pickups. With teams able to start re-signing players on expiring contracts on January 1, action may pick up. We'll see how involved Ray Shero gets when it happens.
Devil of the Month
Picking a Devil of the Month for what transpired in December is a little difficult. A part of me wants to give it to Kyle Palmieri. While Mike Cammalleri tied him with twelve points, Palmieri was a more consistent producer. Palmieri only went pointless in five games and shotless in one. Among his eight goals and four assists include a bounce off his skate for an equalizer against Carolina, a very cheeky PPG in the second game against Detroit, tied up the game in Toronto that held until the shootout, and a dramatic overtime winner in the first one against Detroit. Seven of the goals came in streaks: one four-game goal streak and another three-game goal streak. I can be a bit cynical and note his defensive effort was symbolic of the Devils in December as they got rolled in many of their games. Yet, Palmieri was one of the few players fans could expect to attack and do something on a given night in this month. I will have to say he's more of an honorable mention.
The other part of me says to give it to the guy who actually did excel for most of the month: Cory Schneider. And why not? With two shutouts and a lot of excellent goaltending when opposing teams cut the rink in half, Schneider was directly responsible for preserving games for good results. With the exception of the 5-1 win in Carolina, most of the other Devils wins this month featured the Devils getting a lead and then getting owned as the opposition tried to make a comeback. Who stopped most of those? Schneider. Four games went beyond regulation, requiring the goalie to make sure he's not beaten before hand. Who did that? Schneider. Two of those three post-regulation losses were in the shootout and who made sure it even got that far because Toronto and Boston were inches away from ending it in OT? Schneider. Despite the team's CF% getting punched in it's metaphorical stomach and special teams going the wrong way, who still kept up putting good percentages? Schneider. It wasn't a perfect month and it wasn't as good as last month, but he was one of, if not, the team's best players night in and night out. That's more in spirit with this recognition.
And so I give it to Schneider as the the AATJ December 2015 Devil of the Month. As much as I respected Palmieri doing what he had to do and doing quite a bit of it despite the second unit power play personnel and without Zajac, Schneider made these a lot of December's results possible. If we're going to say the results matter, then in my mind, that has to be choice.
I think I'm going to regret writing this, but I need to say it. I notice the criticism. I get it. The Devils win and then someone like me comes along and rains on the proverbial parade. I don't do it because I'll get more attention (I don't), more money (certainly not), or anything like that. I've been writing so negatively about the Devils in my recaps simply because the performances have not been good. I've seen this movie before and so have you over the last few seasons. The good results in spite of bad performances eventually lead to worse results because of bad performances. We saw some of that in the middle of the month before the Devils struck Detroit with three quick goals and tacked on a fourth in order to cling to another close win on December 22. That cut off a four game winless streak, which I was pleased with. I was glad they held on to win. Yet, I cannot ignore that other teams are just pounding the Devils over and over for periods if not most of the game.
Again, consider the range of opponents that did that to the Devils. Colorado, the worst possession team in hockey at the time, trapped the Devils. Philadelphia took a dumb penalty near the end of regulation that led to a tying goal when they were doing the same. Florida did it to the Devils twice in this month. The Islanders did it and did what few teams could do in the last two seasons: beat Schneider a lot and quickly. Carolina did it for two periods in their win over New Jersey and one period in that 3-2 win that came from two bounces off of a four-shot third period. Ottawa just did it, though fueled by desperation and New Jersey's 2-0 lead. That's a mix of teams ahead, around, and below the Devils' position. Combined with the Devils' numbers getting worse in most respects, I'd say that opposing teams have figured out Hynes' system and realized the Devils are only so talented. If it was just one or two games, then I wouldn't be so worried. Yet, in every week of this month and in at least one game of that week, the Devils are getting steamrolled for a significant part of the game.
I want the Devils to win. Good results are good. However, for them to keep winning games, there has to be changes because the performances aren't up to par. The games of this month make it clear. The game plan isn't effective. The passing certainly isn't always on point. The defensive coverage often resembles a scramble when opposing teams deny a clearance or the Devils make a costly turnover. The talent is what it is, but it's still top heavy. If Mike Cammalleri, Kyle Palmieri, Adam Henrique, Travis Zajac, and Lee Stempniak aren't attacking, then there's not much of one. The Devils survived losing two of them for a short while due to injury, but they struggle when most of them aren't able to go forward and attack. I don't know whether we've seen the apex of what this team can do and they've really been playing above themselves for three months. Or whether there really is a solid team here and adjustments are necessary to make the pieces of the puzzles better fit together. All I know is that the current path does not lead to a good place.
Would I like to be more positive? Sure. But the Devils' play on the ice have not allowed me or many others to think and feel that way. And I won't pump sunshine or pretend things are OK when they are not. Again, I don't think this is a team that will finish dead last in the Metropolitan. However, based on what I've seen in December and the numbers and their trends, I wouldn't save up my money for playoff tickets regardless of their current position in the standings.
Anyway, what did you think of this month of games for the Devils? Do you disagree that the Devils out-earned their performances with a 7-5-3 record? Would you call it a good month at all? Who would you say was the best Devil of the month? I said it was Schneider; do you agree? If not, who then and why? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this past month of games in the comments. Thank you for reading.