Back in December, the Devils made a move that had been, depending on who you asked, months or perhaps years in the making when they decided to fire Peter DeBoer. The team had been floundering for the better part of two months, finding themselves falling fast from any sort of playoff contention. It felt like a move that needed to be made for a team hurtling toward a third-straight playoff miss.The hope, when that move was made, was that a new voice might help a team that was losing its way get back on track. After the installation of the somewhat head-scratching trio of coaches in Lou Lamoriello, Scott Stevens, and Adam Oates, that hope for an improved team has been answered with a run that has the team looking like one of the very worst in the league, even in spite of a recent string of positive results.
To get a good idea of just how much the Devils have been struggling of late, we can take a look at their pre- and post-December 26th possession numbers. Before DeBoer was shown the door, the Devils were a mediocre team at best, mustering 49.6% of all 5v5 shot attempts, good for 22nd in the NHL. Since the new coaching triumvirate has been in place, the Devils share of even-strength shot attempts has now dropped to 43%, making them 28th in the league and putting them ahead of only the Colorado Avalanche and the legendarily bad Buffalo Sabres. The Devils had very clearly taken a step back under DeBoer this season, but now they have completely fallen off of the cliff. They used to be a team that couldn't finish, but now they are taking the next step to being a team that can't even start.
Now, in spite of the dip in underlying numbers, the team has actually managed to improve their record over the past month or so. When the Devils were in the midst of a 5-0-1 run just a week or so ago, some may have been inclined to say the team had turned a corner in a good way. A closer look at those games shows that the results very much belied the level of play being put forth from the skaters. A majority of the games in the run were ugly ones against bad teams that they were able to pull out with strong goaltending. They played at a level you might call "good" in maybe 2 of those 6 games (Sharks win, second Leafs win). In all honestly, it was a crummy team being propped up by great goaltending for a stretch (.958 in all situations over the 6 games). Positive results are great, but they will never last when a team is being bludgeoned on a nightly basis like the Devils are right now. Any team can ride the percentages to a few wins here and there. Even Buffalo won 10 of 13 at one point earlier this season.
Parsing the Devils other numbers beyond just their Corsi% doesn't help to improve the picture much. In attempts, shots, and scoring chances, the team has gone into a tailspin since the Lamoriello-Oates-Stevens hydra has taken over. Any perceived improvement with the team seems to be a mirage, as they are falling off in almost every category. Most striking, perhaps is the dip in shots for in the past month an a half. The Devils went from being a team that is bad at getting pucks on net under DeBoer to one that is dead last in the league since. Yes, since December 26th, the Devils are putting up fewer 5v5 shots per 60 than a Buffalo Sabres team that may be one of the worst NHL teams in history. A team that was already too passive to sustain offense has now become even more reluctant to fire the puck. Monday's performance in which the Devils put up a measly 14 shots against the lowly Edmonton Oilers put a fine point on exactly how bad things have gotten in New Jersey these days.
Going beyond the numbers, I think anyone who has been watching over the past month-plus can attest to just how rough the team has been. It seems like every game now features a stretch in which the opposing goalie could take a nice power nap between Devils shots. The tactics have been baffling at times, as have the lineups. Jordin Tootoo has inexplicably been getting a steady stream of power play minutes over the past several weeks while Adam Henrique, the team's second-leading PP point-producer, has often languished on the bench with the man advantage. The disastrous pairing of Mark Fraser and Peter Harrold is being trot out night after night, while Eric Gelinas, a young defenseman who could be using the meaningless remainder of this season to improve, rots in the press box. Michael Ryder, for all of his warts, is still one of the only capable scorers on the team (not to mention a possible trade chip) and has been scratched since the all-star break. The team now concedes the puck at seemingly every opportunity and is now almost completely reliant on elite performances from Cory Schneider to keep them from being run out of the building. The Devils have gone from frustrating and maddening to just downright painful to watch and follow.
So what are the positives to take away from this stretch? Well, there aren't too many, but the obvious one is that if the team continues to play this way, they have a very strong chance of landing a top-5 pick in the upcoming draft. Plus, the team looking as thoroughly hapless as it has of late may yield the cleansing fire this roster is in need of. The Devils should be definitively in the 'sellers' column at the upcoming trade deadline and one would have to think that Lou Lamoriello, in spite of any comments to the contrary, realizes that. A coaching change felt necessary at the time of Peter DeBoer's firing, if only to see if a new coach could finally get this group over the hump. After a month and a half of a new coaching regime and the new staff looking even worse than the last, I think this will allow the Devils to relent and try to find a way to rebuild this roster, particularly at the forward position. For now, however, the product on the ice in New Jersey is a complete mess, and nothing but a complete re-imagining of this team will pull them from the depths of the abyss.