On the third Saturday of the month of March, the New Jersey Devils were to host the New York Islanders. I was a guest on Hockey Primetime with Conor McKenna. One of the questions he asked me was whether the Devils were winning too many games. At the time, the Devils were 5-2-1 with a three game winning streak going into that Islanders game. What Mr. McKenna was asking was whether the Devils were pulling themselves away from a higher draft pick towards the less-than-desirable section of the standings for a bad hockey team short on talent and assets. At least, that was my interpretation. My answer, as best as I recalled, was that the Devils were about where they should've been in the standings. I turned out to be right as the Devils closed out March in one position lower than where they were then. Unfortunately, that was due in part of the Devils winning no games in their remaining six games in March.
While the Devils were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs on March 29, a 5-6-3 record did not lend themselves to any super-long-shot miracles. I've long accepted that the Devils weren't a playoff team. I've settled for just hoping for competitive hockey. Did the Devils achieve that in this month? Sometimes. Let's review it.
The Month that Was
On the second day of March, league action was frantic as it was the NHL Trade Deadline. The Devils moved Jaromir Jagr days prior. They dealt Marek Zidlicky on March 2 as their only deadline-day deal; an underwhelming one from my initial reaction. Now, I suppose, Devils fans may want to be Detroit fans for these playoffs in the hopes of that return of a conditional pick getting a little better. In any case, the team got a little worse; a sign of concession.
Speaking of concession, the Devils hosted Nashville on March 3 and faced a storm of shots. 31 in two periods. Fortunately for the Devils, they got two goals in the first period where they weren't stormed, Cory Schneider doing a lot of the weathering of the storm, and they got an empty netter. They won 3-1 in a game not totally unlike some of those awful post-All-Star game wins. A few days later, they hosted Columbus. Almost week earlier, the Schneider stood on his head to shutout the Blue Jackets. In this first match-up in March, the Blue Jackets would beat Schneider a few times. Three times, to be precise. The Devils scored two good looking goals, but their comeback efforts were too little, too late in a 2-3 loss. At least Peter Harrold scored one of the most beautiful goals of his career. The homestand to start the month ended with a game against the Second Rate Rivals. Curiously, Keith Kinkaid got the start despite it not being in a back-to-back situation. Pleasantly, the Devils hammered the Philadelphia Flyers 5-2 in a game where the Devils made the Flyers look second rate.
After that late Sunday afternoon of fun, reality returned to the Devils in a three game road trip. The trip started in Minnesota and it was brutal. The game started off OK, but the Wild just kept pouring on the shots, attempts, and eventually goals. The Devils got a classic blowout loss where they were just out-played in a significant fashion. New Jersey went to Colorado next and the result went a bit better. The performance for the first period was fantastic. The following periods were foul. Yet, the Devils did drag the game beyond regulation and forced a shootout. They did not win the shootout. Given how poor the second, third and fourth periods went, it''s hard to complain about a 1-2 defeat. There would be a light at the end of this three-game tunnel. The Devils went down to Glendale to take on the Arizona Coyotes. They would rebound in this game on the strength of four rebound goals after a terrible first half of the game. The Devils won 4-1 and it was refreshing to see after a smackdown in St. Paul and a disappointment in Denver.
The Devils returned to the Rock for Retro Night. The Devils donned their ugly 1980s/early 1990s garb and put out an ugly performance against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It wasn't as soul-cutting as the last Devils-Pens game. The Penguins definitely out-did the Devils in most facets of the game of hockey. They couldn't beat Schneider. He was all-world that night and, once again, he put the Devils on his back for a 2-0 win. The shutout further proved how awesome he has been this season. That Friday, the Devils went up to Buffalo in the hopes of making it three straight wins. Steve Bernier scored two goals, Jordin Tootoo scored a sweet one, and Keith Kinkaid was solid all the way around to make it three straight wins. The Devils won 3-1 over a team they honestly should beat. In retrospect, it would be their last win in quite some time.
Winless streaks don't begin right away. They form over time, obviously, but it's not as if the Devils then proceeded to play so poorly that most observers could visualize a string of 'L's for the team. That night I referred to at the beginning of this post was where it started. The Devils actually played a competitive game against the Isles. They just couldn't score any goals against them. The Isles got two past Schneider and an empty netter to make it a 0-3 defeat. The first truly bad game of the winless streak would come on the following Monday. A Los Angeles team then (and now) in need of points came into Newark hoping to get two for their cause. They crushed the Devils with a dominant first period and tacked on a couple more to get those two points. The Devils were decisively beaten and outclassed with a 1-3 final score. At least there was no empty netter. A few nights later, the Devils went down to D.C. to play the Capitals - another team that would've liked two points. While the Caps got up early by two goals, the Devils would make a comeback with a shorthanded goal and a last-minute equalizer with Schneider pulled. Steve Bernier's goal was the first time all season (and since Schneider became a Devil) where the Devils tied up a game with Schneider pulled. Alas, overtime ended quickly with a re-direction off a long shot that got past Schneider. The Devils at least got a point in their 2-3 loss. Whereas the Devils played for pride in D.C., the Devils just sputtered in Raleigh on Saturday night. Carolina just came at the Devils in waves and waves and more waves and ultimately would get their goals after all their efforts. New Jersey just didn't have a real good response and so they lamely lost 1-3 to the Hurricanes. Sunday night against the Ducks would be more like the game against the Islanders. The Devils hung with a team with one of the best records in the league. The game itself was decided by deflections; alas, Anaheim got one from one of their players (Ryan Kesler) and one from the Devils (the side of Jon Merrill's head) and the Devils only got one from their own (Dainius Zubrus). The Devils lost 1-2. At the end of the month, the Devils went into Columbus. They kept up with the pace in a game decided by special teams: power plays and even a penalty shot against. But a weird shorthanded equalizer helped the Devils get beyond regulation with the Blue Jackets. At the time of the second game, the Blue Jackets were the hottest team in the NHL. They stayed hot as the overtime winner came within the first minute. This massive paragraph runs all of these winless nights together because, honestly, that's how it looks in retrospect. Time flew by and the Devils ended the month 0-4-2.
The sad thing is that I'm not even all that bothered by how the month ended. I'm not so beholden to the 2015 NHL Entry Draft where there is somehow this massive difference between sixth and seventh overall. It'll be a strong draft, the Devils will get someone good at sixth, seventh, or even eighth overall. That does not matter. It's just that this is a lost season. It's been a lost season since about Christmas when they had only twelve wins. It's been a lost season because the team has won plenty of games under the co-coaches in spite of their performances. A run of nights without 'W's was coming and it came and it's going to be meaningless in less than two weeks. The month of March confirmed that this bad hockey team would not make the playoffs. Again, I just want competitive hockey. I got some of it. Another playoff-less season is mercifully almost over. So it went and so it goes, sad as it still kind of feels.
It's not so much that the New Jersey Devils have tanked, it's just that they started to do some things with their lineup that they would otherwise not do. If they wanted to tank, Keith Kinkaid would have received many, many more starts. Kinkaid is a good goaltender, but he was not as hot as Schneider was for most of the month. Still, we got to see the continued of experiment of placing a fourth liner like Jordin Tootoo with two more talented forwards in Travis Zajac and Mike Cammalleri. With three goals and an assist for the month, it's fair to say that as admirable as his hustle can be, he's really not just producing nearly enough to continue the experiment. That's why it ended by month's end. We also got to see Martin Havlat and Michael Ryder freed from the doghouse for a bit. They were moved back in there quickly. Peter Harrold got some games at right wing as an energetic fourth liner and the world did not end. Perhaps he should've played in Mark Fraser's place on defense. The defense continued the youth movement; Damon Severson returned and all four of Severson, Adam Larsson, Jon Merrill, and Eric Gelinas were playing regular, significant minutes. Whether it went well varied from game to game. Are they better for it? I don't know. Ditto for the last week or so of March where Reid Boucher and Stefan Matteau were called up to get another look. They've played, whether they've shown any actual promise is up for debate.
I do know that this team will need massive changes to get back to being contenders. There will not be a transition, there will be a re-build. It won't happen within a summer unless Lou tops Garth Snow's amazing 2014 summer performance. It's necessary at forward. It may be needed on defense. But this month's games cemented the notion in my mind that it really starts at the bench. The offense has been lacking all season, but it really was low in a month where the Devils scored more than three goals twice in fourteen games - both against non-playoff teams. The approach on offense is still reliant on dump-ins, the puck movement remains poor, and not enough shots are getting through to the net or even attempted. The defense remains happy to concede over thirty shots more often than we'd like to admit. If it wasn't for Schneider and Kinkaid playing so well, we would've seen more of those 2-6 blowout losses. There is definitely a dearth of talent in the organization, but the systems as they are need to go. The post-season decision for head coach should not be between Adam Oates and Scott Stevens. It should be for someone else, someone who may have a semblance of a clue of an idea of what possession hockey needs to be in this day and age. We knew this was a bad team, this past month just confirmed to me that the issues run deeper than a need to get more good players, especially at forward. Of course, that need remains - and holding on to players from this season because you may appreciated their contributions just a bit more (think Tootoo, Steve Bernier, Scott Gomez) doesn't fill it whatsoever.
Devil of the Month
Here's some trivia: who led the Devils in points in March? No, it's not Mike Cammalleri, who had four goals and three assists. No, it's not Adam Henrique, who had four goals and four assists. No, it's not Andy Greene who had a goal and seven assists. It was Bernier of all players. Yes, Steve Bernier with three goals and six assists led the Devils in points throughout March. That's not a knock on Bernier, he did his job alongside Gomez throughout the month. It is more of a knock on the state of the skaters when it comes to production and performance throughout the month.
No one was a regular producer in March. The team's leading goal scorer, Cammalleri, got two in the last game of the month after going scoreless for a stretch. The team's leading point scorer, Henrique, remains as opportunistic as ever. He definitely had his anonymous nights. No one was a particularly adept player at driving the play or playing well from night to night. Patrik Elias looked better after he took some time off from back spasms and has been trusted to be used in a checking line role; but that hasn't yielded all that much. The young defensemen vary in performance from game to game as one would expect from young defensemen. Andy Greene is affected by this reality as he's been paired with one of them - mostly Adam Larsson - against tough competition, night after night. For these Devils of the Month sections, I pick a player that I thought was a standout player throughout the entire month. For another month, I can't in good conscious name a skater as a Devil of the month.
Nor should I since the most important player, the team's most valuable player, and arguably one of the top players in his position remains active on the team. His numbers went back down to Earth, going down from stupendously amazing to merely very good. Still, he put the team on his back in three of the five wins the team earned this month. He was a key reason why the team got beyond regulation in three other games. And even though the monthly save percentage was only 92.6%, he still managed to give up an average of just over two goals per game while still being among league leaders in overall save percentage. That would be more than enough for most teams to work with to get results on most nights. The 2014-15 New Jersey Devils are not most teams with their low-attempt, low-shooting, and low-scoring ways. This guy continues to keep the team from being totally abysmal, much to the chagrin of those who think the team absolutely, positively, totally needs to fall from sixth from the bottom to fifth from the bottom in the standings. You know this guy. He was Devil of the Month last month and the month before that. This is a cop out of sorts, but I defy you to name a Devil more consistent and exemplery in their performances in March than Cory Schneider, the Devil of the Month for March 2015. Even if Schneider wasn't as good as he was in January and February, he was still head and shoulders above the rest of the roster.
There are only five more games left in this regular season. Then begins another long offseason filled with analysis of the season that was, profiles of the prospects somewhat known and mostly unknown for the draft, and arguments for what the team needs to do in the offseason. Same as it was since 2013. Another lackluster-at-best, crummy-at-worst month like March just ensured it.
Regardless, that's only my take on the month. I'm sure you feel differently upon reflection of the last fourteen games. What do you think accounted for the difference between the 5-2-1 start of the month and the 0-4-2 run that ended it beyond the results? What did you learn from the team's performances in March? Would you agree that Schneider was the Devil of the Month? Or is there someone else that you think is more worthy; if so, why? With no playoffs ensured for the Devils and five games left, it would be a bit silly to ask for a prediction going forward but I'll ask this anyway: How many of the team's five remaining games do they win? Please leave your answers in the comments. Thank you for reading.