When a team falls into a massive slump, like let’s say the New Jersey Devils, it can really skew things that you thought about them. As CJ noted the other day, prolonged streaks one way or the other can throw stats off, and teams can look better or worse at certain aspects that will eventually fall back to a mean. What it also does, however, is completely change where you thought a team was and where you think it can go. A month ago, the Devils were arguably still very much in it, they were competitive, and there was no one who was saying that they were not improving. To anyone who was watching, they were clearly an improving team, and the rebuild was heading in the right direction.
A month later and thought processes need to change somewhat, even after the drubbing they put on Philly the other night. Are the Devils still improving on their rebuilding efforts? Are they a better team than they were last season, or has the rebuilding process gone backwards? Well, let’s look at one piece of information that could be telling:
Record at the Christmas Break:
-2015-16 Devils: 17-13-5, 39 points
-2016-17 Devils: 13-14-7, 33 points
So, a month ago, would you have believed that the Devils of 2016-17 would have a worse record at Christmas than they did last season? I would’ve said you were nuts. A month ago, the Devils had more offense. Their possession was not nearly as bad as it was a year ago. Their defense maybe was not as great defensively as it was a year ago with Adam Larsson and David Schlemko, but it had some offensive flair with Damon Severson and Yohann Auvitu providing a push forward. And at goaltender, you had all-star Cory Schneider.
But here we are a month later. The team’s ability to produce offense has fallen off. Remember that streak of games where they scored like 5 goals a game? Yeah right, that was an anomaly. Possession has tanked, coming much closer to where it was last season. The defense has stopped playing defense, leaving opposing teams with ample amounts of glorious chances. The blue liners have also not been as good offensively, Severson not producing assists at as high of a rate before, and Auvitu being sent down to Albany earlier in the month. Then you have the goaltending, with Schneider having the hands down worst season of his career, producing below average numbers, and Keith Kinkaid not doing all that much better. They may not be getting help from the skaters in front of them, but in previous years there were nights where Schneider was the sole reason the Devils would win. Now, on most nights the Devils seemingly can’t give up less than 3 goals.
So, what are these Devils? Are they a team that is improving still over last year, becoming a better team with a rebuilding process that is moving in the right direction? Have they just stalled out this month, and while they’re mostly playing bad they are really a team that is at least as good as last season? Or are they going in the wrong direction? Would you say that the 2016-17 Devils are worse than they were a year ago, and that despite getting younger and seemingly improving in talent with the likes of Taylor Hall and Pavel Zacha, that they are moving backwards?
Whatever your answer to the questions in the previous paragraph, the fact that they could even be asked and that different answers could be found among fans is bad enough. In a rebuild, you want a clear movement forward, a clear progression and improvement from year to year. Otherwise, you become stalled in a yearly rebuild process that goes nowhere and leads to losing season after losing season. And so, on this Christmas Eve, it is why I say that this Devils team needs a Christmas miracle. Coming out of the break next week, they need to show clear signs that they are progressing in a positive fashion. Only in that way can a team really move towards becoming annually competitive, not annually rebuilding. Yes it is only year 2 of the rebuild, but how long have teams like the Cleveland Browns been rebuilding? Where are they going? The last thing I want as a fan is to be in a perpetual rebuilding nightmare.
Coming out of the break, I hope to see a team that looks motivated, that looks like they are improving. I hope to see a team with more consistent offense night in and night out. I hope to see a team that is much better defensively, preventing opponents from getting the glorious chances that the Devils keep giving up. And, I hope to see the return of all-star Cory Schneider, not the mediocre version (let’s hope the shutout against Philly, plus the time off, does that). If those things begin to happen next week, then whatever the record shows at the end of the season, we as Devils fans will indeed have a Christmas miracle on our hands.
But whatever happens, I want to wish everyone who reads this blog a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Holidays, and may your Devils passion never wane!