This is written prior to the NHL Trade Deadline. As it should be as the New Jersey Devils' February really ended on Friday, February 26. They do not play any more games until March 1. The team may look a little different by then. For the most part, what you've seen from the team is what you've been getting. Based on this past month, it's not good. Admittedly, they really stumbled into the NHL Trade Deadline with only one win their previous five games. Worse, their last two games of the month were just beatdowns: one by a playoff-bound team and the other by the worst team in the division. Not the way to end February.
The Devils' record for February was 5-6-2. It was a month heavy with games against teams in their division. Outside of their division, they were 2-1-1. Within their division, they were 3-5-1. The optimist would say that isn't great, but it's not awful and they're still mathematically in the playoff hunt. But even the optimist would look at the last six games of this month and realize that may not really be happening. The mediocre records of previous months required a good month of results to push the Devils up. Anything less, and well, the team is beginning to be on the outside looking in.
The Month that Was
As I was sick for most of the month with the flu, other writers on this site stepped in where they could to do previews and recaps. I thank the staff for stepping when they could. I thank you, the reader, for still sticking with the site in the interim. What that means for this section is that not every game will have a recap associated with it. However, I will do my best to summarize all of the games in February.
The month kicked with a game against Our Hated Rivals on February 2. It would be the first of three meetings. This one went well enough. The Devils made a comeback within the third period to turn a 1-2 score into a 3-2 final score for a win thanks to goals by Joseph Blandisi (followed by a sweet celebration) and a PPG by David Schlemko. Alex wrote they pulled it out in a playoff-like atmosphere, just the right feeling for a rivalry game. Two days later, the Devils went into Toronto. They were able to get up 2-1 in the third, but late equalizer forced additional hockey. The game went into the shootout and the expected happened: a shootout loss. The Devils at least got a point in the 2-3 defeat, although Alex called it a "step back" in his recap. Two days after that, the Devils hosted the rulers of the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference: Washington. Like the Toronto game, the Devils were able to get up 2-1 in the third. But a not-quite-so-late equalizer by the Caps forced additional hockey. Like the Toronto game, it went to a shootout and the Devils lost with a 2-3 final score. I was actually energetic enough to watch and recap that one and I felt the Devils took the best team in the East to their limit.
In the following week, the Devils were certainly looking forward to February 9. Not so much to play Edmonton, but to honor the career of New Jersey Devils legendary goaltender Martin Brodeur. His number was retired and they gave him a statue. Perhaps that would explain why they came up mostly lame the night before against Our Hated Rivals. As I understand it after the fact, the Rangers were in control of most of the game and built up a two goal lead early into the third period. A shorthanded goal by Travis Zajac late in the game made it exciting as the Devils actually pushed for an equalizer. But it was too little, too late and the Devils lost to Our Hated Rivals, 1-2. The next night was Brodeur Night. The ceremony was great. The game itself, well, it was similar to how the Devils would pull out wins this season. Adam Henrique put up a PPG, Jordan Eberle matched it a little later, Reid Boucher broke the tie with a PPG of his own later, and Cory Schneider held on for the 2-1 win. They scored just enough to win and the goaltending made it all work somehow. Three days later, the Devils would embark on a trip to Philadelphia for an afternoon game against the Second Rate Rivals. Like the Edmonton game, the Devils only scored PPGs. And they got two. One in the first period due to a sick between-the-legs shot by Joseph Blandisi, and an overtime winner by Henrique. Per Shane's recap, the Devils outlasted the Flyers.
They also outlasted their opponents on Valentine's Day. The Devils hosted Los Angeles for another early afternoon start. The Devils got an early power play: faceoff win, pass, shot by Schlemko, tipped by Blandisi, and it's a goal. From that point on, it was the Keith Kinkaid show. The backup was stellar as he stopped everything the Kings threw at him. The Devils won 1-0; Alex correctly pointed out how Kinkaid shined in his recap. The win made it three in a row for the Devils. Impressively, they did it without scoring a single even strength goal. Their last one was their second goal in the Washington game back on February 6 - four games ago. The Devils would eventually get one of those on February 16 against the Flyers. The Devils would open the game with a PPG but they wasted a lot of them, the result of the Flyers living up to their reputation. Unfortunately, the Flyers matched that PPG in the first period and tacked on one of their own in the second. Jordin Tootoo sent in a seeing-eye shot in the third period that made it 2-2 and it was the first even strength goal the Devils scored since 2/6. Even more unfortunately, the Flyers just made the Devils unglued at that point with three goals in a row. Kyle Palmieri broke his own goalless streak late for a consolation goal, but a late ENG made it a 3-6 loss to the Second Rate Rivals. The Devils looked to rebound on Friday, February 19 against New York's More Tolerable Team, the Islanders. This game featured one goal: a rebound bouncing off Casey Cizikas' leg and into the net just about two minutes into the game. The Devils responded as if they weren't losing by a goal and their total lack of offensive aggression and effectivity meant they lost 0-1. As I wrote in my recap, the effort wasn't good enough. The very next night, the Devils would score some goals in D.C. The problem is that the since the Caps are good, they had an answer for each one. Most frustratingly, they turned 3-2 Devils score with about nine minutes left into a 3-4 final score thanks to the Devils blowing it on defense. I saw it as snatching defeat from the jaws of points; the larger view saw it as a third straight loss.
The final week of the month featured the final game of the season against Our Hated Rivals. The game would ultimately decide the series. The big rivalry game certainly lived up to it's billing with the opposition getting up early, the Devils making a fantastic comeback in one of their best period performances this season, a fight that thrown out a scoring forward on the Rangers due to a taped fist and a cut caused in the fight, the drama inherent in wasting seven minutes of power play time in a 3-2 game, and then watching Sergey Kalinin beat a false king on a breakaway to make it 4-2 late and send the right people at the Rock into ecstasy. A long-shot empty netter iced the game and the Devils gloriously took the season series with a 5-2 win. I loved recapping this game and it was easily one of the highlights of this season. Then the next two games happened. Columbus had defeated the Devils twice before. When February 25 came along and the Devils went to Ohio, Columbus looked anything but the worst team in the division. They steamrolled the Devils in the first period to a 0-3 score. The Devils would respond with an extended offensive push in the second period, scored one, and should have been within one goal about midway through the period. Alas, I think the Devils got hit with the intent to blow rule. Worse, a bounce off Schlemko's skates made the score 1-4 shortly thereafter. The Devils responded with, well, not much as the Blue Jackets tacked on two more goals to make it a 1-6 defeat. I called the game a "F Minus," harking back to John Hynes' response to a similarly bad game earlier this season. Would they rebound the next night against Tampa Bay? Absolutely not. This game was a butt-whipping with the Devils supplying all of the butt. The Devils lost 0-4, they showed such little fight in the process, and even worse defense. Gerard stepped in to recap this one and, yes, called it a "Double F Minus" performance. I completely agree with that assessment.
I can't stress enough how the Devils have fallen flat on their faces to end the month. They had the opportunity to make a real playoff push at the expense of teams ahead and behind them in the division. They didn't take full advantage. As great as that 5-2 win was, it's been an oasis in a desert of just bad performances. Some were just straight up awful games like the last two losses, some were failures to attack like the first two losses in this current 1-5-0 stretch, and the defense got all faulty throughout, most notably in the last two losses and the defeat in D.C. The month could not have ended worse short of injury and now the Devils really are behind the proverbial 8-ball. It confirmed to me that while they're not the worst team around, the 2015-16 Devils are certainly not a good team. Or even an average one, record aside.
February 2016 By the Numbers
Thanks to War on Ice allowing bracketing their stats by date, I'm using it to provide the team's stats month-by-month. For this section, the date range used is for 2/1 through 2/27, the day I'm writing this up. The Devils' played their last game of the month on 2/26, so their month is effectively over three days early.
At 5-on-5 Hockey: Possession took another hit and fell back into the 45% range. The Devils finished their month with a CF% 45.5%. If we adjust for score, it gets worse; it falls to 44.7%. The Devils still reign in low event hockey with a CP/60 (that's total Corsi events per sixty minutes) of 94.4. The CF% breakdown shows the Devils with a CF/60 of 43.0 and a CA/60 of 51.4. If you don't care much about attempts but do care about shots, then the Devils were also poor in those stats as well. Their SF% was a mere 46.3%, breaking down to a really low SF/60 of 24.6 and a SA/60 of 28.6. That's at least an improvement over January's SF% (44.4%) While the CA/60 and SA/60 rates aren't bad on their own, combined with a much lower CF/60 and SF/60 rate, respectively, makes for a lot of bad hockey. In other words, opposing teams liked facing the Devils in the run of play.
The 5-on-5 numbers get even worse. In terms of actual production, the Devils scored a league-low 12 goals and conceded a relatively high 27 goals. Even though there's three more days to play for the league, I doubt many teams will do worse than the Devils' goal differential of -15. As of this writing (4:41 PM EST on the 27th), the team with the second worst goal differential in 5-on-5 play is Toronto with -8. In other words, the Devils got wrecked in 5-on-5 play. It was the worst of both worlds for team percentages in that situation. The shooting percentage cratered to 4.7%, likely a league low for the month. The goaltenders - namely Cory Schneider - just got beat a lot more. Therefore, the team 5-on-5 save percentage dropped like a stone to 90.8%. Basically, the Devils got owned throughout the month in 5-on-5 play.
At Power Play Situations: The power play was at least productive throughout the month. For a stretch in the middle of the month, it had to be given that the Devils went some time without an even strength goal. Per War on Ice at the link, the Devils scored eleven power play goals and shot at a rate of 20.8%. Both rank fairly high in the NHL in the date range used. As a bonus, the Devils didn't concede a shorthanded goal. Jumping to the shot-based stats for power plays at War on Ice, their SF/60 was 51. That's not great, but it's ahead of the bottom third of the league. That's pretty nice considering how little they shoot the puck in 5-on-5 play. I suppose this justifies some of Ryan's main point regarding Jacob Josefson's contributions to the PP. Overall, the power play was very good to New Jersey in February. As an additional justification, NHL.com lists the Devils as having a 29.7% success rate (11-for-37) on power plays in this date range. It was very good to New Jersey.
At Penalty Kill Situations: On the flipside of special teams, the Devils' penalty kill was also very successful. According to War on Ice, they conceded only four goals while they scored one shorthanded goal. That's very good in of itself. Whereas the goaltending - again, mostly Cory Schneider - wasn't so hot in 5-on-5 play, both Schneider and Keith Kinkaid combined for a 92.8% save percentage in shorthanded situations. That's very good. Jumping again to shot-based stats at War on Ice, the Devils' SA/60 in shorthanded situations was 46.3. That's anywhere near the best rates in the league, but it's just inside the top ten in the NHL as of this writing. In general, the PK did quite well. The success rate at NHL.com further supports that: the team's success rate was 90.7% (39-for-43). Since the Devils' PK got more work than the PP, it's pretty impressive the power play ended up scoring nearly three times as many goals as opposing power plays did. That also means the penalty kill was pretty impressive overall for the month.
Additions and Subtractions
The big return from injury within this month was Jon Merrill. Merrill was out since the middle of January and was re-activated on February 19, making his return against the Islanders. In the interim, Seth Helgeson filled on defense. Even after Merrill returned, as Damon Severson was scratched for a few games for performance, Helgeson played a little more. It was not until February 27 that he was assigned back to Albany. Merrill's return has provided mixed results to say the least, most notably getting dominated by Columbus on the 1-6 loss on 2/25. Still, it was a return of a regular to the lineup. Severson's scratching only lasted two games. When he returned on 2/23 against the Rangers, the defense has been set to Greene-Larsson, Moore-Schlemko, and Merrill-Severson. Eric Gelinas remains in the doghouse, so to speak.
The big news is the continued absence of Mike Cammalleri. There really hasn't been much update beyond this February 17 post by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice where Ray Shero revealed Cammalleri's injury does not need surgery.Still, Cammalleri missed the entire month. While he and he alone can't make the Devils' offense go from a pop-gun to an actual weapon, he was a significant offensive contributor prior to his injury. He has been sorely missed. As the days go by and without further update, it remains to be seen whether the Devils will have anything to play for when Cammalleri is able to return.
Of course, since I've written this on February 27, there's potentially more additions and/or subtractions to come as the NHL Trade Deadline gets closer. Watch, well, the blog space. Let's move on to the part I'm dreading for this month.
Devil of the Month
Typically, I look for someone who has consistently played well throughout the month. I try to highlight someone who has been exceptional in their performances and their results in the month. For February 2016, this is a challenge. I cannot go to the old reliable option of Cory Schneider. Not with a 90.2% save percentage at evens for February. I can't go for that. No can do. Defensemen? As much as I like Andy Greene and Adam Larsson, they often bore the brunt of the Devils' fall in CF% in February. I certainly can't go with any of the other d-men. What about the forwards, who led in scoring this month? Per NHL.com, it's a tie between Travis Zajac (2 G, 6 A, 21 SOG) and Joseph Blandisi (4 G, 4 A, 18 SOG). Blandisi led in goals, Zajac in assists, and yeah, no one came close to a point-per-game status.
So I'm going to go off the board and pick the Devil, whose performances were the most representative of how the month went. In my mind, that's Blandisi. Blandisi did tie for the team lead in scoring, he was in a three-way tie for power play points (4), he led in power play goals (3), and total goals (4) in February. He provided a lot of moments of joy. That sweet between the legs shot against Philly. His equalizer in the first Devils-Rangers game this month that led to a glorious celebration. That fantastic pass to Palmieri in the third Devils-Rangers game this month. When he was playing with quickness and showed enough flair to make some moves on the ice with the puck, many fans realized that he could be somebody someday and sometime soon.
At the same time, Blandisi provided a lot of flaws in the month as well. He took two embellishment calls and managed to establish a reputation for diving. That's one thing. More distressingly, the Devils learned the hard way that his defensive game needed a lot of work. He didn't necessarily always stay with his man on defense and that cost the Devils on the scoreboard. He had games where he would attempt passes to no one, which resulted in easy possession for the opposition, and others where he would just concede pucks directly to the other team. And going forward became an adventure at times, whether it was his timing on entering the zone or getting into position to be available for a play. For all of his production and offensive flair, he had nights where he would defer the puck instead of firing away with an open look on net - not what the Devils needed. Ultimately, one realizes that for all of the good Blandisi had done, he had a lot of bad or anonymous moments that sometimes directly hurt the team in games. I know he's a rookie and I don't intend to pick on him. But how he played in February was similar to how the team performed. For all of the good times, there were plenty of bad times - ones where you don't know if it'll get better anytime soon. The team may not, but Blandisi will. All the same, given this exception to what I normally do for this, I name Joseph Blandisi the February 2016 All About the Jersey Devil of the Month. Hopefully in March, somebody truly excels.
By now, I think I made it clear that this has been a poor month. I'm not fully sold on whether the Devils can be big sellers by Monday. A lot can happen, but ultimately whoever goes will need to be replaced. After seeing Albany players like Paul Thompson, Jim O'Brien, and Marc-Andre Gragnani, I don't know if that's the way to go unless the plan to just fall in the standings as much as possible. (Aside: I wouldn't mind a return visit by Mike Sislo, so there's that.) Still, with the way the Devils ended February - especially with the last two losses - I can understand the sentiment that the Devils shouldn't go for it.
All season, the Devils have compiled around average records in other months. With the most of the Metropolitan Division flailing for one reason or another combined with some Atlantic Division teams just dropping off (Montreal), this was acceptable to stay in a playoff race. I'd like to think that after these thirteen games, combined with several others, there's very little vault to push for a chance to get pounded by Washington in the first round. As other teams have been more successful or in more advantageous situations as of late, the Devils may not need to make an additional effort to be on the outside. The not-too-bad-but-not-too-good monthly records have caught up, in a way, to the Devils now that they will need help in addition to trying to get as many points as possible. All while confirming what many thought to begin with: this team doesn't have enough offensive talent, talent in general, and a re-build is needed. Schneider can only cover up so many flaws for so long and while I don't think he was terrible, it's clear the bounces he (and the team) was getting weren't there in February.
So where do you go from here as the last full month of the season comes? Standings-wise, a full on tank will only get them so far down. From a pride and effort perspective, I doubt this team even wants to tank. Given some of their games in the last two weeks, they may not have to try as hard as we may think. A lot will hinge on how much Ray Shero does or does not do by Monday. In the interim, at least we know what to expect. This team won't score many goals, the special teams excellence in February isn't likely to continue to because they were so excellent in this past month, and the result is going to rely on whether the goaltending is on point, the defense is competent, and the bounces aren't unfavorable. Not exactly something a team wants to rely on, but the Devils aren't good enough to rely on anything else. So it goes as March comes.