It's all over. The New Jersey Devils finished the 2015-16 regular season with a total record of 38-36-8. Within the month of March, the team went 7-7-1. While that's not bad, it's not all that good and definitely not enough to keep pace with other teams in the Eastern Conference. By the month's end, they were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. The four-game month of April was a losing effort with a 1-3-0 record; a four-game losing streak was snapped on the final day of the season in a decisive fashion. A nice ending to an otherwise lost season where they finished twelfth in the East and twentieth in the NHL. Let's review what happened in the final six weeks of the season.
The Months That Were
In March, the new look New Jersey Devils took to the ice to host the Carolina Hurricanes. Both the Canes and Devils were sellers at the deadline. Both of them also put up a really sloppy game. The Canes took it late and added an ENG to make it a 1-3 loss for New Jersey. The Devils would then hit the road for a back-to-back with Nashville and Dallas. The Nashville game was a wild one with goals being answered with other goals and a dramatic game-tying goal by Adam Henrique. Henrique scored from about the same spot to win it in overtime, 5-4. The drama continued into Dallas, although it was not good drama. No, Schneider sprained his MCL in his right knee when jamming his skate on the right post to make a tough save in the game. He left the game and would be out until the penultimate week of the season. The performance itself was controlled by Dallas as they won 2-4. That game looked down right competitive compared to that Sunday's game against Pittsburgh. The Devils returned home but were just pasted all over the ice by the Penguins in a 1-6 blowout loss. With the California trip looming in the near distance, it seemed like those were destined to be three straight 'L's after that one on Sunday.
As it turned out, the road trip against all three teams in California turned out to be positive. Keith Kinkaid shined in games against San Jose and Los Angeles. The Devils survived the swarming of the Sharks to shut them out 3-0. The game against the Kings was tighter and better played by New Jersey. It also required overtime to decide it. John Moore turned out to be the OT hero with a wraparound in a 2-1 win. Spirits were higher heading into Orange Country to play the Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks crushed those spirits by routing the Devils with a final score of 1-7.Ouch wasn't the word. In their final game against the Western Conference this season, the Devils would put up a far better performance on St. Patrick's Day. They hosted Minnesota, donned their 1980s-style jerseys, and blew up the Wild with goal after goal after goal. The Devils vanquished the Wild 7-4 in what was a very entertaining night.
Reality would return in short order to show that the Devils aren't that good. They had a home-and-home with Columbus, one of their "bogey" teams of the season. The road game in Columbus was only a little better than their last trip to Ohio. Instead of losing 1-6, they kept it close going into the third period and managed to lose 3-6 instead. It was so bad, the Devils swapped Yann Danis, who came into the game as relief and got beaten, for Scott Wedgewood.
The move turned out quite well as Wedgewood put up four straight excellent games in net. The Devils edged the Blue Jackets 2-1 on the next night in Newark to finally beat them. They went 1-4 against Columbus, avoiding the sweep. The Devils had to travel to Pittsburgh next. Wedgewood was fantastic and the Devils shocked the Penguins 3-0 in their building later in that week. It wasn't that great of a performance outside of the goaltending, but it was a great result. The very next night, the Devils hosted Washington and Wedgewood was great again as he shut out the Caps for sixty minutes in regulation. Washington would score in regulation to take the game, 0-1 in OT. The Devils essentially gutted out that point against the team with the best record in the league. Wedgewood looked a bit more human in his fourth straight start in Carolina. The Devils stunk it up early on as the Canes went up 0-3 on them. But the Devils scored two quick ones to make the game close. Alas, they could not get the third goal and as it has been this season, their effort wasn't exactly good enough to get it. They lost 2-3. Wedgewood would then be sent back to Albany as Schneider was activated.
Schneider did not immediately return to the lineup. The Devils wanted to bring him back slowly so Keith Kinkaid got the next two starts. He arguably showed that he still deserves his spot in New Jersey. Kinkaid stopped a deluge of shots from Boston. Forty to be exact. The Devils set a season low in shots with fifteen. Because hockey can be really ugly and unfair, the Devils won 2-1. Two nights later, the Devils went to Sunrise to play the Panthers. Florida put up a similar number of shots and managed to win. The score was close at 2-3 (Blake Pietila scored his first NHL goal with six seconds left, so it could've easily been 1-3), but the performance by the Devils skaters was not close to how well the Panthers performed. Most remember the game for how the Panthers fans threw plastic rats on the ice after each Panthers goal, leading to two penalties that the Devils didn't take advantage of. That game in Florida was the final game in March, sealing a 7-7-1 record.
Schneider would start his first game since being injured on March 4 on April 1. There was no fooling around on the ice allowed, though. The referees issued thirteen total power plays between Tampa Bay and New Jersey. As well as Schneider played, the Lightning prevailed in the penalty-fest, 1-2. That game was the final road game of the season. The Devils would announce that the final week of their regular season would be Fan Appreciation Week since they had three straight home games. Your mileage may vary on whether the fans were appreciative of how the team played. Tuesday night saw them play a hard-to-watch game against the Buffalo Sabres. Neither team played well; but the Sabres took it with a 1-3 final score on the basis of playing less bad than the Devils did. That Thursday saw the Lightning playing the Devils again. While that game was also pointless for both sides, they at least played like they wanted to win. It was a better game to watch and a better performance from New Jersey. Yet, the Devils fell into a hole on the scoreboard and, once again, could not climb their way out of it. They lost 2-4 for what was then their fourth straight loss. Finally, they hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs. This turned out to be a very high note to end a season where they both overachieved (see their record) and met some expectations (the offense stunk). The offense didn't stink as the Devils preyed on the Maple Leafs over and over after Toronto went up one. Three prospects made their NHL debuts; Adam Henrique and Kyle Palmieri each scored their 30th goals of the season; and Patrik Elias had a three-point night. All in front of a sell-out crowd with a decisive performance overall, the Devils ended the season with a 5-1 win.
March & April by the Numbers
War on Ice is thankfully still up and updated. Using their team stats and their date range, I can tell you the team's stats month-by-month. For this section, the date range used is for 3/1 through 4/10.
At 5-on-5 Hockey: I'd have to check previous to be sure, but the New Jersey Devils bottomed out from a possession standpoint. They finished March and April with a 44.9% CF%, the lowest in the NHL. Yes, they were worse than Colorado, who is coached by Patrick Roy. That's rather awful. The team also finished dead last in CP/60 at 92.6, or total Corsi events per sixty minutes, but that's not really a surprise given how they play. Breaking down the Corsi For percentage reveals the Devils to have a CF/60 of 41.3 and a CA/60 of 50.8. That's an improvement in CA/60 from February, but that CF/60 was even worse than last month's. All told, it means the Devils played a lot of defense - again.
Don't care about attempts? OK, in terms of shots only, the Devils' shots for percentage was 44.8%. That's still awful but amazingly not the worst in the NHL in this time frame. You have Vancouver to thank for that. Regardless, the Devils had the lowest SF/60 rate by far at 22.2 (Isles were the second lowest at 25.9!) and a SA/60 rate of 27.3. That SA/60 rate is above the league median but with the way the Devils offense has performed, anything less than an elite SA/60 rate means the Devils are often at a disadvantage. That was clearly apparent from just watching most of the games played in March and April; and all season, for that matter.
Let's get back to the other numbers of 5-on-5 play. At least the Devils shot at a decent rate of 8.8%. That Toronto game added 0.6%, so let's hear it for the season ender. Yet, because the team attempted and shot the puck so few times, they only scored 29 non-empty net goals. That last game of the season moved the Devils from the bottom in that category (they had 25 before 4/9's game) to the seventh lowest. Still quite low. Making matters worse was their goaltending. Losing Cory Schneider to injury plus suffering multiple blowouts on top of losses really kneecapped the team's save percentage in 5-on-5 play. It was 90.9%, one of the lowest in the NHL in March and April. It has resulted in 37 goals allowed, which is above the median - which isn't desirable. Combined, the Devils posted a -8 goal differential in 5-on-5 play, the fifth lowest in the NHL in this time frame. That is further evidence that most opponents did not just control the run of play against them, but they found plenty of success on the scoreboard. Not just in March and April, but for most of the season, really.
At Power Play Situations: At least the Devils' power play was a bit more positive. They scored eleven goals and conceded none. They shot at 11.8%. In terms of goals scored and goal differential, the Devils were at least better than the league median in this time frame. The shooting percentage, well, that was below median; that last game of the season dropped it by over a percent. Regardless, they had one of the higher SF/60 rates in man advantage situations at 57.1. That was one of the best in the NHL over the last six weeks; a real surprise considering how few shots they generate in 5-on-5 play. According to NHL.com, their conversion rate was 17.7% (11 for 62), which was just above the league median. So while there were some nights where the PP felt more like a waste of time than anything else, over the last nineteen games, it's been OK overall. That said, an OK-overall PP does not make up for the not-at-all-good 5-on-5 play.
At Penalty Kill Situations: Curiously, the Devils' special teams evened up in March and April. Their power play scored eleven goals and conceded none. Their penalty kill allowed eleven goals and scored none. Allowing eleven goals and a negative goal differential of -11 put them in the wrong kind of top ten in terms of rankings. So that does not look good. The team's save percentage was 88.5%, which is around the league median. So it was not as if the goaltending fell apart when the Devils went down a man. In fact, NHL.com has their penalty kill success rate at 82.8% over the past two months. That's right above league median at 14th among all thirty teams over the last six weeks of games. It could be a result of volume. The Devils were shorthanded 64 times - that was also in the "top" ten. Then again, War on Ice as their SA/60 rate at 52.7, which is not too much higher than the median. All told, the penalty kill was not a positive but not much of a negative.
Additions and Substractions
Let's start with the trade deadline. In retrospect, Ray Shero waved the white flag on the season when he dealt Lee Stempniak, who was the team's leading scorer at the time of the deadline, for picks. Shero also dealt out Eric Gelinas for a pick, picked up David Warsofsky on waivers, and turned Stefan Matteau into Devante Smith-Pelly. It was not a bad day of business for Shero. Given that Smith-Pelly got hot right away with the Devils and put up seven goals and three assists in his first ten games with the team, that trade alone was a win for New Jersey. Should Stempniak be brought back this summer, the rental to Boston looks even better. Still, these were selling moves for a team that was selling.
The bigger story throughout March and April were injuries, though. The last six weeks of the season featured the following players getting hurt and missing time: Cory Schneider, Jacob Josefson, John Moore, David Schlemko, Jon Merrill, Jordin Tootoo, Joseph Blandisi, Sergey Kalinin, David Warsofsky, and Tyler Kennedy. Some were just minor where only a game or two were missed. In the cases of Tootoo (wrist surgery) and Merrill (upper body that was week-to-week), their seasons ended prematurely. For the other in between, multiple call ups were made to fill in roster spots. All of that plus confirmation that Mike Cammalleri would not return at all this season.
The good news is that most of the players listed would return to action by the season's end. Plus, Patrik Elias came back for the final week of the season after missing much of 2015-16 with knee issues. On top of that, John Hynes and his staff got plenty of time to see how the called up players fared in the NHL. After Schneider's injury, Yann Danis got called up to backup Keith Kinkaid. After a poor effort in relief, he was sent down and replaced with Scott Wedgewood. Wedgewood sparkled in net for the four appearances he made; allowing five goals, earning one shutout, and going 2-1-1. One could not have asked for much more. The other injuries led to Seth Helgeson coming back to New Jersey and Vojtech Mozik getting his first look in the NHL. Mozik ended up being the last one sent back after seven appearances; I think he helped his cause for next season. Up front, the team brought Mike Sislo back into the fold to join Joseph Blandisi and Reid Boucher, who never really left New Jersey. Blake Pietila got a late call up as well; his seven games saw him earn one goal, one assist, and a lot of hits. As with Mozik, I think these games endeared him to the coaches to a point where it would help him in next Fall's training camp.
The team would be healthier by season's end. Only Cammalleri, Merrill, Tootoo, and Jiri Tlusty were ruled out. That did not stop the additions. The day before their last game against Toronto, Shero brought in the youth. After Sarnia was knocked out of the playoffs, the Devils assigned Pavel Zacha to Albany and then called him up to New Jersey to play in the final game of the season. They also signed his teammate, defenseman Josh Jacobs, although he was assigned directly to Albany. Boston College was knocked out of the Frozen Four and Shero signed defenseman Steve Santini and forward Miles Wood to entry level contracts that began this season. This made them eligible to play in the team's season closer. It was just one game, but it's a first look at some players who could very well be a part of the team's immediate future.
Devil of the Month(s)
Since I'm combining the four games of April with the fifteen games of March, you can call this the Devils of the Months for March and April. It was another challenging one, to be certain. Who really excelled in an another up and down month? To be fair, there were a few standouts.
Scott Wedgewood performed in his four games as well as anyone could ask for from any goaltender in any four-game stretch. Again, he conceded only five goals out of 116 shots against in four games, and shutout Pittsburgh amid their crazy-hot run of games. If he played more than four games, then he'd be an easy choice. Instead, it's just a remarkable mention. Likewise, Devante Smith-Pelly certainly earned a lot of fans in New Jersey. The goals may not have all been pretty, but the eight goals and five assists over nineteen games were still enjoyable. He had a hot streak of ten games where accrued most of those points. Then he got cold. Still a notable run. Adam Henrique scored more goals than anyone else on the team in these last six weeks with eleven. He had some quiet nights, but when he could get something going, he lit it up. He was secretly hot given he scored eleven on thirty six shots. Very nice in retrospect.
Instead, I think the answer has to be Kyle Palmieri. He stood out the most in my opinion. After all, he's been the one player with more points than Smith-Pelly in March and April as Palmieri earned seven goals and ten assists. He's led the team with power play points (seven) and is tied only by Adam Henrique with power play goals (three). He's continued to do this while often facing the other team's best players along with Travis Zajac and a mix of left wingers (e.g. Joseph Blandisi, Reid Boucher). Not that the play often went well, but Palmieri has been able to still get his shot off - he's had 64 shots in these two months to lead the team - and push really hard to make something happen on offense on most nights. Sometimes to a fault, but better to squeeze the stick too hard than not to use it. Especially on a team short on offense. March was Palmieri's most productive month - yes, someone excelled after February's lack of positive standouts - and he's long since shattered his career highs in points. He even hit that thirty-goal mark with the final empty net goal of the season on April 9. Palmieri has proved he's been worth the second round pick given to Anaheim last summer. He's definitely part of the team's future and he's shown that in the present. Therefore, I name Kyle Palmieri the March (and April) 2016 All About the Jersey Devil of the Month.
Once again, the New Jersey Devils were not expected to make the playoffs and they did not. It's easy to point out that the record is better and the team hung around the playoff bubble longer than they have in previous seasons. It's just as easy to point out how that may have hurt the Devils a bit in getting the prospects they need to continue the rebuild in the draft. That and being closer to the postseason is now worth as much as missing it by, say, thirty points. Either way, the Devils didn't get in, few thought they would, and I think most are fine with that. It is a rebuild. The final two months confirmed that among their many less-than-good performances.
What 2015-16 means for the rebuild will depend a lot on what Shero does between now and the next training camp. In these two months, plenty of younger players have been received either a cup of coffee - Pietila, Mozik, the prospects signed to ELCs - or a full meal - Blandisi, Boucher - at the NHL level. The team has data for that. The team also has witnessed plenty of players perform who are up for new contracts. This was their final chance to make an impression for the Devils - and perhaps other NHL teams. Some have done quite well like Palmieri and Smith-Pelly. Others have not been so impressive, such as Tuomo Ruutu, Stephen Gionta, and Jon Merrill. There's that to consider.
All told, the team could have tanked and did not. They could have "gone for it" but did not. Shero, Hynes, and the rest felt that where they were was fine. Whether you are fine with that is up to you. Ahead of free agency and the draft, I will reserve most of my opinion except for this. I never really thought the rebuild would take a season to begin with. March and April provided further evidence that there needs to be an upheaval in how the Devils play in the NHL. Low event hockey has not been effective for the Devils in the last two seasons, talent issues aside. They need to improve in how they move and possess the puck. They need to account on defense that, beyond Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique, the forwards are only going to provide so much help. They need better depth players at both forward and defense. They need to make the gameplan hinge less on the goaltender being excellent for the night, even though Schneider is usually excellent. Without these improvements, I fail to see how the team is realistically going to return to making the playoffs regularly and be seen as a contending team. I can accept 2015-16 as it is if there's legitimate improvement in possession and 5-on-5 play in all three zones in the following seasons. That's my main takeaway from the last six weeks of the season.
The Devils finished a season where they overachieved and finished outside of the bottom ten spots in the league. They also met the expectation that their offense would struggle mightily and hold them back from success; and it did given the team's low possession numbers, shot totals, and the lowest goals per game average in the NHL. They went into the season with hopes of a young defense coming together. They ended it with more uncertainty beyond their first pairing. There was uncertainty for who will play where among the top six, and that continued throughout the season - especially after injuries and trades. The team welcomed new players from outside of the organization and from within; now they will see many more go off as the team is re-building what they are trying to do. What we saw in March and April was another step in the process. This one wasn't so easy as the 8-10-1 combined record ensured there would be no postseason in the short term and that in the long term, a season with plenty of average, decent looking records month-by-month would not cut it. By the same token, they were not as bad as people thought they would be. Can one overachieve and still meet some expectations? To a degree, yes. The Devils did so in March, April, and throughout the whole 2015-16 season.