To put it simply: the New Jersey Devils were bad again in Tampa Bay. They lost 2-5 to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The game consisted of an abysmal first period, a terrible second period, and meaningless third period. No, this was not as big of a loss as the 3-8 defeat the Devils took on October 30 at Amalie Arena. It was still quite a bad performance.
The goaltending was bad. I am generally sympathetic to goaltenders. However, Cory Schneider was once again a big problem in the crease. The first goal against was caused by a mistake by him behind the net. The fourth goal against was a close one by Cedric Paquette he should have stopped. In total, he was beaten four times out of seven first period shots. While he made more and better saves as time went on, that was when the game was pretty much out of doubt. So what if he did not give up as many goals as Kinkaid did on October 30? Schneider’s play hurt the team tonight. He arguably only had one real solid outing since making his season debut and even then he gave up a goal he should have stopped. John Hynes and the Devils have already made Keith Kinkaid the #1 goalie for this season. What do you do with Schneider? I have some thoughts later on in this very post. Still, Schneider was bad tonight.
The defense was bad. Tampa Bay is an offensive machine and the Devils did little to quiet it. The Lightning took 35 shots on net with 31 of them coming in 5-on-5 play. The Lightning out-did the Devils in high-danger scoring chances too (8-6 in 5-on-5, 9-8 in all situations), with multiple becoming goals. The pairing of Andy Greene (who looked real useless when Paquette scored past him and Schneider) and Damon Severson seemingly did OK by the run of play but they saw the majority of those high-danger chances against in 5-on-5. Egor Yakovlev stepped in for Mirco Mueller and while he was not terrible; he did not really make me think Mueller should have stayed out. Sami Vatanen was picked on plenty by the Lightning and even scored a goal against Schneider. Yes, Vatanen scored on Schneider. He attempted a clearance to his own endboards and fired a hard, low wrister past Schneider. That was the only goal allowed in the second period. It’s credited to Brayden Point but I know full well it came from Vatanen. I almost want to see him scratched for a game just on the general principle of that. Ben Lovejoy and Will Butcher could be seen as the best pairing but that’s akin to stating that a Ford Pinto has really nice upholstery. Be that as it may, it doesn’t make up for the major issue. The defense was bad tonight.
The offense was also bad. While the Devils’ attack was strong for the first few minutes, it provided little answer for the Lightning. In the first period, the Devils answered exactly one goal. Stefan Noesen put back a loose puck shortly after Brett Seney took a puck away from the boards. A nice little play for Noesen. That was the lone goal until Jesper Bratt broke ahead on a partial 2-on-1 and beat Louis Domingue straight up with a shot to make it 2-5 in the third period. That was a good shot for Bratt, who has not scored a goal so far this season. That was it. Sure, there were plenty of shots; but not many were high-danger chances. Execution to try to spring players through the neutral zone was spotty. Some forwards in particular, like Kyle Palmieri and Nico Hischier, had struggled throughout the night. Hynes was shifting his lines around after the first period and I could not blame him. The four he started with did not get the job done and they certainly did not provide a ton of support off the puck. On top of all that, the Devils were bodied in the second period in 5-on-5 play. I understand they were down by four, which is not common and usually does not yield much of a score effect like being down one or two. Still, the Devils entered the second period down 1-4 and were out-attempted 9-26 and out-shot 8-16. Yes, the offense looked better in the third period - it was all garbage time by that point. So while they had volume and some had plenty of shots (e.g. Taylor Hall had five, Bratt had four), I was unimpressed with the offense. This includes two power plays where the Devils had some possession and shots (four out of two advantages) but did not threaten a lot with their looks. The offense was bad tonight.
The preparation for this game and the gameplan was also bad. As much as I liked seeing the Devils come out with energy and looking to take it to the Lightning, their lack of response to the goals against was sadly familiar. The first period was horrible. I get it. So gear up and try to salvage something in the second period. Getting rocked is not the right response. Further, it seemed like certain Bolts could have and did do whatever they wanted tonight. Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, and Brayden Point are all great players. But the Devils failed to slow them down. Did Hynes even have a plan about them? I know it is tough to prepare in the NHL, but the Devils had a day plus to prepare for this back-to-back. It’s one thing to get out-played but to be down so much so fast is more than just one bad goalie and one bad defensive shift. I fear there was more to it.
I guess I could write that the penalty kill was not that bad. Except when it was when Point was in the middle of the Devils’ formation and Kucherov set him up for a wide-open one-timer just next to the slot. So even the PK was no immune to badness.
No, tonight was not the worst loss the Devils have had this season or even the worst loss in Tampa Bay this season. However, the Devils are in a position in the standings and to themselves where they really need to get results to stay in any kind of playoff picture. Or even to be seen as contenders. The 2018-19 team does not seem to consistently play well enough to be seen as a threat. Maybe they go into Sunrise tomorrow and boss the Panthers off the ice. Maybe they have an awesome back-to-back set against the Caps and Jets at the end of this week to possibly signal a turnaround of sorts. Or maybe they just flop like fish out of water in all three games and we’re all wondering if we went back in time to 2016. That and anything else is all possible at this point. This I do know: the Devils were bad again in Tampa.
The Opposition Opinion: Raw Charge is probably happy about the decisive win. Go check them out for their take.
The Game Highlights: From NHL.com, these are highlights that are mostly for Tampa Bay:
So What Do You Do with Schneider?: Calls to waive or buy him out after the Devils went down 0-1 or 0-2 were silly. But at 1-4 in the first, I can’t immediately dismiss the idea. I do want to dismiss his cap hit being an issue. Yes, it’s $6 million. The Devils also have the second most cap space in the NHL right now. Unless the owners have set a super-tight budget (and there’s no indication of that), Schneider’s contract is not preventing the Devils from signing anyone. Keep this in mind if/when the big contract extensions come out next July. Further, whether he makes $6 million or $650,000, a 5-on-5 save percentage of 88% is not good enough for the NHL.
The Devils could try to demote Schneider to Binghamton. The contract may be large enough to clear waivers. The issue is who comes back up? Eddie Lack has not been good in Binghamton and while Mackenzie Blackwood has been better, past seasons give me pause as to whether he’s an answer to this problem. Besides, Blackwood did not beat out Lack in camp to be the backup to Kinkaid and Hynes never went to Lack when he was Kinkaid’s backup. My concern is that by sending Schneider down, Kinkaid is going to get every minute until Schneider returns. With four back-to-back sets remaining in 2018 and plenty of tough opponents plus a California road trip, this is not an ideal time to lean on any one goaltender, never mind that it would be Kinkaid.
By the way, Kinkaid has been better than Schneider this season; but he is also around the middle of goalies in the NHL this season. Out of 62 goalies who have made 5 appearances, Kinkaid’s 91.6% even strength save percentage places him 32nd at NHL.com. Over at Natural Stat Trick for goalies with at least 200 5-on-5 minutes played, his 92.4% 5-on-5 save percentage and 1.74 GSAA places him above the league median at 29th and 26th, respectively. Again, this is far better than Schneider. But with how the Devils have been performing, Devils need Kinkaid to be far better than just around a league median goalie. Giving him game after game until Schneider “figures it out” in Binghamton may cause him to be worse - which is bad for the team too. And, what, exactly would Schneider do to “get better” in Binghamton that he could not do in New Jersey, a team that has its own consistency issues among its skaters and overall performances? It’s not like the Devils were world-beaters before Schneider returned from injury.
I’m not sure a team can buy someone out in the middle of the season. After this season, it is an option; but then Shero would have to find or acquire another goalie to replace him. And maybe two if Kinkaid hits the market.
I’m not totally against either option, but I want to point out that they provide their own issues and concerns as well. My current thought is that the Devils are going to have to just lump it somehow and hope goaltender coach Roland Melanson and Schneider figure out what’s happening. Video sessions, extra drills, whatever it takes. Although, the skaters can help out too. As pointed out by Tyler Kelley on Twitter, the on-ice locations of unblocked attempts against the Devils for Schneider and Kinkaid are very different at HockeyViz.
So this is interesting from @HockeyViz. It's undeniable that the Devils are worst in front of Schneider than they are Kinkaid so far this year.— Tyler Kelley (@DocKelley41) November 26, 2018
Factor in Schneider's lower HDSV% and you have a recipe for disaster with the shot quality the Devils are allowing in front of him. pic.twitter.com/vXNVPpBtXM
Yes, Schneider’s data is from a smaller group. But the point remains: the performances in front of the man have not been nearly as good as they have been in front of Kinkaid. If Schneider is going to continue to get games as a #2 goalie, then this will have to improve too to make it viable.
I Wrote All That Because The Game Stunk and I’ve Already Went Over It and There’s Not a Whole Lot Else More to Add: So I will provide what I think the Devils should try and do for tomorrow night.
First: Kinkaid will undoubtedly start the game, so I’m not so worried about the goaltending.
Second: I’d start with Hall, Hischier, and Palmieri but if Palmieri and/or Hischier struggle again, I would not wait until the second period to make a switch. I would put some thought behind it; Hischier with Noesen and Miles Wood helps nobody. If Hynes wants to switch lines for the beginning of the game, then I can see it. But I’d run out Hall-Hischier-Palmieri and Johansson-Zacha-Bratt first.
Third: Mueller should come back into the lineup. While I do not think Yakovlev was particularly bad, I do not think he was good enough to keep Mueller out for another night. Mueller will be fresh, at least, for the next one.
Fourth: Speaking of defense and in conjunction with a long post tomorrow about the defensemen’s performance, I’d suggest switching back to Greene-Vatanen and Mueller-Severson just to provide a change of pace. While they have not been abysmal, the pairings could use a switch. Especially as Greene and Severson were rocked tonight and Vatanen has been far too loose in his own end.
Fifth: For the power play, I’d switch Butcher and Severson. Will Butcher has not been the great distributor and his shots certainly have not been that effective from the top of the 1-3-1. Severson was on the second unit tonight as a winger. Since Vatanen wants to fire the puck (hopefully towards the other team’s net), he can be that winger pretending to be Palmieri from the right circle. His slapshot can work just as well there.
Sixth: Keep Miles Wood on a short leash. If we’re talking disappointing skaters on the Devils this season, then he’s near the top of the list for me. It’s worth a post of its own but I’ll wait a week or two and see if he “turns it around” or at least “contributes something more than just rushing at a puck or the net.”
One more thought: Steve Santini will practice with New Jersey tomorrow. His conditioning assignment is over. I do not know if he is ready to play. I do not know off the top of my head whether the Devils would need to make a roster move to take him off injured reserve, either. As much as part of me wants Vatanen to sit (namely for that own goal), I think Santini should be around to remind the right-sided defensemen that there could be competition.
Your Take: The Devils were blown away again by Tampa Bay with a four-goal-against first period and mostly garbage time since then. Plus, an own goal by Vatanen to add some insult with the loss. I’m disgusted with this loss. What’s your take on it? Will the Devils play better against Florida tomorrow? I certainly hope so. Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the loss in the comments.
Thanks to Devin for the game preview and Mike for running @AAtJerseyBlog during the game. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread. Thank you for reading.