Once again, the crowd at the Prudential Center, the thousands watching from around the world, and many Devils fans all across the universe were given evidence by the New Jersey Devils that they are, in fact, a Bad Team. They hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs. Coming off a stunning comeback win last Friday at home against Vegas and taking Nashville to a shootout in Tennessee, there was reason to think that the Devils may not be doormats tonight. Nope. The Maple Leafs skated all over the Devils from start to finish. The Devils lost by five goals; a 2-7 defeat that was odious as their last game against Toronto.
Sure, in the course of an 82-game season, there will be some awful nights. The problem is that the Devils have had more than just “some awful nights” and this was just game #32 of the season. I am certainly not one of those fans that react to a bad loss in progress or afterwards lamenting how this means (Player X) will not stay with the team a year (or more) from now and how the re-build was set back yet again and how this means the Devils are now at risk of leaving New Jersey to (Location Y) and how this loss means the Earth will be smote into oblivion as a punishment for how bad the Devils played the game of hockey this evening. I try to keep it real. To that end, the Devils are a Bad Team. They are not mediocre. They are not on the cusp of being mediocre. Yes, there is evidence that suggests pretty strongly that they are better than their record. Yet, they are sitting deep in their end of the division and the Eastern Conference after being bodied by a superior team yet again this season. There is a term for a team like that: Bad. The 2018-19 Devils are Bad and this game was the latest example of their Badness.
It is true that Toronto is a superior team. But the Devils were barely competitive. Sure, the 5-on-5 numbers seem close. Shots were even in 5-on-5 (29-29) and almost even over all situations (29-31). But this was in a game where Toronto led by at least two goals for the majority of the game. It is not even a small victory for the Devils to have a similar number of shooting attempts and shots on net with Toronto tonight. If anything, it further points to Toronto’s dominance as the Devils could not even tilt the ice long enough before Toronto would counter-attack or have a shift to pin the Devils back where they started. Yes, Toronto’s stars like John Tavares, Auston Matthews, and Mitch Marner did damage. So did non-stars like Zach Hyman and Tyler Ennis. The Maple Leafs as a whole had a better game plan, better execution in all three zones, and simply controlled the game. When Sami Vatanen scored late in the first period to make it 1-3, there was a ray of hope. Then the Devils conceded goal #4 early in the second period and the Devils just struggled to respond to any of it - and so they didn’t.
Even the start of this game was lacking. The Devils drew a power play, specifically Kyle Palmieri drawing a shoulder-grab from Hyman, and did nothing with it. The minutes before, the Devils did nothing. After the first goal against, Will Butcher registered New Jersey’s first shot of the game. A little later, another goal was scored by Toronto. Minutes after that, Travis Zajac registered a shot on goal. The Leafs scored a third goal about a minute after that. Within the final four minutes of the period, the Devils took six shots on net including Vatanen’s goal. While the total shot count looked not-so-bad at 11-8 in favor of the Leafs, the problem was that the Devils didn’t get much of anything going until after they were down three goals! Seeing that Nico Hischier provided one (1) consolation goal way later in regulation (yes, he shot the puck that time), the game was effectively lost in the first period. It was garbage time for the better part of 45 minutes tonight and the Devils still lost that with two goals scored against four allowed. Even the garbage time portions of the game were nowhere near good enough to be competitive.
Just like the offense was nowhere near good enough to make Frederik Andersen worry too much even after Vatanen gave them a goal to work with and after the game was out of doubt.
Just like the defense was nowhere near good enough to avoid being wrecked by Toronto. Even with a big lead, Toronto carried plenty of the play against the Devils and kept tallying goals.
Just like the neutral zone play was nowhere good enough to be anything but a suggested area to slow down the Maple Leafs. Or possibly create better zone entries and breakouts.
Just like the power play was nowhere good enough to resemble a power play.
Just like the coaches were nowhere good enough to hang with the likes of Mike Babcock and his staff.
Just like the goaltending was yet again not good enough to make up for so many other things not being good enough. It was not like Keith Kinkaid dropped a puck in his own net and I would only say two (maybe three) goals were really poor. And he didn’t ask for Lovejoy to clatter into him either. But a 76.2% save percentage for the game helps nobody. Neither did giving up that unscreened high shot to Morgan Reilly at the end of the second period, which made it 1-5 and likely gave John Hynes the thought to throw in the rookie. Blackwood had no pressure and so I do not include him in this missive.
Just like the execution on and off the puck was not good enough. Even when the Devils would force a turnover or Toronto made a mistake, the Devils repeatedly failed to capitalize. And Toronto was more than game to take any of their attempts to “get it in deep” and then make a play on defense to give Toronto a rush with two or three Devils already behind the play.
The only aspects of the game that I did not think were Bad were Mackenzie Blackwood and the penalty kill. Even those come with explanations.
Blackwood was in a total no-pressure situation. I would not fault him on either of the two goals he gave up to Ennis. One was out of a goalmouth scramble where I do not know why only Brett Seney tried to come and help when the defensemen moved away from the crease. The other was a quick rebound where Ennis was just in the right place at the right time. I thought Blackwood did well given his first shot against in the NHL was a one-on-one with Hyman where he made a toe-save. He even stopped Matthews one-on-one, which is a hard thing to do given who he is. But whether he was good, bad, and/or ugly did not matter given the situation so I would not make any conclusions on whether he should get any starts, minutes, and so forth.
The penalty kill did not concede a goal and officially just one shot on net. However, Hischier’s decision to force a pass in a 2-on-1 shorthanded rush at the end of Blake Coleman’s minor penalty was denied. Mirco Mueller bizarrely jumped up on the play and took himself out of it by trying to jump at a puck too high for him. The Leafs responded with a 3-on-1 rush just as the PK ended where Tavares scored the first of the game. It was a really well-designed play, too. Nico needed to shoot the puck. Mueller should have been nowhere near the attack. The goal does not get counted against the penalty kill, but it technically contributed the goal happening.
With all due respect to the PK and Blackwood, they were clearly not enough to overcome all of what was not good enough. I do not fault them because it would be asking way too much of them to expect or want that.
At this point, with the Devils where they are standings, any theoretical hope of a playoff run is just that: a theory. Yes, it is possible. But nothing from this performance or so many performances since the end of October suggests they can do it. They can win one or two here and there but that is not going to get them anywhere forward. This is a league where lots of teams get points every night. Being behind a playoff spot by less than 10 points is not so much the issue as it is being behind 7 teams, who are all winning points or getting post-regulation points in addition to being behind a playoff spot. The Devils have to out-perform their opponents in the standings. To do that, they need to at least hang with teams better than them. They did it against Vegas (the hard way, but they did it) and Nashville. Tonight, they utterly failed to do so with Toronto. Who does that? Bad Teams.
Am I happy about it? Absolutely not! I want the Devils to be good! Or average! I’ll take even take just below average at this point! But, like it was in 2016-17, this is not even close to what mediocrity looks like. While I understand this was a bad game where Nico Hischier had issues and failed to shoot in a crucial moment, Damon Severson had issues on and off the puck, Taylor Hall had issues on and off the puck, the second line was invisible, Ben Lovejoy’s biggest impact was skating into Kinkaid, Andy Greene’s leadership meant about as much as his shooting accuracy, and quite honestly maybe I should list the Devils who were actually good and not owned on shifts by the Leafs tonight instead. No, I already noted Blackwood.
The Devils were torched again by the Maple Leafs. Worse, this is not the last time these two will meet. Toronto comes back to the Rock on January 10. I’m already wincing with anticipation.
The Opposition Opinion: KatyaKnappe at Pension Plan Puppets noted how Toronto smashed the Devils like they were a machine tonight. I think that’s right, unfortunately.
The Highlight Video: From NHL.com, here it is. I know you do not want to watch it. I saw it live and I do not want to see it again. But if you want to get an understanding how torn up the defense was at points, then this video shows the major mishaps. Toronto punished the Devils plenty tonight for losing the puck on offense and failing to get a zone exit or make a play on defense.
What I Want But I Will Not Likely Get: I went over 1,600 words about how bad the Devils are and this game was before getting to the links of stats and such. So I will keep the back end more or less brief. I’m very disappointed with what I saw tonight. However, I do not want a bag skate or a really tough practice or a lot of shouting by Hynes in the post-game press conference or the staff to resign as a unit purely out of embarrassment. What I would like is that the Devils sit down for 3-4 hours tomorrow and watch this game in full. A lot went awry that did not necessarily lead to a goal because Kinkaid/Blackwood made a save, Toronto did not realize what they had, or something went right at a crucial moment on defense. There were a lot of offensive rushes that were not played right that could have given the Devils more of a semblance of a shot in the game. There were plenty of shifts with defensive breakdowns and/or the forward line looking like a set of pylons (e.g. the Zajac line prior to Matthews’ goal). There is a lot to discuss and I’d like to think the coaches and players reviewing and evaluating the whole game could lead to a better understanding of what they need to do to grow from this loss. I understand the temptation to burn the tape of a game like this one and just move on; but it is hard to learn from a pile of ashes.
But I will not likely get this for many reasons since I do not know how a coach should handle a team or what they do or what the off-ice schedule looks like on a day before a game in Ohio. Still, I wanted to say my piece.
About a Failed Challenge: So Matthews’ goal tonight was a dubious one. He shoved Severson into Kinkaid as the Leafs were rolling through the 44-19-20-6-28 unit. Kinkaid had the puck, but it seemingly went loose because Severson was knocked into him. Matthews put the puck into the net to score. Hynes challenged the goal for goaltender interference. However, the replay showed that, while trying to get the puck anywhere from where he found it, Severson pushed the puck towards Matthews. Plus, Greene tried to play it with his stick. According to Rule 69.7 of the NHL Rulebook, which the NHL cited in its explanation of the ruling for the challenge, this means the goal stood.
I do not agree. I think Severson being shoved into Kinkaid caused the puck to be loose. It was not incidental as the puck was not under Kinkaid and available when it happened. The play should have been blown dead for regular goaltender interference right then and there. Alas, Matthews got his dubious one and the Leafs scored more than enough legit goals to make up for it.
About the Leafs: They’re not just a team with a bunch of fairly young players leading the way. They are well-coached. Just about everyone on the roster contributed to the win tonight. Among them, I was impressed by Tavares, Matthews, Hyman, Kasperi Kapanen, Ennis, and Travis Dermott. This isn’t to say that Mitch Marner was a scrub or Morgan Reilly wasn’t bad. These players just stood out to me from what I observed. They are also not all young, high draft choices either. That is a big reason why they are being talked up as contenders; it’s not just Matthews, Marner, William Nylander (who probably impressed the least), and a bunch of dudes. This is a team. This is probably what the Devils should strive to be some day.
Another Sign of the Difference in this One: Check out the Heatmap for 5-on-5 play at Natural Stat Trick. The Devils’ hottest area was above the right circle. The Leafs’ was above the left circle and in front of the net. Five of the Leafs’ goals were scored in those areas. None of the Devils’ two goals were near their hot spots.
The Lofts: The Devils finally opened up the Area Formerly Known as the Goal Bar. Instead of charging a premium price for a raucous, energetic area, there are nice looking loge boxes that aren’t in Devils colors and weren’t well attended. Good job?
One Last Thought: Cory Schneider has been really bad this season, but this was another game where it was clear he was not The Problem. The truth is that the 2018-19 Devils have a lot of problems and while Schneider was one of them, taking him out of the picture was - you guessed it - not good enough.
Your Take: The Devils were abysmal in a 2-7 loss to the Leafs; their second loss by five-goals to Toronto in this season. What’s your take on this? Where do you go from here if you’re John Hynes or one of Hynes’ assistants or a Devil in the locker room or Ray Shero watching all of this? What do you do to prepare for Columbus and Ottawa in light of this big loss? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this big loss in the comments.
Thanks to Devin for the game preview. Thanks to Mike for running the @AAtJerseyBlog account during the game. Thanks to everyone who commented during the game. Thank you for reading.