Last week, I tried to put a positive spin on our New Jersey Devils by speaking about the experience of a live game. I still think there’s nothing like live hockey, and I still love my favorite team. All of that said, after another pair of games where the team has let down its fans, I can’t be as positive. While the Arizona Coyotes are playing well so far this season, there’s no excuse for letting leads of 2-1 and 3-2 slip away at home. The Tampa Bay Lightning could be one of the most talented teams in the league (even if they don’t seem like it by record right now), and yet the Devils held Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov scoreless; somehow that makes last night’s 7-6 overtime defeat even more bitter.
The Devils right now continue to find new ways to lose games, and it’s a shame too because on paper, this roster looked to be one of the most talented Devils squads in nearly a decade. Jersey’s Team is wasting great hockey from Pavel Zacha, who has looked extremely strong in recent game; they’re also wasting an insanely good defensive season from Travis Zajac and Blake Coleman, who are rolling out every night and shutting down opposing top lines. Even with opposing top lines contributing little, the Devils are still losing, so how are they doing this poorly? Well, it’s for a variety of reasons, some of which need to change sooner, rather than later.
1.) Questionable Coaching
Questionable may not even be the correct word...maddening might better fit the bill. As John spoke about after last night’s game, there’s been a number of questionable coaching decisions. Even with MacKenzie Blackwood having a poor outing against Arizona, taking Cory Schneider out of the game would have been justifiable; why not switch goalies? On top of that, why are our goaltending and defense coaches continuing to get a pass? Many of the problems that plague the defense could at least potentially dissipate with a new coach; the same goes for goaltending, as Cory under Chris Terreri could at least stop a beach ball, which is basically the speed that Lightning goal six moved at last night.
Another issue I have that hasn’t really been brought up yet is the extra attacker; the Devils tend to send Wayne Simmonds out in this role. All I can ask if why are we sending out a player who hasn’t scored a goal since March 19th? I understand having a larger body in front of the net, and that “dirty goals” are sort of Wayne’s bread and butter, but could we at least try someone else? Even if the top line is out, send out Zacha or Zajac; they’re both larger players in terms of height and even ol’ Stone Hands Travis has a goal this season whereas Simmonds does not. Plus even when Simmonds was down low last night, it was Kyle Palmieri who cashed in; the only reason Simmonds got a point was because Will Butcher hit him with the puck.
I get exactly what the Devils signed Simmonds for, but he’s not helping the power play, he’s not helping in extra man situations, and I don’t really think he’s doing the heavy defensive lifting with Zajac/Coleman either. Yet he has played every game so far while forwards doing far more are getting far less. I’m not even mad at Simmonds, nor do I mean to be picking on him, as he’s visibly putting the effort in every game, even if the results aren’t there; the problem is the coaching staff not being willing to adapt...hmmm that phrase seems familiar.
The Devils came into this season banking on Schneider recovering and returning to form along with growth from MacKenzie Blackwood; so far, neither of those things have come true. I will give Mac some more credit, as he at least has had a pair of excellent outings and is still only 22. Schneider has had a pair of okay outings (including one where he got hurt) but his movement and overall play have looked rough.
While Mac has had some bad outings, there are a number of goals against him where you can blame other factors on this team. Additionally, all he has known in terms of goalie coaching at the NHL level is Roland Melanson, who shouldn’t be receiving any shining endorsements anytime soon. There’s problems in front of both ‘tenders for sure, but what is Melanson doing to help develop Blackwood? What is he doing to aid the struggling Schneider? Whatever it is, if anything, is not working; while the goalies certainly need to step up and be better, it’s a good question as to how much of this falls back onto John Hynes’ staff.
3.) Defense of a Lack of It
Again, maybe I could summarize this by saying “the defense needs to be better, but they also need a real coach” but let’s discuss a little here anyway. First off, shout out to Sami Vatanen; maybe it’s because he’s in a contract year, but he’s been excellent this season. Will Butcher hasn’t been bad, and the Damon Severson/P.K. Subban pairing has been alright, with some really good moments and some absolutely awful ones.
The play on the ice needs to improve, but so do the formations and the concepts being taught; the team is allowing far too many odd-man rushes and breakaways and those are usually coaching/system issues rather than personnel. I’m not sure how many times we need to keep beating this dead horse of a narrative; maybe when something on the coaching staff changes, because for a decently talented group, we’re not seeing positive results.
4.) Mental Toughness
The main issue I have with this squad is their mental toughness, or lack thereof; the team continuously has surrendered numerous leads, some of multiple goals. They allow momentum to swing too easily to the opposing team, and struggle to effectively close out games. Even in victory over Vancouver, it seemed like only a matter of time until the Canucks found an equalizer. Last night’s interview comments about fans booing (again, covered by John in his recap) come off as comments from a player who is mentally worn out, or doesn’t have the toughness that this team needs.
It’s difficult to remain mentally tough when competitive players who want to win just keep losing. Some guys (Palmieri, Simmonds, Zajac, Coleman to name a few) continue to fight when the going gets tough; I’m not sure everyone is buying into that. Actions speak louder than words, and right now seeing players not responding and still playing poorly after surrendering this many leads shows a lack of mental toughness. Coaching can be blamed here too; after all, how many times can players do what is asked of them while getting the same negative results?
With only two wins through the first 10 games, and the second worst record in the league, the Devils have certainly perfected the art of how to lose hockey games. What do you think is the main cause? Is it the coaching? The defense and/or goaltending? Or is everyone on this team just mentally not strong enough to get them out of this early season hole? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!