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That Old Sinking Feeling Returns as the Devils Circle the Drain

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[deep breath] [15-second-long weary and exasperated sigh]

New York Rangers v New Jersey Devils
A familiar sight these past couple weeks.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Two weeks ago reading this website, you would have appropriately gotten the impression that the Devils were a team on the come up. The Devils were riding a three-game win streak that spanned their COVID hiatus and everything seemed to be moving in the right direction for the team and organization. They were getting contributions from all over their lineup, Jack Hughes was looking like a bona fide star, MacKenzie Blackwood was playing at a level that could get him Vezina buzz, Ty Smith had quickly acclimated himself to the NHL, and Nico Hischier’s return was imminent. Things seemed as rosy as they did at any time since probably at least 2018. Now? Well...

UGGGGHHHHH [string of expletives not appropriate for this family-friendly blog]

How are we here again so soon? How did hope and excitement so rapidly devolve into frustration and anger (with full-blown apathy close on the horizon)? Well, a quick way to tank any season is to lose seven games in regulation in an eight-game stretch. The strong goaltending and relatively decent puck luck on offense to go with generally decent 5v5 numbers had papered over the disastrous special teams in the first 20% of this truncated season. As Blackwood went cold, team stopped hitting the net with their shots and the 5v5 play that had previously been buoying the team became just as damaging to their results as that hideous penalty kill and anemic power play. Whatever your opinion of the effort the Devils have been putting forth the past two weeks, there is no defending the results or really the process, for that matter.

In the past two weeks here is a cross-section of the Devils’ on-ice numbers (5v5 numbers score and venue-adjusted, via Natural Stat Trick):

  • 5v5 CF%: 51.43% (11th)
  • 5v5 SF%: 48.07% (19th)
  • 5v5 HDCF%: 43.40% (27th)
  • 5v5 xGF%: 47.38% (23rd)
  • 5v5 GF%: 27.15% (31st)
  • 5v4 xGF/60: 4.4 (27th)
  • 5v4 GF/60: 4.09 (28th)
  • 4v5 xGA/60: 6.18 (14th)
  • 4v5 GA/60: 16.54 (30th)
  • 5v5 SV%: .897 (26th)
  • 5v5 SH%: 4.16% (30th)
  • PP SH%: 11.11 (25th)
  • PK SV%: .667 (lol) (31st)

Soooo... it’s not going great.

What looked like an incisive 5v5 offense now looks ineffectual as more shots seem to hit opposing shinpads than opposing nets for long stretches. What seemed like a blossoming all-world goaltender behind a thin but serviceable defense now looks like a decidedly human goaltender behind a completely discombobulated defense. What looked like a dreadful penalty kill and awful power play now looks like... well, that part is the same, I guess. It has all come unglued quickly for the New Jersey Devils, and after an absolutely embarrassing 6-1 pantsing received from a bad Rangers team last night, they do not appear to have anything in the way of answers at the moment.

It’s not so much that 7-10-2 is a shocking record for the Devils to have at this point, given the preseason expectations. It’s that this team looked like they had the potential to be something more through an opening 11-game stretch that featured a huge number of landmines in the form of key injuries, contract and visa issues, and basically the whole roster getting COVID-19. In spite of all that, they actually played like a pretty strong 5v5 team. Two weeks ago, they looked like a team that could make some noise in a division full of decent but flawed teams if they could just fix their janky special teams. Now, we’re suddenly talking top-five pick once again and any nascent playoff hopes have basically been snuffed with 37 games still to play.

For anyone following the Devils over the last decade, this is not a new feeling by any stretch of the imagination. But [expletive] I am [expletive] sick of it. You knew coming in that this was a young team that would take their lumps at times as they grew, but when they banked 14 points in their opening 11 games, you figured they were in a position to at least keep things interesting for a while. Things instead got very not-interesting very quickly. The Devils are 11 points out of a playoff spot and need a borderline miracle to climb back into the mix.

So who is to blame for the unfolding disaster we see before us? The list of candidates is broad and it largely includes veterans and team staff. Popular scapegoat PK Subban carries some blame as his game continues to devolve, but the coaching staff that continues to lean on him like he is the PK from 3-5 years ago also shares some of that responsibility. The special teams coaches that have organized two of the worst units in the entire league certainly deserve a ton of heat. Veteran forwards like Kyle Palmieri and Nikita Gusev who have, aside from one productive four-game burst from Palmieri, been absolute non-factors are good targets for some criticism. The depth I touted just a couple weeks ago has rapidly gone silent as well, with the McLeod/Bastian/Kuokkanen/Sharagovich/Maltsev group compiling a grand total of 3 points combined over this 8-game tailspin. Even early-season hero Blackwood deserves some lumps as he’s now posted just one quality start in his past 6 appearances. Lindy Ruff’s increasingly desperate and head-scratching lineup decisions deserve some blame, too, with the recent benching of Ryan Murray and demotion of Jesper Bratt (arguably the team’s most effective defenseman and forward, respectively, by 5v5 expected goal impacts) being the most troubling examples. Like I said, there is no shortage of issues, and that’s before we get to the freak head injury that felled Nico Hischier just five games after his return.

How do the Devils get fixed at this point? Hell if I know, but what I do know is that I am dead tired of watching a dead-end team just playing out the string over the last 40 games of every season. I very much do not want to be learning prospect names and fiddling with draft lottery simulators with two-thirds of a season still remaining, but barring a rapid reversal of fortune for this team, that is where we stand. The Devils have become an exhausting team to emotionally invest in and it’s hard to blame the people who have already checked out on what appears to be another season in the wilderness. That doesn’t mean the Devils can’t make strides and continue to foster the development of its young core over the next few months, but any actual intrigue tied to the 2021 New Jersey Devils season has been essentially flushed by these past two weeks.

The Devils have 37 games left on the schedule and the overwhelming likelihood is that none of them carry much significance for the team’s final standings position. It’s a depressing fact but it is the reality of the situation all the same. Focus will eventually turn towards the offseason and hope will eventually spring anew, as it always does, but for now, all that exists is the familiar bitter taste of a lost season and the weary feeling of again slogging through months of pointless games just waiting for the offseason to arrive.

Hey, maybe next season will be different, though. Might as well chisel that incantation of the perennial bottom-feeder into the façade of the Prudential Center at this point.