Talent only carries you so far.
If there has been a recurring theme for the New Jersey Devils to start the 2023-24 season, its a troubling combination of slow starts, sloppy play, players being passengers instead of driving play, getting outworked, and mental lapses which have overshadowed one of the more talented rosters in the league.
Such errors might have been deemed “acceptable” in years past when the Devils were simply trying to build anything and see which young players might be part of the solution down the road. They would be chalked up to the “learning process” and become teaching moments to ultimately learn from. Theoretically, the message should be clear that there is a standard for how things are done here, and if that standard isn’t being met, we have a problem.
An NHL head coach benching a player isn’t anything new, and Lindy Ruff doing that with Timo Meier and John Marino during the third period of Monday’s loss to Florida is far from the first time he’s sent that message to this team during his three-plus seasons in New Jersey. But it also doesn’t take a mind reader to get into Lindy Ruff’s head and see how annoyed he is with the Devils start to the season. Just watch his postgame press conference from the other night.
Ruff might be a bit “prisoner of the moment” since he’s literally being asked about a game they lost that ended ten minutes ago, but its not just one bad shift, one blown coverage, or one bad penalty taken that led us to this point. Rather, its a culmination of what we’ve seen over the course of the first three Devils games of the season.
It’s the trend we’ve seen from these Devils not being ready from the jump, which has led to the Devils falling behind in every game and having to play catchup. It’s the little things like not being competitive enough to win battles, which is resulting in the puck winding up behind Vitek Vanecek or Akira Schmid and in the back of the net. It’s them not responding well to when the opposition forechecks. Add in some players who are trying to do a little too much right now, and its not too surprising that the Devils record is 1-1-1. You are what your record says you are, after all.
Perhaps most alarming is the fact that for three straight games now, the opposition has come into The Rock and outskated the Devils. These Devils are known for a lot of things, but their greatest calling card might be their skating ability. Instead, it has been the opposite, with Detroit, Arizona, and Florida not just skating around the Devils, but in some instances, skating through them.
Last week, I wrote in the season predictions that the biggest thing for me this season for the Devils would be how they handle and manage expectations. By now, you know the story when it comes to last year’s team. They reeled off three straight wins after the “Fire Lindy” chants, and then followed up their next loss with a 13-game winning streak which effectively cemented their status as a team that will be playoff bound and is to be reckoned with. Before you could blink, the Devils caught the league by surprise. The rest is history.
Key word there though is “history”. That was then. This is now. And while a lot of the faces on this year’s team are the same as last year, it is a new team.
The Devils aren’t catching anybody by surprise this season. The league knows how the Devils want to play, they know who their best players are, and they know the Devils are like any other team where they can be beat on any given night.
Lindy Ruff isn’t a dummy. He knows the Devils have plenty of talent, and there will be nights in this league where one can win on sheer talent alone. He knows the league knows what the Devils are about and that teams that thought the Devils were an easy two points in the past can’t overlook them anymore. But for the Devils to get where they want to go as a team, you need that systemic structure. You need to avoid taking dumb penalties. You need to start on time.
Talent only carries so you far.
You’re only going to get so far as a team when you continually spot the opposition goals, and heck, games. Its nice that the Devils have been able to show that resilience and that ability to come back in the past, but again, the past is the past. Allowing the opposition to jump out to multi-goal leads isn’t a recipe for success for winning games, and allowing the opposition to jump out to multiple wins isn’t a recipe for success for winning playoff series. Maybe that’ll work against a flawed team like the Rangers, but it won’t work against a well-structured team like Carolina. Lindy Ruff can preach until he’s blue in the face at morning skates and in pregame pep talks about how the team needs to get off to better starts, but the onus is ultimately on the players to execute.
All of this makes the timing for Ruff to send a message fascinating. Yes, the Devils got out to a slow start against Detroit, but they ultimately figured it out and won the game. They got out to another slow start against Arizona, but one could point out its their season opener and the Devils are on a back-to-back. You’re not gonna win every game, but its important to get points out of games with a C-level effort. The Devils did that the first two games.
Is a pair of C-level efforts through the first two games what you really want though? The standards should be higher than that. Much higher. If they’re not, how are the Devils supposed to get where they want to go? If you can barely get by Detroit with a C-effort, how are you going to beat Carolina? Or Toronto? Or Colorado? Or Vegas?
One could certainly nit-pick Ruff’s approach when it comes to sending messages to the team. Like any coach, he has his favorites who get a far longer leash than they otherwise deserve (Miles Wood). I don’t necessarily disagree that its time to sit Brendan Smith and see what Colin Miller has but swapping out the 6th defenseman on the roster for the 7th defenseman is only going to accomplish so much. Just like how swapping out a fourth liner for another fourth liner is only going to do so much. That doesn’t mean don’t do it, just temper expectations when swapping out one of the worst players on your roster for another flawed player.
For that reason, it does go noted that Ruff chose to single out the highest paid forward on the roster in Meier and arguably their best defensive defenseman in Marino. Outside of sitting Jack Hughes or Nico Hischier, choosing to single out Meier and Marino sends a clear message. At the end of the day, your best players need to be your best players. The Devils need more from Meier and Marino (and several other players, make no mistake), and they’re good enough players where I expect them to eventually get going and this will all be water under the bridge.
But the timing is still interesting, and it goes noted that this comes a few days before an early-season tilt against the Islanders. The Islanders might not be nearly as talented as the Devils, but they’re more than capable of frustrating the Devils with their forecheck, defensive structure, and ability to grind out games, and that’s before Ilya Sorokin decides on any given night that he’s just not going to be beat.
It’s still far too early in the season to get concerned about this team. If the Devils biggest issues are starting on time, skating, and a couple of good players being in a rut, they’re in a far better position than most teams. But with that said, its also important to send a message early in the season that its not good enough and talent only gets you so far. We’ll see if the Devils take that message to heart and respond with a better effort against the Islanders.