Saturday, January 8, 2011

Devils midseason review: A nightmare scenario

For those of you who don't know, DEFCON 1 is a national defense condition that indicates World War III is imminent, as depicted in the '80s movie WarGames. How does that apply to the Devils season? Well when you have just ten wins and 22 points in 41 games, good for last place in the NHL (a full ten points behind the 29th place Islanders) with a team that was supposed to be a Stanley Cup contender after the post-July 1 signings of Ilya Kovalchuk, Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder, that pretty much qualifies as a situation which needs the most drastic measures available to fix.

When I talk about fixing the Devils it certainly isn't something that's going to happen overnight or be evident in this year's results. Obviously, the Devils are going to miss the playoffs for only the second time in the last two decades and are somehow managing to cement even finishing in dead last below the AHL-quality Islanders - despite the Isles shedding players left and right (goaltender Dwayne Roloson and defenseman James Wisniewski in trades, as well as fellow goalie Rick DiPietro with another predictable injury).

Clearly the first step toward fixing the problem is to figure out how things got so bad so fast. I mean just last April the Devils were winning their ninth division title in the last thirteen seasons. To have such a pronounced dropoff from that to now being in the middle of what could be a franchise-worst season recordwise, and one of the worst offensive outputs in league history is still inconceivable to me. Especially with expectations going through the roof after retaining Kovalchuk and adding defensemen Volchenkov and Tallinder.

Such unfulfilled expectations and dissapointment has led to a two weeks unlike any other in franchise history. To wit: Coach Johnny MacLean was axed two days before Christmas, captain Jamie Langenbrunner was traded two days ago and future Hall-of-Famer and multiple Vezina winner Martin Brodeur was demoted to second-string goaltender last week. All in two weeks! I can't exactly accuse GM Lou Lamoriello of sitting on his hands anymore, although it appeared as if he was for the longest time - since his lone move before December 23 was the futile gesture of putting Brian Rolston through waivers, then re-entry waivers - only for the $5 million man to go unclaimed.

About the only thing I'm sure of is there's no one single reason you could point to for this kind of a meltdown in record time. Are there talent deficiencies? Sure...after all, not having a puck-moving defenseman is a big reason the offense has been stuck in neutral for most of the season. Coming into the year the only defenders you could describe as adequate puck-movers were Andy Greene (who is looking more and more like a three-month wonder), and Matt Taormina - who had never played an NHL game till this season. While Taormina was one of the few pleasant surprises for the team early, he's all but dissapeared after a high ankle sprain and multiple setbacks have left him in limbo, with a return date unknown.

Even with Taormina, this D's a far cry from the Scott Niedermayer-Brian Rafalski-Paul Martin days of having guys who could skate and move the puck. Not to mention the defensive talent is lacking as well, what with playing green kids such as Mark Fayne, Matt Corrente, Alex Urbom and Anssi Salmela for long stretches and frequently having two or three of them in the lineup at once. Hold-the-fort vet Mike Mottau leaving due to cap concerns and Bryce Salvador getting a career-threatening concussion on the eve of the season downgraded the defense from passable to troublesome, even with the additions of Volchenkov and Tallinder - though the latter's been an utter disaster so far (four points in forty-one games with a -26) as the 'replacement' for Martin.

If our defensive woes were somewhat predictable, our offensive issues have been downright mind-boggling. Yes, Zach Parise got hurt before the season and after playing through it for about a month has basically been shut down for the duration after surgery (he won't even skate till the beginning of March). Clearly missing our best player doesn't help. Still, the offense should at least have been respectable with fellow ZZPops members Travis Zajac and former captain Langenbrunner, $100 million man Kovalchuk, all-time franchise leading scorer Patrik Elias and other complementary pieces like one-time A-line member Jason Arnott also returning via trade. Heck, even Rolston was a 30-goal scorer multiple times although he's never come close to showing that kind of form here.

Not only has the offense been dissapointing, they've been historically bad with just 70 goals in 41 games (the standings say 72 but two of those 'goals' are due to shootout wins). Our leading point-getter - Elias - has just 27 in half a season. Despite being the only player to get to double-digits in goals Kovalchuk's season has been a disaster with just ten in forty games despite getting the second-most icetime in the league behind Sidney Crosby, and has a ghastly -30 to go along with his unfathomly bad shooting this season. Talented centerman Travis Zajac had 66 points last season and just 21 so far this year. No Devil has twenty assists halfway through the season.

Sure, you can say the lack of puck-moving defensemen is a factor in the offense's woes and age is also no doubt a factor in the performance of players like Elias, Arnott, Langenbrunner and Rolston (with desire also lacking in at least the latter two). How to explain the struggles of guys like Kovy and Zajac though? Not to mention David Clarkson, who looked like a 20-goal scorer in the making in '08-09 but has become more finesse and less gritty despite a dramatic downturn in his goals from the 17 of two years ago. I guess like a bad virus, when so many people are playing way below par, it eventually eats away at your team until everyone gets sucked down into the same bottomless pit.

That might also apply to Brodeur, who was a Vezina finalist this year and has AHL-quality numbers this year. Some, but not all of his decline can be traced to the defense in front of him. After all, Marty propped up an average defense just last year to win a division title with a 2.24 GAA and .916 save percentage in 76 starts. This year, Brodeur has an unghastly 3.15 GAA and .882 save percentage. Maybe in his case age really is catching up, after all he missed a month with what was described as an elbow bruise. For someone that has been extremely durable in his career perhaps that was the biggest sign that we can't count on Brodeur to be a high-quality performer from here on in.

In what seemed like a mutual decision, Brodeur even acquiesed to going to the bench last week in favor of Johan Hedberg. Predictably the results were no better as Hedberg's lost all three of his starts and was pulled this afternoon against the Flyers in the first period after giving up odd deflection goals in back-to-back games. At least it was a good sign that Brodeur came in and shut out the Flyers the rest of the way, so maybe extended practice time has enabled him to find some of his old form. Tomorrow's game against the high-powered Lightning should tell a lot about what to expect from the legend going forward.

Having an inexperienced coach like MacLean didn't help either, he sure didn't have the answers once things started getting rocky (which was basically the latter part of Opening Night when we blew a two-goal lead against Dallas). Nor did he seem inclined to do anything to put his foot down, other than his well-publicized scratching of Kovy for missing team meetings in October. While it's almost unprecedented to fire a coach thirty-three games into his tenure - Barry Melrose is the only quicker one I can think of in the NHL and he was a known quantity - things had gotten so bad that despite the hopeless predicament the team found itself in by early December, Mac just had to go. When you lose three games in a row by 7-1, 5-1, 5-1, that's a pretty good indicator that the team isn't trying.

Even with all that, you have to say in hindsight a bad feeling existed in the room from the outset both because of the Kovy fiasco this summer and the resulting cap elephant in the room, which was never solved by Lou until it got 'solved' for him with early-season hernia surgery for Rolston and the more serious injuries to Parise and Salvador. I was never in favor of leaving our homework till the last minute, so to speak but maybe we would have done something earlier if the Kovy contract had been resolved in July. Still, you have to blame Lou for giving everyone an out to stink by the resulting distraction of trade rumors and speculation swirling nonstop.

For a team which had such a bad finish to last season, I was dissapointed more people weren't moved out of the locker room regardless although one of the byproducts of the recent Langenbrunner trade was the revelation that in fact, Lou did attempt to trade Jamie in the offseason but the captain used his NTC to nix the deal. While on the one hand that makes me feel better that Lou did recognize Langs needed to be moved, on the other when you have a captain of the team knowing the GM wants to trade him before the season and it never happens that's a definite black cloud in the room. Especially considering Jamie's insubordination towards coach Jacques Lemaire created a black cloud over the locker room last year.

Not that I resolve Lou or Lemaire from any blame, on the contrary. Bringing Lemaire back to coach much the same team that tuned him out last year was unconscionable. And Lemaire's own treatment of some players (specifically Jay Pandolfo and Nicklas Bergfors) last year was ridiculous, while he too often let Kovy have free rein to do what he wanted. Maybe the Kovy fiasco this offseason wasn't Lou's fault, if that's the case owner Jeff Vanderbeek definitely deserves his share of the blame as well.

Now for the $64,000 question, how do we get out of this hole we've dug for ourselves? Well if you mean getting out of the hole to get to the playoffs that isn't happening. Based on current projections, we would literally have to go 37-4 just to have a chance at a playoff berth. About the only team who could put that kind of a stretch together was the '76-77 Canadiens. What the rest of the season should be about is putting the team in the best possible position to win next year and beyond. Here's my checklist of 'to-do' things to ensure that happens (in no particular order of importance after #1):

1. Re-sign Parise to a long-term deal this offseason, if that isn't accomplished nothing else really matters cause this team'll be screwed big-time if he walks after next year.
2. By hook or by crook get at least one more quality NHL defenseman in here who can skate and move the puck, probably two if I'm being honest. Volchenkov and Colin White fill our quota of stay-at-home guys and you can add Salvador to that mix if he returns, what we really need is mobility back there.
3. Do what you should have done this offseason and bring in an outsider to coach the team, let him pick his own assistants and run a progressive system that accentuates the talents of Parise, Kovy, Zajac and Elias.
4. Play the younger forwards and see just how much NHL-ready talent we have in the organization. Sorry Jacques, your 'tough love' with Matthais Tedenby doesn't fly with me when vets don't get punished for their screwups.
5. Get another NHL-caliber center in here, for too long we've been trying to make do with converted wingers centering a top two line, this year's acquisition of Arnott was supposed to alleviate the problem at least temporarily but it hasn't.
6. Clear out Arnott and other expendable players before the trade deadline to continue recouping some of the draft pick value we lost this offseason - both in the initial trade for Arnott and the Kovy contract penalty. Not having our 2nd and 3rd this season proved to be more disasterous than anyone could have predicted considering we're likely to have a top three pick at worst.
7. Clear out Rolston this offseason as an expiring contract.
8. Play to compete and win the second half of the season. Yeah you have the weenie Devil fans who want the team to lose to secure the best chance for the #1 draft pick (not even the pick itself, just the best chance to win the lottery) and we're gonna have to trade a couple impending UFA's in all likelihood but really a lot of these guys are going to be here next year as well, either because of talent or contract. You can't expect to be successful next year if we never get out of this constant state of misery the franchise is now in. Especially since any improvement the second half of the season will likely be tied into both hungry kids and vets who prove they want to stay and be part of the solution.
9. Make the vets accountable as well as the rookies. Including the $100 million man. We might not be able to change all the players but we can certainly change the atitude around here and that starts with accountability.
10. If we're not going to find a future goalie next year at least we have to find one capable of starting 20-30 games minimum to protect a declining Brodeur as much as possible, while still giving him the respect he deseves and allowing him to finish out his contract.

At least part of one step has already been done in the trade of Langenbrunner. How much of the rest of my list the Devils can accomplish is anyone's guess but if they don't accomplish most of those steps, you can count on an extended rebuild in the very near future. Since Lou detests the word rebuilding, odds are it would happen without him.


Derek Felix said...

lol Defcom 1 was on last night.

Derek Felix said...

lol Defcom 1 was one last night.

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