Sunday, December 4, 2011
Desperate times for Devils now after latest crash and burn in Winnipeg
All I heard from Devils fans for most of the season when I expressed skepticism about the team was 'look at how hard their schedule's been!' (and I heard the same thing about the Rangers in reverse, for that matter - that they had such an easy early schedule and were due a fall). Supposedly the schedule was turning easy for us and harder for the Rangers and the two teams were about to start heading in opposite directions, according to the Kool-Aid drinkers among us.
Sometimes, you just can't look at numbers or projections though. You have to trust what you're seeing on the ice. What I've seen out of the Rangers is a team that's winning without its supposed top defenseman and as Derek pointed out in his last post, showed more character than guys like Joe Thornton thought they had. For all the whining from Devils fans about how we've missed Travis Zajac, the Rangers haven't had to overcome Marc Staal's absence?
Yeah I know, we missed Ilya Kovalchuk for a few games - big deal, we went 3-2 in those games and Kovalchuk's been on the ice for a whopping thirteen of our last seventeen goals given up. We missed Martin Brodeur for several games? Big deal, Johan Hedberg's having a much better year, quite honestly. Jacob Josefson's been out? Again, big deal...we've actually upgraded there with Adam Henrique performing on both ends of the rink and getting himself into the Calder discussion (if only as someone who's going to be on the ballot 'after' Ryan Nugent-Hopkins). Astonishingly, Henrique looked like he was going to be buried in the minors until Josefson went down.
Long story short, injuries are not the cause of this recent spiral downward from the Devils. When I pointed out that few of our early wins came via 'real hockey', I was scoffed at. Yes the shootout's part of the game now in the regular season but it sure isn't going to help you in the first sixty-five minutes. The fact of the matter is while the Devils' record now says they're 12-12-1 in the modern NHL, under a non-shootout system they'd be 7-12-6. Meaning the shootout's masked a lot of our ills in the first 60-65 minutes of games, at least until recently. And in a league where now you need to be at least ten games or so over NHL .500 to make the playoffs, flat-lining at .500 after twenty-five games isn't exactly giving us a cushion to build off of.
About the only good news on the horizon is coach Pete DeBoer saying that Zajac will play in a game before Christmas. Granted, our crack medical team isn't always the most accurate with projections on a player's return but if you believe the coach, Zajac will be back sometime in the next nine games since that's how many we have before the holiday. Although Zajac can be a little overrated by Devils fans at times because of our utter lack of depth at the center position the last few years, he will improve the team in more ways than one.
With him back, maybe we can finally end the silliness of having Kovy play RW (though the Zach Parise-Henrique-Kovy line has actually put up points in recent games, they've given up that and more besides on the defensive end, mostly due to the idiosyncrascies of Kovy). Not to mention he gives us another option on the point of the power play besides Kovy, or Patrik Elias - who have both been a comedy of errors at the point, as well as Elias has played otherwise this year. And having Zajac around might bring out the best in the captain too, though Zach's play has improved recently he's still a ways off from being the player he was two years ago.
Plus Zajac will improve our hideously bad faceoff percentage - something coach Adam Oates was supposed to do for all the centers. Then again Oates was supposed to improve the power play too...and they're worse than ever now. It's not bad enough they're not scoring, but they're actively giving up goals on the power play now. To the tune of seven in the last fifteen games, something depressing like that. We've given up more shorthanded goals than power play goals at this point, or at least it seems that way to me which is absolutely mind-boggling.
You wonder why we can't just put Kovy on the left boards where he'll excel and put two defensemen on the point? When you have no forwards capable of playing the point defensively then why try to fit a square peg in a round hole? I know the likes of Andy Greene, Mark Fayne and Henrik Tallinder aren't going to scare anyone but at least they and rookie Adam Larsson can move the puck around the point and pick their spots to shoot. Kovy can shoot his one-timers from the left board or do whatever, at least he won't wet his pants on the point if he's up front.
Last night, those 'normal' power play issues got compounded by having Moose in net. Granted, Moose has been great when he's actually stayed in the crease but he also handles the puck like a grenade, and in a critical sequence late in the second period last night that cost us. With the Devils leading 2-1 after lucking into a 5-on-3 PP goal by Elias (off a defenseman's arm, and after Moose had flopped to draw a bogus call on Andrew Ladd), Moose had to handle a dump in and shot the puck right past Kovy to an open Bryan Little on the point, leading to an open one-timer by Alex Burmistrov that truth be told broke the Devils' back. To be even before a lengthy 5-on-3 and still be even after it, after giving up another demoralizing shorthanded goal...I knew we weren't winning last night after that.
It's not as if the power play's been our only problem. Defensively, we've given up 72 goals in 25 games, including 14 of them in our last three. Yes, Kovy's turnovers and the power play of doom have contributed to that total but overall this defense just has not done the job this year. You'll have to live with Larsson's idiosyncrascies right now, he's 18 and has a world of potential. However, issues like putting stay-at-home d-men Bryce Salvador and Anton Volchenkov together (and frequently giving Volchenkov the least amount of icetime among our defensemen), or Tallinder's usual slow start and Greene's usual inconsistency are other issues we have to deal with. Especially since all of the above other than Salvador are signed beyond next year.
Offensively things have gotten a little better lately, but the Devils still only have one line capable of scoring. Before, it was the Elias-Petr Sykora-Danius Zubrus line. Now it's the Parise-Henrique-Kovy line. In the modern NHL though, you really need three lines that are capable of scoring, not one. And even having one score isn't a great comfort when they're going to give up more goals than they score, which is remarkable. And in goal, there's about a twenty-ton elephant in the room right now. Just look at these numbers:
Brodeur 13 starts, 5-7 record, 3.31 GAA, .880 save percentage
Hedberg 12 starts, 7-5-1 record, 2.24 GAA, .920 save percentage, 2 SHO
Yes, one's the legend going to the Hall of Fame and the other's merely the folk hero but you couldn't tell which is which by looking at their numbers. Since both Brodeur and Moose are 39, age isn't a real factor although usage might be - Marty's logged a lot more minutes over his career than Moose - and maybe it's catching up with him at this stage in his career. Marty certainly has been much slower to heal from injuries than he was five years ago.
You do have to wonder how long DeBoer can continue to give Marty the majority of starts when healthy, if that disparity continues. What's even more mind-boggling is the team seems to play better in front of Moose. Look at the flat team performances in Colorado and the first period of Minnesota, then look at the second and third periods of the Wild game and the game last night and tell me that was the same team? Other than Kovy, anyway since he's a turnover machine no matter who's in net. Even last night, though it wasn't as egregious as some of his gaffes in recent games, he did have a needless turnover that led to the Jets getting pressure in our zone for about a minute before Mark Stuart finally scored the eventual winning goal.
So basically, everything's an issue right now including coaching - as DeBoer continues to stick Kovy at RW and refuses to make him accountable for his goofups, and the power play continues to be a disaster of epic proportions. Not that I want to see another coach get canned, even though at this young stage of the NHL season there've already been four firings. Imagine that, four coach firings and not one of them is Devils-related - yet. I don't think PDB will get an axe this year even if we miss the playoffs again, then again I didn't think Johnny MacLean would get the axe last year...but things just got so historically bad eventually Lou Lamoriello had no choice. Plus there's no Jacques Lemaire to sweet-talk into another return, unless Lou really does have a spell on the guy.
I guess there's little to do at this point except hope things start getting better Tuesday in Toronto, which won't be easy considering the hot start Brian Burke's remodeled team has gotten off to, even without number one goalie James Reimer.