Identifying the Root Issues of the New Jersey Devils

The New Jersey Devils are currently 2-6-1.  Their two wins have come in road shutouts where the team has played well at both ends of the rink.  Their seven non-wins have included some instance of crucial failures in the defensive zone mixed with an inability to score goals.  The closest the home fans have seen success was on opening night in an overtime loss to Dallas. With the Devils now embarking on a 5-game road trip through the Western Conference, the pressure is truly on the team and the coaching staff to win some games.   Especially, the coaching staff, as the media is talking up John MacLean being on the hot seat.

Ed Valentine of SBN-NY quotes the NHL Fanhouse in stating that MacLean is the "most fireable coach in the NHL."  Ryan Lambert of Puck Daddy has already calling out Lou Lamoriello and Ilya Kovalchuk as coach killers nevermind that MacLean hasn't been "killed" yet.   According to this post-game post by Tom Gulitti after the 3-1 loss to Our Hated Rivals, Martin Brodeur explicitly stated that "it's definitely not the coach's fault [for] what's going on right now."  Via Valentine's article, even Lou said he supports MacLean now. 

Yet even here, here, and here the cries from the fans are growing with respect to MacLean's tenure as head coach. From my own anecdotal encounters at games and elsewhere, and comments in the recent Gamethreads (Buffalo, Rangers), the frustration is mounting.  This team is suffering, they are not playing well, and something's got to change - be it the captain, the coach, or something.   You don't want to panic, but it's increasingly harder to resist the temptation to do that.

So let's discuss the root issues with the team. We know what the Devils have been doing wrong, but it's important to establish the underlying problems.  It's not enough to just leave it at "they don't score goals" or "they make dumb errors in their own zone" or "the team looks listless until the third period."   Go deeper than that, ask why this has been happening? I have my own thoughts on what I feel the root issues are. Sit down, have a drink by your side, and read on.  See if you agree or not.

First, I want to clear some points that I don't feel are root issues or even pressing issues with the team.

The salary cap issues.  It's not that it's not a problem, but it's not a current issue with this team's performance.  Due to injuries, the Devils have had the space to have a full roster of skaters through call ups and the signing of Adam Mair.  The Devils will have to bite the bullet eventually, but right now, they aren't shorthanded and the players should be professional enough to play regardless of the inevitable.  We wouldn't accept some players dogging it near the trade deadline; and if anyone is unsettled by the eventual shoe-dropping, then all they are doing is giving Lou more reason to move that player.  I'm not going to accept this as a problem until it starts eating into the roster again. 

Injuries.  Injuries are unfortunate. Two seasons ago, the Devils had to make due without Martin Brodeur.  Last season, the Devils had several major injuries leading to playing games with multiple call-ups at a time.  Yet, the Devils were relatively successful.  Especially in 2009-10, the veterans pulled together, the coaching staff utilized the rookies within their means, and they got wins. And that's with a head coach who didn't see those called up players before outside of training camp.  The Devils do have some missing players, notably Anton Volchenkov, however that hasn't eliminated the talent from the healthy players. Aside: It would be nice for Volchenkov to be around in case a veteran defenseman falters in a game and he can be replaced without risking a rookie to the proverbial fire. But his absence is causing said vets to make too many bad decisions in their own zone.) Ergo, I cannot accept this as a reason for failure.

Three rookies on the blueline.  Don't get me wrong, it's not ideal to have that many young guys in the NHL at a position that usually requires some experience before being consistently useful.  However, Matt Taormina has been solid next to Colin White and even has a couple of goals for himself.  Matthew Corrente didn't really have a bad game until Saturday against Buffalo. Alexander Urbom and Olivier Magnan-Grenier have been decent enough on third pairings when they were in NJ.  In general, the rookie defensemen aren't undercutting the Devils nearly as much by Andy Greene and Henrik Tallinder, not to mention some incredibly bad moments by the forwards in the Devils' end (e.g. the 4-1 loss to Boston game).

Feel free to disagree, but at least you know where I stand.  Moving on, here's a chart that illustrates a number of actual effects by the real problems plaguing this team. This is how the Devils have been shooting and scoring in regulation this season. 

10-25-10_devils_shots_by_period_medium

Here's what I took out of putting this chart together, based on the game summaries at NHL.com.

The second period really has been nightmarish for the Devils this season.  Sure, two of those six second periods where the Devils got outshot are understandable, as the Devils rolled Buffalo and Colorado in the first periods on 10/13 and 10/15.  Surely, the opposition would respond there.  Regardless, the second period is where the Devils have been straight up losing games.  17 goals against and only 4 for. The only period where the Devils have been collectively outshot.  

Within each individual game, we can find what really was at fault for those goals against.  If you've been following the Devils or even just reading the recaps, you'll find that most of those 17 goals against are the result of some error made by the Devils that the opposition just took advantage.  Over the course of multiple games, though, one has to ask what the deal is about it repeating so much. 

As a sidenote, do note the first period stats. Despite outshooting the opposition in most games, the goals haven't been coming - four of those five goals for came in the first two games of the season.  Keep that in mind for another issue I'll bring up later.

That said, this isn't so much the real, root issue.  I believe there are two most relevant to the second period flops: a lack of focus and in-game adjustments. 

The lack of focus falls largely on the players themselves.  How else can you explain Henrik Tallinder, he of 8 prior full seasons experience, committing turnovers in his own end and being aware of his surroundings?  What else can account for a forward - be it Travis Zajac, Jamie Langenbrunner, Jason Arnott, Patrik Elias, or whoever - not picking up an open man near him?  I've hammered the Devils on Talking Red and in recaps about their defensive gaffes and 9 games into the season, I can't help but think they just aren't focused.  They all didn't just turn dumb, and they all have played defense in someway or form in the past.   Just at some point in the game, they seem to make a careless mistake and it costs the Devils - especially in the second period.

Can the coaching staff help keep the team focused? You bet.  Should leadership help too? Of course.  But ultimately, this is a game where people get punished for not paying attention and that falls on the individual player most of all.  No one can keep their interest better than themselves.

This leads me to the other root problem: in-game adjustments.  This falls largely on the coaching staff. If a defensive pairing or a line is getting steamrolled, or the other team consistently gets a certain line out there against certain Devils, they need to pick up on that and communicate a change to the players, if not the line/pairing itself.  If the other team is tending to dump and chase, then MacLean or Larry Robinson or someone needs to clue the next set of Devils to go out about that.  After one or two calls by the ref, MacLean should be informing everyone on his bench to be careful of what tonight's ref crew will call.    Too often this season, we've seen the Devils play one way to start the game and not really make a change until it's the after the second period and they are already in a hole on the scoreboard.

The players can make these adjustments too, but the job of the coaches is to manage the game and recognize what has and has not been going well.   I'm not seeing evidence that this is happening outside of, "Increase the intensity" in the third period.  I believe those two root issues are why the Devils have been so bad, especially in the second period.   Increase the focus, and the goals against stemming from defensive gaffes will drop.  More precise adjustments would go a long way to improve the Devils' competition level against their opposition.

Another important area from that chart are the totals.  The Devils have scored a mere 14 goals on 277 shots, a shooting percentage 5.05%; while allowing 29 on 260 shots, a save percentage of 88.8%.  Both are horrid and incredibly unlikely to be maintained at such low levels.  As frustrating as it may be, the Devils will eventually regress (progress?) to values that better reflect their true talent.   In Lou We Trust user richer44 had an excellent post last week explaining this point.

So another root issue is, sadly, something the Devils can't really control - call it what you will luck, getting bounces, transient , undocumented skill, etc.   Changing the coach, captain, and lineup isn't necessarily going to lead to this phenomenon improving.

However, that  Devils doesn't mean can't improve what they can control: creating shots.  The more they'll shoot, the better that the law of averages will go in New Jersey's favor.   The Devils were doing a good job of this at the time of richer44's post.  Not in the last two games, where the Devils had to chase the game when they did pour on the pressure against a opponents content to protect the lead in the third period.  Those third periods cover up the lack of shots in the first two periods.   From what I've seen, the issue is more than just taking shots but just getting the puck in a place to shoot it.   That's all on the puck movement and that has been inconsistent at best and an easy turnover in the neutral zone or opposition blueline at worst.

The root issue for spotty puck movement is communication.   There's the obvious: reading who's actually open and making the right decision.  I feel the issue goes deeper than that.  Last night, Dainius Zubrus pulled off a no-look, backhand pass through a Ranger's legs that found Ilya Kovalchuk at the crease for an easy goal.  As impressive as it looked, Zubrus admitted after the game - here to Tom Gulitti - that he just threw it in the area.  It was high-risk pass with a low success rate that, well, succeeded.   It gets remembered for leading to a goal, but all of the other no-look, backhanded passes by the Devils in that and other games don't because they mostly failed.  They would go to the other team or not get the intended target cleanly enough to do something with it. 

That's just an example, but too often we've witnessed the Devils trying to make something happen with high-risk, high-reward passes, sometimes without regard to who's in their way, who's covered, and whether or not the target knows about it.  The communication isn't present on the ice, and who knows if there's any communication among the players or the coaches to tell the team to simplify their passes.   Don't mistake me, if the Devils are hitting those tight passes, then fine. The problem is that they aren't doing it in the neutral zone, it's a team-wide problem, and all it serves to do is to hold the offense back and give the other team more chances to attack.  Better communication will lead to better passes going forward, which will lead to more shots, and with that - hopefully more goals and a lot less of the opposition in New Jersey's end.

This would also be applicable to a power play that has had very little power.

The other main finding I have from that chart along with what I've witnessed all season long is an inability to build on good performances.  The loss to Colorado wasn't so bad after the win at Buffalo; but the team just threw away what they learned in that win by the time they played Boston.  Given how the Devils played this past weekend, it's like the team collectively forgot about all the good they did in Montreal.  I don't know about you, but this is the most frustrating aspect of the Devils.  

What's the root issue there?  I may be stretching, but I'd say it's motivation.  Like with communication, this falls on both the players and coaches. I believe motivation is not just for trying to get a player who's doing poorly to feel better about themselves and go on to play better.  It's just as important to do it to keep confidence high after good games and to encourage good play.  Given the performances and results after the precious few wins, this doesn't seem to be happening.

As I've said in the latest episode of Talking Red, I don't think Jamie Langenbrunner has been doing a good job of leading the team, keeping their emotions up, and so forth.   However, the guy with the "C" doesn't have to be the one speaking out.  It can be Parise, it can be Zajac, it can be White, and it can even be Martin Brodeur.  It can be John MacLean or Larry Robinson or, get this, Scott Stevens.  He's not coming out on that ice, but he's in the room in New Jersey and while he doesn't travel, he can certainly call someone up and give his two cents. 

The post-game quotes after Sunday, like with other losses, are sensible enough but they haven't translated to the ice.  I know it's easier to say they'll do better than to actually do it; and I know games have an opposition that tends to prevent teams from doing what they want. Yet, after each win, there's no evidence that the team seems any more confident.  That has to change and a better motivated team can do that.

Lastly, the sixth root issue that I think is making this team suffer is a lack of identity.  Does this team want to cycle opponents to death on offense?  Does this team want to rely on counterattacks or do they want to press hard on the opposition?  Do they want to make outshooting teams a priority or rely more on being opportunistic?   Do they want to be more complex than that and mix it up for each line or pairing?   I couldn't tell you what John MacLean's system is right now, much less whether the players are following it.  That's a definite problem.

As much as I support making adjustments and changes in the lineup when necessary, there needs to be a core philosophy to a team - something to build around from the get-go.  We, as a fanbase, are so used to a defensively-responsible team-based approach for so long that we call it "Devils hockey."  Maybe the players on this team requires a change in that philosophy, maybe they don't.   Until the coaches and players agree on how they want to  perform, it's only going to undercut them in future games.

I've identified sixth root issues with the Devils that I believe lie within what we've seen that has been awful for New Jersey:

  • A lack of focus on the ice, especially in their own end and in the second period.
  • In-game adjustments that haven't worked or even been made.
  • Transient ability resulting in a ridiculously low shooting percentage and save percentage.
  • Communication, particularly with moving the puck.
  • A lack of motivation both after wins and losses to build on good aspects of the game.
  • A lack of identity - who is this team and how do they want to go about playing games?

Five out of these six issues could be addressed by a new captain or a new coach or Lou making a whole bunch of permanent cap moves.   I'm not sure who is out there that can magically solve these problems as a coach or if another Devil is named a captain.  As much as the hockey media and fanbase thinks MacLean is a dead man walking, and as much as the Devils fanbase is disgusted with Jamie Langenbrunner wearing the 'C,' neither are at the root of the problems that have plagued the team so far.  Replacing them won't necessarily fix these six issues.

Five out of these six issues could - and should - be addressed right now.  John MacLean and his staff along with Jamie Langenbrunner and the players he leads need to work together to accomplish these goals.  Not apart, but together so everyone's on the same page before going into the next game. I don't believe solving these issues won't happen over night, but an improvement could mean the difference between being in the game by the third period or being in a hole yet again.  An improvement could mean a couple less goals allowed. An improvement could mean outshooting a team for most of the game instead of just a period or two. 

Truthfully, if the rest of this road trip goes badly, then you can expect major changes to happen regardless of whether it'll solve these root issues.  I'm not so naive to think otherwise.   So it's critical that the Devils sort it out and fast before suffering more of the same.

Now that you've read my entire spiel, I want yours.  What do you think are the root issues with the New Jersey Devils so far this season?  How do you think they effect the team and what would be a good first step to go about improving it?   Please think and mull over what's really bugging this team and causing them to be so bad so much.  Then share your thoughts in the comments.  I could be dead wrong some or all of what I feel are the team's root issues; please feel free disagree if you feel that way.  Or maybe you agree but for different reasons? Do note that I'm not asking for quick reactions on what you would do to change the team, but your full opinion.  Leave it in the comments.   Thank you for reading and let us hope better times are ahead, starting on Wednesday in San Jose.

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