Disappointing. Embarrassing. Frustrating. Sad. Poor. Terrible. Miserable. Careless. Unlucky. Unfortunate. Excremental. Pathetic.
All of these words - and more - can be used to describe the New Jersey Devils in their first month of the October 2010 season. For those of you haven't heard yet, the Devils are 3-8-1, dead last in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference. They've scored only 20 goals while allowing 39 in 12 games; the worst team in the NHL at scoring goals and next to last in allowing them (Anaheim has given up 41). The power play has been an absolute joke at 3-for-39; and the performances in their own zone have been equally clownish at times leading to many of those 39 goals against. On top of all of this, multiple Devils got injured in this month: Anton Volchenkov, Brian Rolston, Mark Fraser, Matthew Corrente, Jacob Josefson, and now Zach Parise (who has actually been hurt since August). Confidence in the Devils has dropped like a stone, people who follow the team like myself are still figuring out how this can be salvaged, and now reporters of other teams are more brazen in their opinion of New Jersey (e.g. Iain MacIntyre's brutish: "They suck" in the Vancouver Sun.)
You'd have to try really hard to come up with a worst start than this.
Going into the regular season, I think most fans knew it wasn't an easy schedule. These days, there really aren't any doormat teams - anyone can beat anyone if caught unprepared or if they aren't getting the breaks. But nobody honestly thought the Devils would be this bad to start out. Anyone who thought the Devils were going stumble flat on their faces like they did in October either are psychic or liars.
For anyone new to the tale or if you want to remind yourself how the New Jersey Devils got to where they are, please read on as I review the month of October of the 2010-11 season.
The Month in Review
The early controversy was over the salary cap. How would the Devils get underneath the salary cap by the deadline of October 6? Surely, a permanent move to clear space would be made. It never came. The answer was long term injured reserve. Bryce Salvador has been out indefinitely with concussion problems since preseason and Anssi Salmela is still out with a significant knee injury. Both were placed on LTIR, giving the Devils temporary cap relief to begin the season with 18 skaters and 2 goaltenders. I said the decision wasn't smart for a number of reasons, including that it was just that: a temporary relief. Little did I know that would not be a concern shortly.
The first two games weren't great. The Devils lost a lead and their home opener against Dallas in overtime. The very next night, Washington teed up on the Devils to the tune of 7-2. The second game yielded a significant long term effect as Anton Volchenkov was knocked out by taking a puck to the face and Brian Rolston sustained a sports hernia. While they were evaluated, the Devils had no choice but to play games with a shortened roster. Despite the outcry, the games weren't too terrible. They only lost to Pittsburgh 3-1 (the third coming by an empty net goal); and they earned their first win of the season over Buffalo 1-0 in overtime. By Friday of that week, Rolston went on LTIR to give the Devils the space to fill in the gaps on the roster - while Mark Fraser suffered a hand fracture of his own.
At this juncture, the Devils were 1-2-1 and most were thinking that the win would finally give the Devils something to build on. It's November 2 and we're still waiting for that to happen. The Devils would go on to drop their next two games at home in frustrating fashion. The first involved a 3-2 loss to Colorado where the Devils peppered the Avalanche with shots but just didn't get the breaks and the one game where Martin Brodeur was noticeably not at his best. The second was a 4-1 loss to Boston with all 4 goals coming in one period (the second) and off of bad decisions or inaction by the Devils skaters in New Jersey's end. By this point, the lack of goals and consistent puck movement was hard to ignore; along with the poor defensive play by the Devils. Sure, the Devils have had 3 rookies on the blueline at this point, but the critical errors were being made by veterans like Andy Greene, Henrik Tallinder, and backchecking forwards (take your pick) being ineffective.
It's one thing to have a bad game or two. When it's gone on for 6 games, then it suggests there are serious issues with the team. Something you would expect leadership to address. Something you'd hope the coach would address. After the Boston loss, the team had several days off prior to going to Montreal. They practiced hard, they got drilled, and they seemingly showed they figured things out in an absolutely solid game on the road. Smart (if a bit simple) at both ends, but definitely effective and got a few breaks. The Devils beat Montreal 3-0 and perhaps now the Devils can get back to form. Something to build on, right?
Then they played like absolute garbage in Johan Hedberg's first start of the season (and he had a bad night as well) to Buffalo. They lost 6-1, and the fans at the game were understandably irate with the "effort." The Buffalo game was the absolute nadir of the month. Bad defense, impotent offense, and the only positive was that the Devils were somehow not shutout. The defeat meant that the Devils went winless at the Rock to start the season. Seriously: 0-4-1. The media couldn't focus on anything but Ilya Kovalchuk being scratched, but truthfully, his presence on the ice wouldn't have made some Devils like, say, Tallinder, Corrente, or Greene, play fundamentally sound hockey.
The next night kicked off a 6-game road trip, one that the Devils are still on, at Madison Square Garden. While the Devils weren't as abysmal as they were against Buffalo, it was more of the same with the Devils. Let me say it's never a good sign when losses early in the season start becoming familiar. And especially not when Devils fans are trying to console themselves with the phrase "At least they didn't get shutout." The 3-1 loss to the hated New York Rangers was no way to start a road trip where the Devils started needing points in the worst way.
October ended with 3 games in California. The San Jose Sharks' top line pounded a seemingly second-rate New Jersey Devils team en route to a 5-2 loss. The Devils remembered what competant, focused hockey was on Friday against Anaheim. They won a 2-1 game on the Ducks' ice, their first non-shutout win and their first in coming from behind. Yet again, the Devils didn't carry any momentum or positivity into their last game of the month in Los Angeles. The Kings showed they were better in the first two periods, hung back in the third to allow New Jersey to bomb away with shots and to no avail. As it has been all season, they just haven't been beating the goalie so the Kings held on to win 3-1. And just to add a final punch to the gut, Zach Parise got hurt in that game and now will undergo arthroscopic knee surgery (reported here by Tom Gulitti).
The lack of scoring has resulted in a team shooting percentage of 5.3%; last in goals with 20, third in the NHL with 375 shots on goal. User richer44 pointed out earlier in the month that eventually the Devils would have to regress (progress?) to the mean. User triumph44 noted that the worst a team has shot in the last 15 years has been 7.1% in this comment. I bring both up to highlight that the Devils have shot at not just an incredibly low rate, but an unsustainable rate. And as Matt showed yesterday, it's not like the Devils are constantly held to the outside on their shots or being forced to shoot from long distances. Still, all of that just adds to the frustration of the Devils be it playing on them or watching them.
It eventually has to get better, but when? Who knows. If it was as simple as changing one or two things, then it wouldn't be a problem for any teams, now would it? The only response from the coaches has been to change the lines constantly (though injuries have led to that too), which has led to, well, not much. Luck hasn't broke New Jersey's way in these 12 games, and it can't keep happening for much longer lest the Devils get into a deeper hole in the standings.
Of course, the defense has really undercut the play of Martin Brodeur. Brodeur's numbers look bad not from his own performances, but from being hung out to dry. Defensemen getting burned or just standing about caught looking. It's one thing if a goalie lets in a soft one between his legs or if he gets a piece of a puck that just drifts in. It's another thing if the shooter gets a deflection or gets the puck point-blank on the goalie's flank or off a rebound. Yet, the Devils have just been incredibly moronic in their own end at times. Nothing complex - just simple stuff the defensemen have been doing throughout their lives on defense.
Prior to the last three games, I wrote that I believed there are 6 root issues with the team's problems to why they are struggling with just fundamentals in hockey: covering open players, passing the puck, forcing shots, and so forth. Issues that firing John MacLean, the head coach, or stripping Jamie Langenbrunner of the 'C' won't necessarily fix. They can be fixed if the players and coaches honestly work at it. Given that the Devils ended the month with another one-win-week, I do not know if they really are doing that. It's almost they are shocked by the terrible play that led to a 3-8-1 record as much as the fans are, evidenced here by this roundtable discussion of Devils fans at From the Rink.
That's just unacceptable. I know the team has been hurt and played 2 games with less than 18 skaters (and won one of them). But it's goes back to what I said earlier. A slow start is one thing, but 12 games is beyond a "start." The questions of what the coaches are doing - are they communicating, what are they reviewing in between games, etc. - become more valid. The questioning of leadership is just as valid since their responsibility is to help their teammates along on and off the ice as well as work with the coaches to get the team playing to the level they require. 3-8-1 with a -19 goal differential is evidence that both have not been up to par. So blame is justified.
Blame it on Ilya Kovalchuk for not producing enough or doing enough (though he's second on the team in shots (33) and in points - as many as Parise). Blame it on Langenbrunner for his lack of production in addition to smart play. Blame the poor and inconsistent play of Patrik Elias and Jason Arnott. Blame the lack of impact by David Clarkson. Blame the lack of production coming from the hard-working Zach Parise and Travis Zajac, who otherwise are carrying the offense at even strength (Parise: +24 Corsi, Zajac: +46) but like the rest of the team aren't scoring goals and picking up points. Blame the necessary reliance of rookies on defense, notably Matt Corrente who got burned the most. Blame Andy Greene and Henrik Tallinder for playing like rookies at times and pylons at others. Blame whoever you want. As far as I can tell, the team deserves blame in general, the record is entirely deserved.
Disappointing. Embarrassing. Frustrating. Sad. Poor. Terrible. Miserable. Careless. Unlucky. Unfortunate. Excremental. Pathetic. The October 2010 New Jersey Devils.
Devil of the Month
There were a few positives in my view. Sure, the depth forwards like Rod Pelley and Adam Mair have done well. I can't complain too loudly about them (as well as Tim Sestito), they're doing as well as you'd expect for their salaries. Matt Taormina has enjoyed a nice start to his season, he now has half has many goals (3) as the leading goal scorer among Devils defenseman last season (Greene with 6). Martin Brodeur, well, he's doing the best he can. I can say there are two Devils who deserve recognition for Devil of the Month. The runner up, the honorable mention, is a defenseman believe it or not: Colin White.
Devil of the Month Honorable Mention:
|2010 - Colin White||12||0||0||0||1||12||0||0||0||19:01||14||0.0|
Yes, that Colin White. Let me be frank. If the rest of the defense played like White, the Devils would have allowed a lot less goals. White hasn't been a Corsi machine, the raw count at 5-on-5 hockey from Time on Ice's Corsi charts have him at -13 (largely "helped" by a -12 against the Sharks). What he doesn't have are critical errors that lead to goals. Not that he hasn't made mistakes. But he doesn't leave other players wide open below the dots. He's been fairly decent at getting his clearances over that blueline. He's set a good example for rookie Matt Taormina and has shown good chemistry with him. While I don't like the +/- stat for goals, it's telling he's the only positive player on the blueline.
Some fans may not like Colin White, but he's been earning his money a lot more than Greene and Tallinder have so far this season. He's far from being a problem on this team riddled with them. I will say there is one other Devil I was more impressed with this month. A certain Lithuanian freight train.
The October 2010 ILWT Devil of the Month: Dainius Zubrus
|2010 - Dainius Zubrus||12||1||6||7||-5||12||0||0||0||16:59||23||4.3|
It's not the greatest of stat lines. Zubrus has shot well below his career average (11.5%). much like the rest of the team. It helped him greatly when MacLean moved him to play with Zach Parise and Travis Zajac by the sixth game of the season; he immediately went from a minus-Corsi to a positive-Corsi.
However, in the valley of the blind, the man with one eye shall be king. Zubrus has team's second highest raw Corsi total at +34, including +10 against the Kings when he wasn't with Parise and Zajac for the whole game. That not only speaks to the line MacLean put him on, but how Zubrus has performed at evens. Zubrus not only leads this team in scoring, but actually had a point streak. Yes, for 5 games, Zubrus earned 6 of those 7 points you see. Some were fortuitous assists (e.g. the behind the back, through the legs of the defender backhanded pass that found Ilya Kovalchuk with an empty net in the Rangers game), but his work ethic can be linked to all of them. While the team's offense has been bad at best, that it hasn't discouraged Zubrus says plenty about the player. When moved away from Parise and Zajac in the Anaheim game, he still put in the same effort instead of taking it as an insult. He's shown that while his contract isn't helpful at all, he's a useful player for this team and one of the few bright spots in a month filled with giant depressing gray clouds.
For that I name Zubrus the In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month of October 2010.
#8 / Center / New Jersey Devils
Jun 16, 1978
October 2010 Devil of the Month
12 GP, 1 G, 6 A, -5, 12 PIM, 23 SOG
Of course, you may feel someone else is more worthy. Perhaps you preferred White over Zubrus? Perhaps you wanted to see someone else get recognition? Please make your case in the comments. In addition, please leave your thoughts about how you felt October 2010 went for the New Jersey Devils. I don't think anyone argues that it hasn't been bad, but maybe you have a different angle? Whatever it is, we can agree that we should hope, wish, and pray November 2010 isn't nearly as bad.