For every heartbreaking loss and busted expectation produced by the Devils this year there have been at least as many different excuses argued about amongst fans, the media, and players alike. In this FanPost I will explore some of those justifications and ultimately come to a conclusion as to what I believe is the obvious truth behind the catastrophic 2010-2011 Devils season thus far.
Many Devils fans remember the night of April 2, 2007 when the New Jersey Devils held a 47-24-8 record for 102 points and sat comfortably with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference as Atlantic Division Champions. It was also on this night that Devils GM Lou Lamoriello made the decision to fire coach Claude Julien and in answering to reporters stated "I did not feel that we were going in the right direction, both mentally and hockey-wise, going into the playoffs".
The Devils have not fired a head coach since and Lamoriello's failure to do so with John MacLean suggests that the root of the Devils problems does not lie within the coaching. In fact, Lamoriello and several veteran players have themselves defended MacLean and even gone as far as to offer up the notion that the problem begins in the locker room. In answering a question to Tom Gulitti, captain Jamie Langenbrunner spoke about the possibility of MacLean being fired, "that's the furthest thing (that should happen), I would hope that it's not the angle. That doesn't deserve to happen. It's in this room and it should be one of us."
Other core Devils players have agreed. Martin Brodeur and Patrik Elias have defended MacLean in recent quotes to the media and have complained about the performance of the team itself. Elias said, "You know as individuals what we're supposed to do out there, what we're capable of as individuals and we've got to do it together and that's when you're going to have success. Right now, we're not able to do it."
Brodeur argued that the team has been plagued "by a number of factors outside of [MacLean's] control."
As a die-hard Devils fan who has watched this traditionally dominant team fail to match pre-season expectations on a seemingly unthinkable level, I find myself agreeing with their outlook. After all, the Devils have at least three members of the organization who are qualified and capable to be the head coach. If coaching really is our problem this year, then our troubles extend a lot further than just John MacLean.
I've been watching every Devils game of every season for nearly a decade and I know what we play like and what we look like as a team when we are churning out victories.
For nearly every single game this season this Devils squad has failed to work as hard as their opposition for the entire 60 minutes. Gulitti has reported constantly on his blog about the Devils being skated hard in practice for their abysmal effort during games and MacLean has spoken about it in quotes to the media. During the beginning of a Devils broadcast a few weeks ago when the team was in a stretch of playing awful, there were calls for MacLean and Kovalchuk's heads, and our playoff hopes were still salvageable, Chico Resch stated that fans should watch for the Devils to come out hard in the opening minutes because MacLean had told him beforehand that it was our game plan.
Hearing this made me want to puke. For at least the 15 previous games before that one I had expected the Devils to come out to play and treat it as if it were Game 7 in the playoffs. This season has been salvageable for months and yet the team continues to be outworked and out hustled by even the worst of its opposition's lines. We've not even been able to beat teams who were in last place, nor have we been able to compete properly against higher ranked teams who played us soft and even started their backup goaltender. With the talent on paper that this team has and the reputations on the line for many of its veterans it is beyond shocking that we continually fail to show confidence, chemistry, or pride as a team.
Anyone who has watched a Devils game so far this year can easily name the players on the roster who have played hard on a consistent basis. Mattias Tedenby didn't even start the year on the big squad yet since being called up he has dazzled with his stick work and blazing speed. With 4 goals and 4 assists Tedenby's tallied more points so far this season than David Clarkson despite having played in nearly half as many games. Tedenby's shooting percentage of 10.3% makes him the highest on the team and his relentless work ethic has at times this season looked reminiscent to that of Zach Parise. With his up-tempo style of play and Parise's injury I've been waiting too long for MacLean to reunite our proven combination of Travis Zajac and Jamie Langenbrunner with Tedenby filling in the other wing slot.
Ilya Kovalchuk has had his fair share of documented gaffes so far this season but he has also been one of the hardest working skaters and emotional players this year. His lacking on defense has been well reported however his offensive strength, talent, and prowess is easily distinguishable compared to most any other player on our roster on a regular basis. Kovalchuk is also one of the few Devils players both this year and last to take exception to another team laying a beating on us and involve himself in a fight because of it. While many outsiders would love for it to be true, Kovalchuk isn't overpaid and he isn't a fluke. If given the right line mates and time to gain chemistry with them he will be lethal no matter what team or "system" he is playing in.
The Devils were going in the right direction recently in pairing Kovalchuk with Danius Zubrus, a player who (perhaps not surprisingly) has had very productive years playing alongside great players, and a young talent in Alexander Vasyunov to form a Russian speaking line. I thought that this was the type of line that had a lot of potential to foster success for everyone involved and that Vladimir Zharkov could even be called up to try filling the place of Vasayunov. I don't understand the logic behind our constant juggling of lines and reluctance to ever allow one of our newly created combinations to be tested in enough games to see if it clicks.
I remember watching David Clarkson's first shift of his first game in the NHL. I couldn't believe what I was seeing as he brushed aside any butterflies and combined for a shot on goal, a number of solid hits, and a diving blocked shot. I love players of his type who are able to bring both offense and grit to the team but it seems that his play lacks the same intensity as it had when he first started playing. His numbers this year are evidence of that despite taking a massive number of shots so far. I thought Clarkson played great tonight against the Capitals and if he can work more on skating and getting pucks on net would be a potential line mate for the already successful duo of Patrik Elias and Jason Arnott.
Since I am making a post complaining about the effort put forth by the Devils I would be amiss if I did not mention that Andy Greene and Rod Pelley, despite continually failing to register points, are two players whose work ethic I admire and feel that other Devils players could look up to.
All in all I'm sick and tired of feeling like I care more about the outcome of the game when I'm sitting at home watching than some of the players do when they're on the ice. This Devils team does not come out to games ready to play and it extends back before this season.
Last year during the playoffs we were dominated in the first round by a team that was headed in the right direction both mentally and hockey-wise going into the playoffs. The Philadelphia Flyers were prepared for the type of aggressive hockey needed to win post season games and the Devils, despite having a barrage of players with a wealth of playoff experience, were dominated. I will never forget watching during one of the games last post season where after the whistle Parise was knocked down near the Flyers net and both Chris Pronger and Mike Richards immediately began to unload on him with cross checks and gloves to the face while he was on the ice. No Devils player did anything about it or seemingly even noticed. It was clear that the team wasn't proud enough in each other to hold people accountable nor were they willing to do all of the little things necessary to win games. At this point it is clear that this season is no different.
On Thursday the Devils will play at home against the only team in the NHL who is statistically worse than they are. Only time will tell if the Devils decide to continue and come out and play hard for only a select few minutes or if instead they decide to stop feeling sorry for themselves, start feeling confident in their abilities, and show to each other and the rest of us why this team with 13 straight playoff appearances is proud, resilient, and will never give up on a weak season just to have a shot at drafting higher.