Let's Take a Deep Breath, Devils Fans: What Can Be Done to Break the Slump

My fellow Devils fans, please take a deep breath.

The New Jersey Devils are mired in a big slump.  A struggle that hasn't been seen in quite some time. The Devils have obtained a record of 6-12-2 in their last 20 games.  Slipping in and out of periods or falling flat on their faces has become a hallmark.  Solid performances are spotty through the roster and an entirely solid game by the team has become increasingly rare.  You're not happy. I'm not happy. Jacques Lemaire isn't happy. The players aren't happy.  Surely, Lou isn't happy.  Despite announcing a deal that would have the New Jersey Nets play at the Rock, I can't imagine Jeff and the rest of the ownership group aren't happy either..  The post-game quotes after the 2-0 loss at Edmonton from Rich Chere and Tom Gulitti speak for themselves.   The team has gotten healthier and healthier and yet they keep dropping more and more games in unsatisfactory performances. Everyone involved is frustrated.

Now, my fellow Devils fans, please take another deep breath.

We can choose to blame our preferred scapegoats for the horrible recent run of games such as Mike Mottau, Martin Brodeur's workload, the newly-acquired Ilya Kovalchuk, and/or a lack of youth.  We can speculate over whether Lemaire lost the locker room or the coaches aren't making the right adjustments.  We can point back at a dustbin of history where the success stands out but any flaw is ignored.

I don't want do any of that.  Let's take a step back and look at the current situation and discuss what can be done and can't be done to break this slump.  By no means are these guaranteed ways to get the Devils winning hockey games again.  Consider it a thought-out rant if you want.   Nonetheless, I offer these suggestions going forward.

Let's start with what I don't think will work, contrasting that with I think might work and perhaps should be tried:

What Won't Work: Stripping Ilya Kovalchuk of the responsibility of carrying the puck forward. This would be like telling Zach Parise to play away from the slot or telling Brian Rolston he's not allowed to use his slapshot anymore.  One of the great skills Kovalchuk has is his speed in breaking out.  Sometimes he is closed off and can't make a play, but other times, he can create his own space for a great scoring chance.   To force someone else to do it wouldn't necessarily stop the former problem, but would prevent the latter from happening.

What Might Work: Mixing up the Devils' offensive approaches.  Far too often in games, especially when the team struggles, the Devils seem so one-dimensional in getting the puck in the offensive zone. In order to correct it, the team needs to employ some variety. That means the gameplan isn't binary.  This means that sometimes Kovalchuk carries the puck in. Sometimes ZZ Pops dumps it into a corner and try to cycle.  Sometimes the power play should focus on the point.  At a minimum, the Devils won't be so predictable; and if they find something that works - being able to beat the opposition silly along the boards - then they can stick with it in-game.  

This is especially true for the power play.  It's not that it doesn't score as much as you may think the Devils should on paper, but they're not even consistently threatening on the power play. Perhaps now is the time to reconsider Kovalchuk playing on both units.  Perhaps now is the time to consider Kovalchuk playing in the traditional winger position on one unit and having some other player play the point (e.g. Brian Rolston).  Perhaps now is the time to play an umbrella at times and then an overload other times.  If there's an area that could use some experimentation and tweaking the most, it's the power play.

As for Kovalchuk specifically, perhaps shortening his shifts?  No, it won't solve all of the Devils' problems; but it would at least give a different look for opponents.

What Won't Work: Users Cherno77 and Murdoc both raise an interesting point from the post-game thread: perhaps the opposition has figured out the Devils' ways and therefore know how to play against them.  However, I don't think that's really the case for two reasons.

First, the Devils haven't really changed their style all season long.  Given that Lemaire hasn't come up with a terribly complex or revolutionary way for a team to play hockey, why haven't opponents figured out how to play against the Devils far earlier in the season? A lot of players have been around the block so much, surely they can figure out what a team is doing tactically after a few shifts. Why are these struggles coming now instead of in late October or November?

Second, generally, forcing tactics on a team is like pushing a peg through a hole.  If the players aren't skilled or disciplined enough to play a certain way, then forcing them to play that way would only lead to further problems on the ice.  New systems require time and practice for the players to adjust to it.  At this point of the season, a big adjustment is likely going to throw the team off moreso than get them back on track. 

What Might Work: Similar to the last suggestion, the big area where I feel the Devils are lacking from a coaching standpoint are adjustments.  Sometimes, this means changing the lines; but it really has to do with how the players are set up with and without the puck.  Hockey is a game that is filled with improvisation, so you can't rigidly hold a team to a plan.  Still, if a fast-skating team like Edmonton are racking up counter-attacks; then that means the forwards need to hold onto the puck more often or not go in deep at the same time to subject the defense to an odd-man rush.    If a team likes to grind it out like Calgary, then either the Devils have to be willing to match shoulder to shoulder or have a teammate close by as a close, safe option for a pass.  Adjustments are the key. They should be the focus for both the coaches and the players on the ice for the next few games because it doesn't appear

Of all the things involving coaching, I'm the most disappointed with the coaching is that the adjustments aren't there.  Or if they are, then they aren't having a noticeable effect.  It probably helps explain why second period meltdowns and third period breakdowns keep happening over and over.

What Won't Work: Firing Jacques Lemaire. Sure, the team will get a new guy (who, I don't know) and will want to impress him right away by upping their effort and everything else they can control.  In the short run, the Devils will be winning game. Will it solve any of the root causes for the Devils' current struggles? Probably not, and so what will happen if/when the Devils struggle in a similar fashion under this supposed new coach? Get yet another new coach?  It's simply not realistic.

Moreover, I don't think it's fair to say that Lemaire's losing the team or he's lost his touch.  A lot of that happens in the locker room and behind the scenes. Yes, Lemaire and the assistants of Mario Tremblay, Tommy Albelin, and Scott Stevens do not look good now.  Of course, they don't, the team's won 6 out of their last 20! No one looks good at that run. Yet, the terrible on-ice performance isn't indicative of whether the players are listening to Lemaire or not.  I'm sure Lemaire isn't telling the defense to blindly clear the puck or not be in position on the ice; nor do I think the players are honestly doing anything to spite the team.

Still, you and I have no idea of whatever problems are going on in internally with the team.  They're just playing bad and so it's pointless to speculate.

What Might Work: Other than focusing on in-game adjustments, I'd recommend what the Devils are doing now. Practicing. Working the guys over.  They clearly needed a wake-up call.  It's a good first step.

But beyond that, I would think that that it's the individual.  Clearly the team as a whole isn't playing to the best of their ability, but it seems like every game it's a different set of people who aren't a factor on the ice.  The only way to figure that out is to sit them down, point what's been wrong, and then point out on what they can do to prevent the issue again.  Especially on defense, where each player has some kind of fault every game.   I'm not saying all mistakes will go away, but they could be reduced - and that alone can make a big difference in a game.

What Won't Work: Calling up players from the AHL.  A few have looked good in being called up to fill in for injuries this season, like Nick Palmieri and Patrick Davis. Matt Halischuk, Matthew Corrente, and Tyler Eckford showed a little promise in their brief stints in New Jersey.  In fact, Vladimir Zharkov and Mark Fraser have even stuck with the NHL team this whole time.

Yet, honestly, is anyone on Lowell available that can make a significant difference in the lineup?  Let's face it, if Zharkov and Fraser weren't being significant factors then or now, then what would anyone else do?  While they have talent, Zharkov's not any better than the top 6 forwards, David Clarkson, and Brian Rolston at this point to justify more ice time or responsibilities.  I like his hustle, his work ethic, and I love his speed; but he doesn't have the shot or the other offensive tools yet. He doesn't even have his first NHL goal.  As for Fraser, Lemaire's been limiting his minutes for a reason because his own speed and general inexperience are an issue.  Bringing him along slowly has been the right path; so throwing him into a 18-20 minute role after largely playing less than 13 minutes per night (Fraser averages 12:12/game) would be risky at best and terrible at worst.

If that's the best that Lowell has to offer right now, it's foolish to think that anyone else can change much elsewhere on the roster.   And, yes, that includes Mike Mottau.

What Might Work: Again, the focus has to be from within.  If that means sitting down with every player and being frank with how they have played and what mistakes they have made, then so be it.  I hope this is being done.

What Won't Work: Changing goaltenders.  Like Yann Danis playing more during these struggles would have made a difference at all.  No offense to him, but his presence absolutely does not result in the guys in front of him playing better.  It didn't happen on February 2, 2010 and there's no reason to believe it'll happen in the future.  The goal for the Devils now is to get wins. The second goal is to get more wins.  For the Devils to do that, it behooves Lemaire to play Martin Brodeur because he gives them the best chance to win games.

At the same time, I don't want to see much Andrew Peters or Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond on the ice in the future.  Neither helps the Devils win hockey games, simple as that.

What Definitely Won't Work: Looking past any of the remaining 18 games.  It's a sure-fire way to continue to lose these games.  This is not April. This is not the playoffs. This is not 1999, 2000, 2003, or even last season.  The focus has to be on the next opponent.

What Might Work: Focusing on smashing the Rangers in Newark on Wednesday is a good of a start as any.

Most of All: These are suggestions and just that. Doing one single thing isn't going to turn it around. One player having a great night (like, say, Brodeur in net) isn't enough to get a win.  The whole team has to shape up and that falls on both the players and the coaches.  I know, you're probably tired of reading that, but what else is there to say?

If I knew exactly what was wrong and what exactly needed to be done to fix the problems, that's one thing; but I don't. I know, it was such a long rant, but it's just a compendium on what's on my mind  about this team and what they can do going forward.  Let me know what you think in the comments, by email (at the bottom of the page), or even on Twitter (@JKFischer).  Thanks for reading and I have one last point I'd like to make.

Take a deep breath.  It's going to be an interesting March and April going forward.

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