In a word: Moose. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The New Jersey Devils ended the month of October with a record of 4-4-1. In terms of points percentage, they are right at 50% with 9 points earned out of a potential 18. In terms of winning percentage, they are just below average. The trend in earning points has been downward. In the middle of the month, they got three straight wins, and then proceeded to just win one in the following five games.
In just 9 games, it's fair to say that this version of the New Jersey Devils are better than last season's team. The team isn't blowing games in the second period, they have only been shut out once, and there haven't been too many performances outside of opening night that were 60 minutes of awfulness. At a minimum, we can say that Peter DeBoer is better than John MacLean, having Zach Parise has helped, Johan Hedberg has been fantastic in place of Martin Brodeur, and that while the loss of Travis Zajac has hurt, it isn't fatal to the team's chances at competing. This is a step forward.
However, there's reason to be concerned. The defense has been leaking quite a few shots on net, averaging 31 per game. The offense hasn't scored a lot of goals either, averaging only 2 per game. The Devils remain dead last in the league for power play opportunities (29) and tied for last for power play goals (3). Ilya Kovalchuk, among other Devils forwards, hasn't "gotten going" yet on the scoresheet in recent games and he remains second on the team in scoring. It's early enough in the season to think that they'll improve over time, but it's something to watch for. Giving up plenty of shots, not scoring enough goals, and a woeful power play only makes it harder to stay in games over time, much less win them.
Still, I wouldn't get to crazy over this past month. This quote by the head coach in this post by Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice refers to the team's recent road trip, but I believe it can apply for all of October.
"I think the best way I can evaluate it is I like what we’re doing, I don’t like the results right now. So, I have to stick with the belief that if we keep doing the right things, we’re going to get rewarded for it. That’s the best way I can put it."
There is some truth to that, and some of the underlying work the Devils put in the last 9 games are encouraging enough to believe that better times may be ahead. After the jump, I'll review the past month in games and give you my selections for Devil of the Month.October 2011 in Review
The month started in the worst way imaginable: a terrible home loss to a hated rival. The Philadelphia Flyers only played their second game of the season as they rolled into the Rock, and that one game was enough to get rid of whatever rust they may have had. The Devils, on the other hand, did not - and it was clear on the ice. Bad penalties, bad defense, a lack of offense, and all of that added up to a 3-0 loss to the Second Rate Rivals. The first game of the season, the first home game, and it was the first loss.
As it turned out, that game was really just one game. The Devils roared back in their second game - also at home - against the Carolina Hurricanes. On an afternoon, the Devils scored their first goal of the season, responded to two equalizers, and sealed their first win with their first empty-net goal. The 4-2 victory over Carolina provided much comfort to the Devils faithful to get that first win out of the way and to show that the Flyers game was an anomaly of sorts. The winning ways continued that week. The Devils pounded Los Angeles with shots only to be denied by Jon Quick, who turned out to have one of the best performances in all of October. A shootout was necessary to determine the winner and the Devils took that to win their second straight game over the Kings, 2-1. The win was a little bittersweet as Martin Brodeur left that game early with a shoulder injury, the result of a diving save and landing right on top of it. At the time it was thought to be a minor injury, but any thoughts of returning wouldn't be until after October.
The Devils pressed on into Nashville with their first road game of the season. It didn't start well, what with the Devils taking a major penalty and allowing the game's first two goals. Then the Devils showed their quality as they attempted to make a game of it in the second and third periods. What's more is that the Devils did exactly that, tying the game with two third period goals. Both teams cancelled each other out, so another shootout was needed. The Devils won it easily and so they obtained their first actual winning streak of the season with a 3-2 victory over the Predators. Devils fans had every reason to be happy in their team, and I'm sure the players liked opening up the season at 3-1.
Then the Devils waited. Five whole days before the first back-to-back set of games of the 2011-12 season. That set would be a doozy: the San Jose Sharks at home followed by a trip to Pittsburgh to kick off a four-game road trip. I don't know whether it was the time off or the opponent themselves (likely both, more of the latter), but the Sharks steamrolled through the Devils on the ice. Johan Hedberg played out of his mind to keep the game from being a San Jose blowout, and practically stole a point out of this game. While the Devils were fortunate enough to get a third period goal to go up late, they couldn't keep the Sharks from equalizing within the final minute of the game. Overtime proved nothing, and so another shootout was in the cards. Alas, the Devils couldn't win this one and so their winning streak ended to the Sharks with a 4-3 loss. It was a game they probably should have lost in regulation based on on-ice performance. A second point wasn't all that was lost. Center Jacob Josefson crashed into the end-boards awkwardly in the second period and skated off the ice in pain. Josefson broke his right clavicle; he was ruled to be out for 3 to 4 months. The Devils were already thin at center with Travis Zajac still recovering from his injury, now they would have to mix up the lines to fill in Josefson's spot.
The game against Pittsburgh looked close on the scoreboard for two periods; and then the Penguins blew it up. For the most part, the Pens had the better of possession and eventually they just kept finding success going high and glove-side on Hedberg. This isn't to say the loss was the fault of the Moose; but the skaters in front of him were just outplayed. Had the Penguins hit the net more often, it would have better resembled the San Jose game on the scoresheet. Either way, the Devils lost to the Penguins 4-1 and so the Devils went winless within their division.
There wouldn't be much time to dwell as the Devils went on longer trips and Zach Parise moved to center. The Devils first went into L.A. for the second and final game this season, and the team did a complete 180. They made their passes, they moved up ice briskly and with purpose, and they took the game right to the Kings for the first 40 minutes. New Jersey got 3 goals in the second period - the most in a period this month - and Hedberg stopped everything the Kings threw in the third. The Devils got their first shutout win of the season over the Kings and things were looking up good again. The called-up Adam Henrique was looking good early on at centering the third line. In the interim, the Devils snagged Ryan Carter off of waivers, who would provide some energy and actual hockey skill to the fourth line. In general, it seemed that the Devils would look to end the month strong given how well they played against a very talented Los Angeles team.
Alas, they didn't happen. In Phoenix, the Devils really didn't play all that poorly, but the Coyotes were just that much better that night. They pounded Hedberg with shots on net right from the get-go. The Devils just made errors that led to opportunities where the Coyotes capitalized. Phoenix put 5 past Hedberg, and I don't think any weren't really his fault - which is an indictment of how the defense performed (and a compliment to the Phoenix offense). A late consolation goal for New Jersey made the score look a little nicer, but a 5-3 loss is still worth no points. The Devils played much better two nights later in Dallas. The defense was tighter, the offense was more effective, and Hedberg wasn't being drilled right away. However, as it happens in all sports, a fluky bounce combined with being unable to beat Kari Lehtonen twice defeated the Devils. While the effort was solid, the Devils still lost to the Stars 3-1; the road trip ended at 1-3 and the month ended at 4-4-1.
Ending the month on a downward trend understandably leaves the fans with some kind of worry. The Devils haven't been scoring a lot of goals; Ilya Kovalchuk has been pointless in the last few games; Zach Parise has also been pointless in recent games save for making Mike Smith pay for an ill-advised playing of the puck behind the net; we're hoping Patrik Elias stays healthy; the defense hasn't generated much offense outside of some brief bright spots from Andy Greene and Mark Fayne; and the power play remains powerful in name only. Most of this, if not all of this, has to change,
On the other hand, they weren't playing bad teams. The lowest ranking team among their nine opponents by the end of the month was Carolina, and they were just in ninth in the East. Plus, their better performances have all resulted in wins except for the game against Dallas, It's not like they were winning any games they weren't supposed to (though, they came close against San Jose). Likewise, they were the inferior team in their losses, except for the game against Dallas. They're not getting results despite how they've played. In a way that's a positive and it provides further justification to DeBoer's quote. More of those kinds of performances will yield results; yet if they remain sloppy at moving the puck and leave the goalie out to dry, then they'll lose those games. The upcoming month of November puts many teams at a crossroads, including the Devils. They'll have plenty of chances to prove to us and themselves what kind of team they'll be in November.
Devil of the Month
For those of you who are unfamiliar, I like to name a player for Devil of the Month. My criterion for this selection is whoever was the most consistently excellent in the past month. On any given night, a player can have a great night. However, those who have had several good nights are more impressive to me because they are excelling more often. Those are the players who are not only valuable but also important to the team - regardless of results.
Usually, I name two. The first is an honorable mention for this monthly award. It's for a player who's done well enough to be called out even if they weren't the best in the past month. For the month of October 2011, my honorable mention for Devil of the Month is the Devils legendary forward Patrik Elias.
|October 2011 - Patrik Elias||9||4||4||8||1||6||1||1||0||27||14.8|
In the valley of the blind, the man with one eye is king. For a struggling offense, Elias is at the top of the heap, leading the team in both goals and points. He's scored the team's first power play non-empty-net goal of the season as well as the team's first shorthanded goal of the season. According to Behind the Net, Elias has played against difficult competition, doesn't start in the offensive zone the majority of the time, and he still is a positive possession player. Due to the injury to Josefson and other line-up tweaks by Peter DeBoer, Elias has had different wingers, which makes his production more impressive on a squad that definitely could use more of it. Elias is an all-situations player and an important part of the Devils - just as he has been for the last decade.
October Devil of the Month: Johan Hedberg
|Oct. 2011 - Johan Hedberg||8||473||4||3||1||18||2.28||238||220||.924||1|
The last time Moose put up numbers like he did in October, it was in February where he was on fire for 9 out of the 10 games he appeared. Hedberg only got as many starts as he did in October due to Brodeur's shoulder injury, but the way he's performed has not worried Devils fans. He's faced a lot of work in just 8 game appearances; the last time he faced over 238 shots was last February were he faced 247 in 10 appearances. Yet, Hedberg has not faded under the workload; he has been as solid as ever. Hedberg has been smooth in moving laterally; and he's been quite aware the play developing in front of him. The only consistent flaw has been his puckhandling outside of the crease, but that should be of no surprise to anyone. Very few of the 18 goals allowed are really his fault, and he's bailed out the Devils several times in their winning and losing efforts.
Among these nine games I most remember how he got the Devils a point they didn't deserve against San Jose, earned his shutout against Los Angeles, preserved the tie game against Nashville, and got in front of every Dallas shot possible to keep that last game close. I echo Kevin's commentary from earlier today: As well as Elias has played in October, the Devils are not even at 4-4-1 if it wasn't for Hedberg. Therefore, I feel it is most appropriate to name Johan Hedberg the In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month for October 2011.
#1 / Goalie / New Jersey Devils
May 05, 1973
GP: 8; Record: 4-3-1; 2.28 GAA; 92.4 Sv%; 1 SO
October 2011 Devil of the Month
Now that you know how I felt about the past month of games and who I believe was the best Devil player, I want to know your opinion. What is your take on how the Devils played in October? Are you satisfied with how the team performed, or are you concerned for the future? Do you agree with who I named as Devil of the Month? If not, who would you have picked and why? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about how the Devils played in October in the comments. Thank you for reading.