Patrik Elias' facial expression sums up the month of November in my opinion. I'd read this post anyway, though. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
The New Jersey Devils started the month of November with a bad loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The New Jersey Devils ended the month of November with an even worse loss to the Colorado Avalanche. The month was bookended not just by defeats, but ones that make fans bitter. That could be said for most of the six losses the Devils suffered this month. Just poor performances that include issues with puck control, defensive breakdowns, getting caught on rushes, the third period in general, and the power play being miserly (the occasional PPGF at best, the just-as-occasional SHGA at worst) amid other problems.
Of course, the month wasn't as bad as those six losses. The Devils did win 8 games too. They weren't the most decisive wins ever. Four required play beyond regulation, with one ending in overtime and three ending with shootouts. Still, at this juncture of the regular season, getting two points at all is more important than whether or not they get a result in sixty minutes. Besides, that's not really the problem. The Devils won eight games in spite of the problems seen night after night.
The ugly loss in Colorado following the tough loss against the Islanders will understandably make some fans feel down about the team. After all, those were the recent games and those games demonstrated the frustrations with this team. That's fine, but it paints an incomplete picture. The truth of the matter is that all falls in line with an 8-6 record. 8-6 isn't a bad record and all of the "could have lost" or "should have losts" isn't going to change that. There were ups, downs, and they evened out slightly in New Jersey's favor.
Yet, at the same time, 8-6 feels unfulfilling - it's not where we'd like the team to finish after a month. Is it something to get seriously worried over? I don't know. Before this season, most of the predictions on this site held that the Devils will make the playoffs but end up as one of the lower seeds. They're certainly on pace to do just that and with 59 games left, it's certainly possible. Unlike last season, the Devils are in the mix in the standings. Should they want to move ahead and get more victories, it would be in their best interest to address the issues displayed in November very soon.
The Month in Review - A Summary of Games
Again, the month started with a bad loss to Toronto. Martin Brodeur returned from injury and as an act of celebration, the Devils' team defense broke down and gifted the Leafs chance after change. Toronto, being a graceful team, accepted and utilized these gifts en route to a 5-3 victory. Fortunately, the Devils only had a few presents remaining for their game against Philadelphia. It looked like it would be enough for Flyers to pick up a win, but the Devils decided they wanted some payback. The team got smarter about defending their slot, they out-shot and out-attempted the Flyers, and managed to answer every one of the goals they scored. A shootout was needed and the Devils took it to end it 4-3 in their favor. It was not only their first win of the month, but also their first of the season over a division rival.
Two days later and short one Ilya Kovalchuk due to a groin pull, the Devils were back at the Rock hosting Winnipeg. In retrospect, this would be the game that would show off the Devils' problem of third period performance. The Devils looked in the first two periods and were up 2-0 going into the third period, which was only the second time that has happened all season at the time. The Jets rallied and eventually tied up the game. It was deflating to a point, but Adam Henrique scored on his second breakaway of the game in overtime to give NJ a 3-2 win and two more points in the standings. From this game onward, the Devils would be scored upon in every third period this month except for three games.
It happened at home against Carolina. While the Devils fought to rise above their first of five shorthanded goals allowed, a bad bounce of Henrique's skate tied up the game. Fortunately, Henrique himself responded with the game winning goal late in the third to give the Devils a 3-2 win. The third period was more costly in the first half of a home-and-home with the Washington Capitals a few days later. The Caps equalized a 1-0 deficit in the second period and then torched the Devils twice - one shorthanded goal, another off a defensive breakdown - in the third period. Both goals against made the Devils skaters look like morons. The Capitals held on to win 3-1 in a frustrating game. The following night in Washington DC was frustrating from a shooter's perspective as there were a myriad of blocks by both sides. The Devils equalized a poor first period with two goals in the second period, and somehow, the Caps did not burn the Devils in the third period. Yes, it was one of the few games where the Devils held their opponents scoreless in the third period. The Devils won in the eventual shootout to split the home-and-home; kicking off their five-game road trip with a 3-2 win.
The road trip would continue with another back-to-back, first against the red-hot Boston Bruins followed by a game against the Buffalo Sabres. The Bruins were rolling through teams at the time and would continue to do so in November. The Devils were competitive for the first 40 minutes of this game, with a Johan Hedberg un-classic turnover gifting the B's a goal to make it 1-1. Then the Bruins seemingly switched on "Kill Mode" and proceeded to dominate the third period with constant rushes up ice, crashing players to the net, and shot after shot after shot. Two rushes led to goals by Nick Palmieri to keep the game close; but with the way the Bruins were swarming, all the Devils could do is weather the storm. Eventually, the Bruins got a rebound, put it in, and held on to win 4-3. The next night would go far much better for the Devils. Kovalchuk returned and the Devils offense really displayed their claws. They held the Sabres to one goal against - a rare PPGA - while the Devils put up three of their own in the first two periods. Moreover, the Devils tacked another one on in the third period to really put the game out of reach. The Sabres had a moment of trying to make a comeback, but a David Clarkson breakaway goal re-established the Devils three goal lead and all Buffalo can do was get another consolation goal. The Devils won 5-3 and while they gave up 2 in the third, it didn't matter much then since they scored 2 of their own and maintained a lofty lead against an opponent. It would turn out to be their finest game of the month.
The remaining six games on the schedule would turn out to be harrowing, however. They looked good in the first 40 minutes at Tampa Bay, putting up three on the Lightning in the second period - with two on the power play (yeah, that's right, the PP had one good night). The Devils were looking smooth until the third period started. The Lightning turned up the intensity and while the PK fended them off, they scored two quick goals before 10 minutes into the third. That 3-0 lead was looking grim at 3-2. Peter DeBoer called a timeout and the team realzed they needed to "get it together." They did by holding Tampa Bay to just one shot on net, and a Dwayne Roloson error (call it Hedbergesque) gifted a game-sealing fourth goal. The Devils won 4-2, which looks nice from afar, but the Devils really did come close to a third period meltdown. In Sunrise, Florida, the Devils managed to have that meltdown. Despite a 3-0 first period, the Florida Panthers were undeterred as the second period began. Their top line just tore through the Devils defense and their other forwards pitched in to keep up the pressure. Eventually, the Panthers clawed their way back into the game with 2 goals in the second period. In the third, the Devils really lost it with a horrendous shorthanded goal allowed to tie it up and another breakdown that led to the late winner. Yes, the Devils blew a three-goal lead and ended their road trip with a 4-3 loss.
The woes continued on as the Devils returned home. They were playing a Columbus Blue Jackets team that was at the bottom of the standings but were enjoying a recent good run of games. The Devils could only get one past Curtis Sanford in the second period. Then the third period came and the Blue Jackets looked brilliant as they out-shot the Devils 17-3. They only got one lucky bounce to go into the net to equalize; but it was another poor third period performance by the home team. Fortunately, the Devils got their minds right in OT and didn't collapse in those five minutes either. The Devils won the shootout to get a 2-1 win but the big takeaway was another porous third period. A home-and-home with the New York Islanders, a truly bad team, followed and the Devils struggled with them. They didn't start well in the first period, they didn't start the third period well, they had to hold off the Isles in the final four minutes or so, but the Devils somehow eked out a 1-0 win. And that was one of their better third period performances. The following day was more frustrating at the Rock as the Devils allowed several odd-man rushes by the Isles that Martin Brodeur bailed them out on, and constantly turned the puck over in all three zones. Three of them of varying severity led to goals against, including a back-breaking one that led to a shorthanded goal that stood up as the winner. Oh, the Devils tried to equalize late, but Toronto ruled that Zach Parise kicked a puck in (he really didn't). That the Devils needed that call to go their way was indicative of how they played their final home game of the month. The 3-2 loss to the Islanders, to use a common word, was frustrating. The Devils would get 3 days off before their month-ending game in Colorado. The Devils didn't learn much from their mistakes as they turned the puck over repeatedly, hung Martin Brodeur out to dry again, allowed a shorthanded goal (it didn't lead to the loss but just made it worse), and played like hot garbage in the third period again. Their 6-1 loss to the Avs was fully deserved and their stupidest game of the season.
The Month in Review - Commentary
The common thread throughout the majority of these 14 games in November was the third period. The Devils were just woeful in the final third of regulation in November. The Devils were out-scored 9 to 20 in third periods in November. They were out-shot 96 to 139. In four of their six losses, the Devils allowed the eventual game winning goal in the third period. Their worst stretch was from November 15 (the Boston game) to November 23 (the Columbus game), where the Devils were outscored 5-10 and out-shot 23-69. The Devils were just brutal in the final third of regulation and among all other issues for this team to address, this has to be corrected. They're giving away points and just making games harder on themselves when various opposing teams are able to break through.
Issue #2 - and it's really more of #1a than #2, but that's just me - is the power play. From a conversion standpoint, the Devils went 7-for-53. That's not abjectly horrible, but it's not all that good. From a shooting standpoint, the Devils have been wasteful at best. They remain dead last by a good margin with a SF/60 rate of 38.2 in 5-on-4 situations. It's one thing to not score many power play goals, it's another to be unable to get more than one or two shots on most opportunities. Then the power play becomes a waste of two minutes. Of course, the biggest issue has to do with the goals they allow; which just makes this side of special teams more damaging to the Devils than it helps. The Devils have struggled against aggressive penalty killing units and they've been burnt for 5 shorthanded goals in November. Four out of these five were important goals: Carolina scored the first goal of the game on one on November 8; Washington took the lead on their third-period shorty on November 11; Florida tied up the game 3-3 in the third on November 21; and the Islanders re-took a lead in the third period on November 26. The fifth was just Colorado tacking on another goal in a game they were already winning. My main point remains - the Devils power play is hurting the team's overall chances and it burned them in five games. Something's got to change. If this means the Devils have to just play a 5-on-4 like they do at 5-on-5, then so be it. If this means the Devils have to play with 3 defensemen in the back on man advantages, then so be it. If this means Adam Oates has to be fired, then so be it.
Third is a little more esoteric and fueled by the last few games, but the Devils need to be much smarter as to where they are positioning themselves on the ice. As nice as it sounds that Peter DeBoer wants the Devils to be more aggressive with respect to their forecheck, neutral zone play, and pinching at the point, it's been costly at times. By being out of position, speedier teams can exploit the additional space like the Islanders and the Avalanche have done in the last two games. As great as the Devils are in preventing shots against on the whole, some of the opportunities they have allowed have been ridiculous and/or dangerous. I would suggest that DeBoer employ a trap more often if only to keep enough guys back to prevent teams from breaking away or breaking out easily against the defense. This could be quite important for the third period, come to think of it.
While those are serious problems among others (e.g. the fourth line, general play by the bottom six, that Nick Palmieri got shuttled down but Tim Sestito is kept for "energy, etc.), there is one part of the team that commands nothing but serious praise. The penalty killing units have been wonderful to say the least. They have allowed one power play goal in all of November. 54 opportunities, 1 goal against. That's simply spectacular. Moreover, they have the fourth lowest SA/60 rate in 4-on-5 situations with 42.9. That's excellent goaltending and excellent play by the four (sometimes three) skaters in front of said goaltender. I don't know how long it will last, but the PK has been an A+ part of this team this season. May it continue for however long it can continue.
As for the team as a whole, I find that they're somewhere in the middle. In terms of shot prevention, the Devils have been quite good at 5-on-5 with a SA/60 rate of 27.3. It's actually the third lowest in the league. Yet, the defense has been prone to allowing dangerous shots by various means (e.g. giveaways, missed coverages, poor support by the forwards, etc.). That contributes to the team's low save percentage of 89.8% in 5-on-5 play; as well as drawing sympathy for Brodeur and Hedberg, who each have made many more bailout saves then we would have liked. Offensively, the Devils don't shoot enough as evidenced by their low SF/60 rate of 26.7 in 5-on-5 situations. Yet, the team's shooting percentage is in the middle of the road at 8.1%. That's far better than the dismal percentage of last season; and it only further drives the need for this team to get more rubber on net. Plus, they've received timely production from the Patrik Elias line as well as Henrique and when Kovalchuk was healthy (don't scoff: 9 games, 3 goals, 5 assists). Besides, the SF/60 rate was at 27.0 before the Colorado game, so their shot differential wasn't as bad. When you take all this together, I see a team that's average. They could be better, they could be worse, but where they are is in the middle.
In my view, the biggest indicator of this team sitting in the middle of the league isn't necessarily their 12-10-1 record, but their possession game. They've been around 50% in close-score Fenwick percentage; they dipped below it after the Colorado game to 49.72. They're still fifteenth in the league, furthering their stance as mediocre. I guess one way to look at it is that this is how it's going to be until Travis Zajac gets healthy and into form. I'd rather the Devils fix their other problems prior to Zajac's return, and that should help out their possession game. OK, a better power play won't affect Fenwick% (it's an even strength stat), but it will help the Devils in their efforts to win games. Better puck control, less aggressive play, and not getting wrecked in the third period would all provide boosts, though. Not only would the possession improve but, the Devils' own performances and (hopefully) their record. While the month ended ugly yet with a slightly positive 8-6 record, the time is now to address the team's legitimate issues so the Devils can remain pace in the standings instead of fading through December.
Devil of the Month Honorable Mention: Adam Henrique
|Nov. 2011 - Adam Henrique||14||5||9||14||-1||0||0||0||2||27||18.5
To be fair, I wouldn't say Adam Henrique has been completely fantastic in November. He regularly gets beaten in possession; opposing teams like to target his line with their top line on the road - and it shows. Henrique is very much a rookie and he does have his moments where it shows. Yet, I can't deny the good things he brought to the table in November, and he brought a lot. Believe it or not, Henrique led the Devils skaters in scoring this month with 14 points (5 G, 9 A). He was the hero against Winnipeg and Carolina and he's made plays elsewhere. Henrique has been given 17+ minutes a night since the Toronto game that opened November and the coaches feel comfortable enough to use him in all situations. While I think Henrique is better suited for a lower line against weaker competition, his production alone deserves some kind of credit. And here it is.
November 2011 Devil of the Month: Patrik Elias
|Nov. 2011 - Patrik Elias||14||4||8||12||0||4||2||0||1||25||16.0|
The PK has been consistently great all season. The only other part of this team that has been consistently good has been the play of the Patrik Elias line. Dainius Zubrus has continued to put in good performances and Petr Sykora looks like he really does belong in the NHL. In my opinion, Elias has been the one making the line work at center. Again, Elias has had a very good month in terms of production (4 G, 8 A) and he remains the team's leading scorer. More importantly, he has continued to face the toughest competition at even strength among all forwards and he usually drives the play against them. Elias has the second highest on-ice Corsi rate on the team at 9.22, which is impressive given that the team as a whole has struggled a bit in possession. Moreover, Elias has been one of the team's regulars on the penalty kill with 2:12 shorthanded ice time per game; so he's been contributing to the team's awesome penalty kill. The only area where I think he struggles is on the power play, but even there he had two PPGs and an assist.
OK, so we learned the hard way that he shouldn't play the point on a power play. That really shouldn't deflate what has been another solid month by the legendary Devils forward. Feel free to disagree, but I'm the least worried about the Elias line as they can be counted on to have a positive game. Should the Devils continue to struggle, DeBoer may be forced to split this group up. Should that happen, I still feel confident that Elias can continue to be the Devils' most consistently good forward. Therefore, I name Patrik Elias the In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month for November 2011.
#26 / Left Wing / New Jersey Devils
Apr 13, 1976
GP: 14; G: 4; A: 8; Pts: 12; 4 PIM; 16.0 S%
November 2011 Devil of the Month
What did you make of the month of November for the New Jersey Devils? What were the main issues that you found? What about the team has been praise-worthy, if anything at all? What do you expect to see going forward into December? Do you agree with my selection for the Devil of the Month? Please leave your answers and other commentary about how the team has played in this last month in the comments. Thank you for reading.