After last night's stunning and shameful Game 3 loss to Florida, there's a lot of blame to go around for why the New Jersey Devils are down 2-1 in their series to the Florida Panthers. There's a lot of justifiable and reasonable criticism to go around. Here's a list of them just off the top of my head:
Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg have allowed their share of soft goals (yes, Hedberg gave up only one - and it should've been stopped). The skaters in general haven't been shown enough discipline and so they take stupid penalties where the Panthers have succeeded. The penalty kill in general hasn't been anything like we've seen during the 82 games of the 2011-12 season. Ilya Kovalchuk hasn't been himself, putting up plenty of attempts but very few getting on net. Some forwards, like David Clarkson, Adam Henrique and Petr Sykora, have been non-factors. The Devils have been largely beaten on faceoffs except when Travis Zajac is taking them. The coaches haven't been able to get through to the guys about not taking calls or attacking consistently against the Florida defense. Leadership has been wanting in that regard.
Yet, within that list, the worst player on the Devils in this series deserves some additional attention: Anton Volchenkov. No, he's not the sole reason the Devils are down 2-1 in the series. Nevertheless, Volchenkov has been absolutely putrid in Games 1 through 3 and it's really a continuation of a fall from grace in his career. Please continue on after the jump to see how far the defensive defenseman has fallen.Volchenkov has never been an offensive player. His game is all about getting stops in his own end, be it by blocking shots, crushing opposing players with checks, or holding steady in position to make plays. Volchenkov has never had more than 85 shots on net in a season, his season high in goals is 4, and he's never had more than 18 points. Volchenkov has not and will never be a contributor to the attack. Therefore, he can only justify his worth to a team by playing well defensively, either in 5-on-5 or shorthanded situations. Given that the Devils signed him to a $25.5 million, six season contract in 2010, he really needs to be doing really well defensively to get value out of that contract. In these playoffs, he's nowhere near worth $4.25 million per season and in his entire time with New Jersey, it's questionable whether he's been given a chance to earn that contract.
Let's start from the beginning. Volchenkov's average ice time with the Devils in 2010-11 was 18:06 and his total ice time was fourth on the team according to NHL.com. He played a significant part of the penalty kill, but three other defensemen averaged more time than him so it wasn't as if he was the go-to guy on the PK. It didn't help his cause that he missed 25 games in that season, either. At least Volchenkov, for all of his lack of offensive game, actually came out ahead in on-ice Corsi and he had the lowest SA/60 (shots against per 60 minutes) rate among regular defensemen on the team according to the advanced stats at Behind the Net. Yet, from that same link, you'll see that he didn't usually start in his own end, he didn't play nearly as many minutes at evens, and he didn't face the toughest competition. For a shut-down defenseman making over $4 million, that's not a good start.
Things went a little better for Volchenkov in the 2011-12 season. Volchenkov did score two goals thanks to Ilya Kovalchuk and he was healthier in that he only missed 10 games. Yet, under a new head coach, Volchenkov remained behind other defenders in ice time. His average ice time dipped a little to 17:58. His overall ice time was third on the team (Marek Zidlicky played most of his minutes for another team). However, that's because Andy Greene and Henrik Tallinder missed significant portions of the season. Volchenkov did become the first option on the penalty kill as he led the defense in shorthanded ice time per game. He also put up a sub-22 SA/60 rate at evens according to Behind the Net and he started in his own end more often than the other team's. Yet, despite playing a lot on the PK, he wasn't regularly trusted against tough competition at evens.
Then you have the 2012 playoffs as they have gone so far. This is where Volchenkov has really slumped. He's never been a fast defenseman, so his positioning against speedy players is crucial. He needs to hang back more to force those players out wide and out of danger. Yet, he's been burned twice by Sean Bergenheim, who just skated around him and went to the net for goals both times. He even had a step or two into the zone in Game 3 and he still got beaten badly. He's not even facing Bergenheim regularly either, but it's not like the Panther had to see a lot of him to know that he isn't handling pacey players well at all. It's going to continue too even if Kevin Dineen isn't constantly sending him or similar players out there against Volchenkov.
His positioning in general has left a lot to be desired. During a penalty kill, he drifts away from where he's supposed to be in Game 1, which is down low on the right side of the slot. Since he pushed up, Kris Versteeg had an open lane to drive the puck to the crease and jam it in for a score if he got it. He did get it and he did score. Of course, Volchenkov put himself in a position where he could do nothing about the pass or Versteeg. That was not his only down-low error. He shoved Scottie Upshall in front of Brodeur as Mike Weaver took his shot early in the second period of Game 3. The motion carried him and Upshall in front of the goalie. Screening your goaltender is never a good idea and, as it turned out, the puck got through for Florida to tie it up. Volchenkov also put himself in a no man's land on the eventual game winning goal of Game 2, where he was too far out to really cover Mikael Samuelsson behind him and too far away from Marcel Goc to do anything. Sure, Brodeur should've stopped it, but Volchenkov was useless as a statue. Volchenkov has been on the ice for more goals, but the fact that he's involved in what went wrong on five of them is an indictment of his performance.
A further indictment is his utilization. According to NHL.com, Volchenkov has been averaging a mere 12:13 per game and he's dead last in total ice time on the team. That is partially because he doesn't bring any real amount of offense means that he's sitting when the Devils need a score late. The other part is that he's been a horror show in his own end. Three games is a very small population size for advanced stats to tell us much, but here it is at Behind the Net. He's been given 80% offensive zone starts, his shifts end in the offensive zone only 29.4% of the time. His SA/60 rate has ballooned from 21.8, the best among Devils defenseman to 30.5, the worst among Devils defensemen. In a series where the Devils have been the superior team in 5-on-5 play, Volchenkov is one of three Devils with a negative on-ice Corsi rate and it's the second lowest on the team, just better than Ryan Carter.
I know these could just be three really bad games in a row. It's not at all the right time to have them, tough. Overall, this is a defenseman who went from being a shut-down, 20-minute guy for Ottawa to a 17-18 minute sort-of shut-down guy for the Devils in two seasons to playing like an AHL scrub in the 2012 playoffs. I think the only things he hasn't done to hurt his team yet is take a penalty that hurt his team (he took one in Game 1, but the Devils actually killed it) and giveaway the puck for a score. With the way things are going, I think both are a matter of when and not if. All this for $4.25 million a year with four more seasons to go.
DeBoer has rightfully cut his minutes at evens and has protected him as much as he could; but Volchenkov's play has still been an utter liability. I suspect he'll still play in Game 4, but I would be more than fine with Adam Larsson replacing him regardless of Larsson's inexperience and tendencies to cough up the puck and make poor reads. He'd have to try to be worse than Volchenkov at this point.
That all said, while Volchenkov is the worst Devil in the 2012 playoffs, he's not the sole reason why they are where they are. Volchenkov's poor play has been a visible and damaging contributor to their playoff effort. That is true. The fall of Anton Volchenov has been quite real and it's been really ugly to watch in these three playoff games. Yet, it's just a part of the team's issues. However, the laundry list I brought up in the beginning of the post are all valid issues as well. Losing a three goal lead and not doing enough in the remaining 35 or so minutes to re-take the game is a team failure. Muddling through two periods and trying to make up for it in the third is a team issue. Volchenkov could step up in Game 4 (or some other game) and play better. Perhaps he magically could even play like he's the second coming of Scott Stevens from here on out. It won't mean much if the goaltending doesn't improve quickly, the team finally learns to stay out of the box regardless of whether their PK get sorted out, the offense doesn't consistently get pucks on net from good positions either from their top players (read: Ilya Kovalchuk) or their support players (read: David Clarkson), and/or the players realize their situation either from DeBoer or team leadership.