October ended on a positive note but it was a poor month for the New Jersey Devils. How can it not be? The team ended the month with a record of 3-5-4; earning only ten points out a potential twenty-four. Worse yet, the team kicked off the 2013-14 season with a seven game winless streak. Sure, they ended the month on a strong note but that's because they've been so weak in the first three weeks or so. The only reason why the Devils aren't buried outside of the playoffs is because the rest of the Metropolitan Division has struggled to succeed consistently. In the big picture, the Devils absolutely have to be better very soon because it is folly to expect the other seven teams in the division to fall over themselves for another month.
At first, the winless streak wasn't much of a concern. Dropping the first game of the season in Pittsburgh 3-0 doesn't upset me. The Pens were real good, the goalie made a stop behind his back, and it was only the first game of the season. The home opener was better but still a loss. A 4-3 shootout loss to the Isles came after a long scoreless shootout, which came about because the Devils got beaten on breakdowns and poor goaltending. Not great, but not a cause for concern. After all, it was only two games into the season. What made the fans sad and mad about the Devils being bad was the five-game road trip through Canada.
The first win should have been in Edmonton. The Devils went up 3-0 on the Oilers heading into the third period. But the Oilers racked up four goals - yes, four - in about eight minutes. New Jersey needed a fluke bounce to tie it up late and at least salvaged a point in a shootout loss. That eight minute stretch where a three goal lead got ruined was difficult to watch as the Oilers somehow turned the clock back to the 1980s. It was a lowlight of the early season and things did not get better for the Devils. The next night, the Devils went to Vancouver and got out-played for the most part. They did get a two goal lead only to be erased within the second period thanks to Anton Volchenkov re-directing a long shot and Vancouver taking advantage of a make-shift 5-on-4 as Ryane Clowe hobbled to the bench in pain. The Devils held on to what they could but a deflection right at the crease in overtime made it a 3-2 loss for the visitors. At least they stole a point; it would be their last on the road trip. In Calgary, the Devils played a lackluster game and a blown coverage made it a 3-2 loss in regulation. In Winnipeg, the Devils gave up one fluke goal in 59 minutes and played like they were down four in a really crummy effort. An empty netter and a quick strike at the end extended the score to make it a 3-0 loss at the Jets. The fifth and final game in Ottawa had a much more watchable and overall better effort from the skaters. But a really bad night in net by Martin Brodeur got the team down early, the skaters made it a game with a deluge of shots on net plus two goals, and then Brodeur gave up a third soft goal to end a potential comeback. The Devils ended their road trip without a single win in a 5-2 loss. Simply, nobody was happy at all.
There was something to smile about after the trip. The Devils hosted Our Hated Rivals and simply smashed them. The Devils got their first win of the season in a 4-0 win over the Rangers. I cannot stress enough how much the team needed that win. A loss there would have likely sent the fans and possibly management into a state of panic where Tough/Rash Decisions would be made. That did not happen. However, neither did the hope that one would win would immediately help the Devils get back on track. The team flopped 4-1 in Columbus in a manner similar to the Winnipeg game as the team's performance just faded to dreck as time went on. As bad as that loss was, the team wouldn't languish in their next game. The Devils hosted Vancouver and easily out-played them. They out-shot them, they controlled the puck, and they pushed the tempo more often than not. However, two bad goals allowed by Cory Schneider plus not being able to get more than two past Vancouver's goalie meant more post-regulation hockey. The overtime period solved nothing and the Devils lost their third shootout of the month for another loss (an OTL, but still a loss) in the standings. At least the performance was better.
The final two games of the month were dramatic in their own ways. In Boston, the Devils got pounded early on with a 3-1 first period by the home team. The B's kept up their pressure for about ten more minutes but the Devils survived it. Amazingly, their power play - which was (and still is) just miserable at generating shots to start the season - would allow the Devils to make a comeback. The Devils converted four out of seven power plays, including two within the final two minutes: one off a 6-on-3 and one off a botched shot. The Devils stunned Boston 4-3 for their second win of the season. The last game of the month was against the high-scoring Tampa Bay Lightning at the Rock. On this night, it was the Devils' dominating with pressure helped out greatly by Tampa Bay seemingly forgetting how to simply break the puck out of their own zone. The Devils contained their two stud scorers, gave little room to other Bolts, and held on to a shorthanded goal by Adam Henrique and a breakaway goal by Jaromir Jagr (!) in a 2-1 win. The Devils ended the month with two consecutive wins.
If you read through those recaps and comments, you'll see a myriad of frustration, irritation, and unhappiness. There were many calls for head coach Peter DeBoer to be fired. There were many laments about the roster as it was constructed by Lou. There were many questions and complaints about who was and was not in the lineup. While this has subsided somewhat with the wins, I cannot say they were all without merit. I also cannot say they were all right. Lou can't just snap a finger to make a bad contract go away. While John MacLean didn't have a seven game winless streak, he also had a team that pretty much gave up on games more often than not and made no adjustments as opposed to trying to change things when the results or performance wasn't right. And as much as I can agree that Mark Fayne is better than most of the defense and that Adam Larsson and Eric Gelinas will one day be better too; the Devils' problems are deeper than what a simple change of the #6 defenseman or a bottom-six forward can address.
One of the biggest concerns heading into this season was the offense. My exact question was, "Where are the goals going to come from?" That question remains at large. The Devils finished October with 26 goals. Only three teams had less than that and thankfully two are in the division (Buffalo at 23, our two most hated rivals tied at 20). The Devils have averaged just over two goals per game and that's including three games where they scored more than three goals. The two games they got shutout hurt but in general, the Devils weren't lighting it up. Not only have they not won a shootout, they haven't even scored a single goal in it out of twelve attempts. The team leader is a three-way tie between Henrique, Michael Ryder, and Damien Brunner with four; but they along with the other multi-goal scorers haven't been all that consistent in their production.
Adding to the goal scoring woes, and possibly a root cause of them, is their lack of shots. The Devils simply don't shoot a lot. In all situations, they're averaging 26.6 shots per game, the fourth lowest in the NHL before the first game was played in November. The power play had a streak of games so their conversion rate looks solid at 21.4% but they're still shooting very little. They're at a rate of less than 40 shots per 60 minutes and far less than the league median of about 55 per 60 minutes. And that's an improvement from where they started. The Devils are doing very well in terms of possession according to Extra Skater. Their Corsi percentage in 5-on-5 play is 53.6%, the fifth best in the league. In terms of Fenwick percentage (attempts without blocks) in 5-on-5 score close situations, the Devils are still good at 52%, just outside of the top ten in the league. But a closer look at the event rates that lead to both good percentages show that the Devils are very much a low-event team. They're very stingy, among the best in the league at preventing attempts. But they're the only top possession team to have a attempts for per 60 rate above 50 (they're at 48.3 right now) and their Fenwick for per 60 rate is well under 40 (at 36.3). Simply: the Devils aren't even attempting to shoot the puck all that much. As a result, they don't shoot a lot at evens or on the man advantage. Since they're not hot at shooting, they haven't scored a lot of goals.
Compounding that problem has been how many goals they have allowed. Prior to Friday's games, the Devils sit tied with Carolina with 34 goals allowed, the 13th most in the league. That's not too bad. Add three goals from the shootout losses (each one adds a GA) and they're still right around the median. However, if you're one of the lowest scoring teams, being around average in allowing goals isn't going to be good enough. Some of those goaltending performances have left a lot to be desired. Martin Brodeur has an ugly overall save percentage of 87.9%. He's allowed at least one soft goal - a shot he should have stopped - in each of his first five appearances. He was dreadful in Ottawa, leading to Cory Schneider getting three straight starts. Schneider has been the better goalie. His overall save percentage is a more palatable value of 91.5%. But even he's had his faults. He wasn't so lights-out in Columbus. He gifted a goal and lamely allowed an equalizer through his legs in the Vancouver game; a game where the skaters definitely did their job. He's suffered some lower body injury and has been on injured reserve for the final two games of the season. With many more back-to-back sets on top of injuries, goaltending is a constant concern. Brodeur simply has to be much better than he has been, rhythm or no rhythm. Schneider could be a bit better too; but his first three or four appearances suggest he'll be OK in the long run. But in October, the goaltending needed to be great instead of adequate to make up for the Devils' offensive struggles. It wasn't and the record bears that out to a degree.
Overall, I see the problem as execution. A bad decision here, poor positioning there, a bad night from some guy, and so forth. While I don't expect Martin Brodeur to play like he did back in, say, 2007-08; I do think he can certainly stop a few more pucks. I don't expect the Devils to have a great scorer but I do think it's reasonable to demand more consistency out of the likes of Damien Brunner (I know he got hurt so perhaps he'll be fine going forward), Michael Ryder, Adam Henrique, Travis Zajac, Andrei Loktionov, and Rostislav Olesz. The Devils have been remarkably excellent in terms of limiting shots and attempts against, yet we can always demand improvement from defensemen who aren't named or as solid as Andy Greene. Peter DeBoer can do a few things differently; but it's important to note the players aren't getting wrecked on the ice with the same systems and they haven't given up on him at all. They wouldn't have won the Boston game if they did, for example. An optimist can see this as good news. Should the team commit fewer errors per game and make some other adjustments for improvement (e.g. get more pucks on net), then the team may not be mired with a poor record for long. The realist will say it has to happen soon, if not today. Another month like this and the playoffs will be a bleak hope before it is Christmas.
Devil of the Month
I've decided to nix the honorable mention part of these posts because I think it takes a bit away from overall winner. I've also decided to spoil the honoree in the recap of the 2-1 win over Tampa Bay. It's Jaromir Jagr. And why not? After two to three games where he was so rusty, I expected his equipment to turn reddish-brown, he got into his groove. That groove where he's been winning pucks, warding off opponents with his large frame, making plays, taking shots, and scored a few goals. Jagr currently leads the Devils in scoring with three goals and seven assists and he's riding a five-game point streak. He's only been held shotless in one game and he picked up two assists in that 4-0 romp over the Rangers. I've gushed over his first ten games this season and he's only proven me correct in the wins over Boston and Tampa Bay. Who knows if it'll last but this isn't about the future. It's about what happened in October. I would say he's been the most impressive among the Devils, much less all of the players the team signed this summer. Therefore, who better to be named the In Lou We Trust Devil of the Month for October 2013 than Jaromir Jagr? Now watch this breakaway again:
With the first game of November starting tonight, what are your final thoughts about the first month of the season for the Devils? Surely it did not meet expectations, but do you think the Devils can recover from this? Or was what we saw in October going to be what we're going to continue to see throughout this season? Would you agree that Jagr was the most impressive Devil in October? If not, who would you choose and why? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils' October in the comments. Thank you for reading.