We must accept the increasing possibility that the New Jersey Devils may not make the playoffs. They are by no means without any shot at getting in. But it's getting longer by the day. As other teams ahead of them in the standings take care of business in winning games, and as the Devils fail to keep up. Every loss being more than just a lost possibility as time runs down on this season. I certainly do not like thinking about it but we must accept this possible reality of the Devils missing the playoffs for the second straight season. Something that has not happened to the Devils since Lou Lamoriello became a part of the organization in April 1987.
At the very least, it's an unpleasant possibility. The collective fanbase has every reason to be unhappy, especially given the last two games. From the hardened veteran who remembers the early 80s to the fan who just discovered the team to the fan who spends a lot of time thinking about the team and discussing them on various forums to the fan who sticks to the maximum of 140 character blasts on Twitter to the fan who bombards Facebook walls to the fan who just calls up their friends to talk about to everyone else, every one has their opinion about what's wrong. Why the Devils are where they are in the standings. Why they are on the outside looking in. So let's talk about it. Let's put it all out there. Let's vent.
But with a twist. I want to know: What is the biggest problem with the 2013-14 Devils that is keeping them out of the playoffs? Many have been brought up, especially after losses. I'll list what the biggest complaints have been and argue both for and against it. We'll go from there. I've even made it a poll for those who read and don't comment can have their say. Let me spoil the correct answer: all of the following are responsible to some degree. They are all problems and they all contribute. The question isn't whether it is or isn't holding the Devils back, just what has been the biggest problem this season (and likely what I'm going to focus about in the offseason).
Problem #1: The Shootout
Why It's Holding the Team Back: The Devils are 0-8 in shootouts this season. They've scored exactly one goal and dropped eight points because of it. Given that the team is out of a playoff spot by less than eight points, the lack of results stings.
Why It May Not Be the Biggest Problem: While that's eight points lost, it does mean they picked up eight points. It's not like they got nothing out of those games as deflating the games were. Moreover, the Devils haven't been in a shootout since January 16. It's not like this has been a recent occurrence. It would be really hard for the Devils to score once out of twenty-plus attempts so it's not as if this is a problem that can easily be fixed.
Problem #2: The Leadership
Why It's Holding the Team Back: Bryce Salvador may be appreciated in the back, but there's no question he's been the worst defenseman on the team over the whole season. While 50.3% Corsi over a season isn't at all bad, it's the lowest on one of the best possession teams in the league. The "C" means the Devils are forced to put in a defender who, at best, just doesn't make a mess of things out there. Throw in some recent lackluster efforts in a time where every game is critical and it's a question of how good Salvador is at being a captain, nevermind as a player.
Why It May Not Be the Biggest Problem: We've seen what poor leadership (and a coach losing the room) looked like in 2010-11. Plenty of closed-door player meetings and the captain, among others, just going through the motions game after game. Salvador is slow, sometimes unaware, and makes poor decisions. He's not lacking effort - just ability. Moreover, unless I missed it from Tom Gulitti, Rich Chere, or Randy Miller, the team has been getting along despite their up-and-down record. That doesn't indicate Salvador is trying to make a statement and no one's listening. Lastly, over the course of this season, defense hasn't been the main issue. Recently, perhaps, but not over all 68 games. We can agree that Salvador isn't good and we can agree that others may be captain, but the fact that he's in is probably not why the team is where they are in the standings.
Problem #3: The Goaltending
Why It's Holding the Team Back: Martin Brodeur finished last season with a save percentage of 90.1% in 29 games. Cory Schneider finished last season with a save percentage of 92.7% in 30 games. Yet, Brodeur and Schneider have essentially split games so far. While Schneider hasn't been so good in recent starts, his 91.5% save percentage is currently superior to Brodeur's 90.1%. And for some reason, Brodeur has started 33 games to Schneider's 36. If only the guy who stopped more pucks more often played more games; then the Devils would have probably won more games or got them beyond regulation.
Why It May Not Be the Biggest Problem: Choosing goaltenders is honestly a matter of form. When Brodeur does well, then he's likely to get more games. The same goes for Schneider. The problem has been that while Brodeur has had poor runs of performance, Schneider has been less than stellar. The exception to this has been in January 2014 through to the Olympic break, when Schneider got the majority of starts and played extremely well. Of course, when the Olympics were over, Schneider stumbled, Brodeur wasn't always horrid, and the reasons of why the Devils recently did not win did not fall squarely onto goaltending. Besides, an average goals against per game rate of 2.47 isn't bad - it's a top ten rate.
Problem #4: The Goal Scoring or the Lack Thereof
Why It's Holding the Team Back: You have to score goals to win games. Crushing equalizers given up late in games don't happen with one extra goal scored. Picking up shootout wins or even overtime wins happen with goals being scored. Offense is sometimes called upon to carry the defense and/or goaltending. The Devils' production has been lacking this season. They've scored 166, surpassing only seven other teams in the NHL. Their goals per game rate is 2.44, which is right around their goals against per game rate, which doesn't bode well for a good record. They've been shutout eight times, which puts them in a six-way tie for the most in the league. If this team could shoot more and light the lamp more, then they'd be far better off - and higher in the standings. What I feared before the season has come to fruition.
Why It May Not Be the Biggest Problem: Two of the teams that have scored fewer goals than the Devils are Los Angeles and Minnesota. Both are in playoff positions and both have excelled in various areas to get where they are. The lack of scoring hurts, but it alone can't hold a team back. If that was the case, then Washington (for example) should be in a better position than they are. Besides, it's not as if it's not possible for this team to score a whole lot. They were rather productive prior to their recent road trip. It's a case of some guys needing to get hot and having that deceptively successful power play succeed. Then they can be fine. The larger point is that scoring 2.5 goals per game or more is great and desirable, but it isn't an absolute requirement to succeed.
Problem #5: Peter DeBoer as Head Coach
Why It's Holding the Team Back: With the lack of results, the man behind the bench in charge usually gets the finger. And why not? He's supposed to be in charge. Yet, recently, we see the team making fundamental errors. Over the season, we have seen line changes and roster moves that have baffled the fans. Tactically, the fourth line gets used quite a lot in defensive situations that may be too much for them. We've seen some players, usually younger ones, get put to the side for veterans that may or may not produce. There's the whole issue of goaltender selection covered in #3. And then there's the fact that the team absolutely needs to get results and they're not getting them. DeBoer is a popular target and if the Devils are done by April 14, then he will likely go.
Why It May Not Be the Biggest Problem: 53.4%. That's the team's close-score Fenwick% in 5-on-5 play. You may not think much of possession stats, but it really tells a lot about how a team performs. All of the zone entries, zone exits, neutral zone plays, board battles, line match-ups, and so forth are all designed with the intent of either generating a shooting attempt or preventing one. So if DeBoer really was as dumb as some of the fans think him to be and if his strategies were so bad, then the team shouldn't be anywhere near being one of the best in the entire league in this stat.
While he's made some questionable choices, the fact is that the team's issues would not go away if one player did or did not play. The players have to execute when they're out there and if they don't, then that's largely on the player. Like turnovers, picking up opposing players in coverage, and so forth are fundamentals the players - especially a team filled with veterans - should know what to do. DeBoer's not telling them to falter. That goes for the youth, too. If you wanted to see more of Jacob Josefson, then he needed to not play anonymous hockey when he got a chance. If you wanted to see Eric Gelinas bust out The Truth, then he needed to more than just bust out The Truth. Regardless of whether the right goalie should have started, the goalie chosen needs to do his job and make stops regardless. The team does play low event hockey and there are correctable issues with what DeBoer does. But for the most part, DeBoer has gotten a lot right - only for something else to go wrong. If or when there's a new coach, watch that possession value. Unless he's got an excellent system, it's going to suffer and the team will likely suffer for it as well.
Problem #6: Lou Lamoriello's Moves from July 2013 to Now
Why It's Holding the Team Back: Lou was active in free agency this summer. On July 5, the team signed Ryane Clowe, Michael Ryder, and Rostislav Olesz. With a surprise "retirement" of a player, the Devils added Jaromir Jagr almost as a response. Damien Brunner was brought into training camp and signed to a contract. Other, more minor moves were made like dumping Krys Barch as well as keeping Mattias Tedenby and Peter Harrold. For the most part, though, only Jagr turned out to be a big win from free agency. Ryder was doing OK until his current arctic-cold streak. Clowe missed a big part of the season, part of the risk of signing him. Olesz didn't work out at all. Brunner has been deservedly benched at times for his lackadaiscal play and has been inconsistent at best with his usefulness. The team needed help in scoring and at the trade deadline, he essentially swapped Andrei Loktionov for Tuomo Ruutu. Ruutu may turn out to be good but he is not likely the scorer they needed - and the team remained to have load of defensemen. If you feel the problem with this season's team is a lack of talent and not addressing needs mid-season, then a finger has to be pointed at the man at the top.
Why It May Not Be the Biggest Problem: Other than the site being named after him? OK, he's just the overseer. He really comes into play with respect to larger personnel decisions like acquiring players, trades, and so forth. Probably calling up and demoting players as well. As involved as a GM gets, he tries to get the talent that's available. He's not a mindreader. He couldn't have predicted Ryane Clowe getting a significant injury and then going cold after an initial warm-up period. Nor Michael Ryder not scoring in over two months now. Or Brunner not working out well. Or Olsez not working out at all. Or a 42-year old Jagr leading the team in scoring. At the trade deadline, the Ruutu deal may have been the one to make without it being costly, though I would've preferred taking a shot at Ales Hemsky at this point. Lou doesn't let on what goes behind the scenes so it's difficult to fully criticize what was and was not done. Like with DeBoer, the players have to play. Unlike DeBoer, the coaches have to coach up the players. As general manager, he has responsibility but it's indirect so it's difficult to say that Lou's the biggest problem with the team.
Again, I believe the correct answer is a bit of all of these. Perhaps some others. You'll notice I didn't include specific issues like blowing leads or losses to inferior teams. Those are direct results of the issues at hand. Improvements in these six areas, I think, would have yielded a better record for the Devils than the one they currently have. Besides, in an 82 game season, there are going to be a few heartbreaks anyway - they happen to every team. The goal of this is to identify what you all think the biggest problem is with the team this season. Hopefully, the team makes the postseason to at least delay the discussion until late April as opposed to mid-April. So vote in the poll, feel free to discuss this in the comments, and thank you for reading.