In critiquing last night’s 4-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues, Devils Head Coach John Hynes said simply, “we got down and we were chasing the game a little bit, [we] did not find a way to create enough offense. And when we had a chance … to get back in the game, we gave up some goals.” He then conceded that the team’s battle level, “obviously has not been good enough the last two games.” Quite frankly, no writer can more correctly comment on the current state of Devils’ hockey better than Hynes already has. The giveaways, the failure to win faceoffs, and the goaltending were the New Jersey killers last night.
But there are other things that could be contributing to the Devils’ problems.
First, it did not seem to me that Taylor Hall was skating as well as he did before he was injured last month. Yes, Hall has posted points in the last three games, but he just did not look to have the acceleration that he did very early in the season. And where Hall is on the ice when he makes plays is critical to the Devils’ success. But, he has to get there fast to be effective. Last night, he made one marvelous play deep in the Blues zone, bringing the puck around the net and pushing it to where PA Parenteau (who had not scored since November 8th) could knock it home. That type of play is what we are used to seeing from Hall. And obviously, he can still do it, but, at this point, it seems that he is not getting there often enough.
Other things that were very noticeable were the turnover by defenseman John Moore behind his own net that led to St. Louis fourth liner Ryan Reaves’ first goal of the year, and forward Vern Fiddler’s two critical giveaways, in addition to screening his own netminder on the first goal by Robby Fabbri.
So what can be done? Obviously, the energy level of the team needs to rise. But a high energy level is hard to sustain when you spend so much time on the road. The Devils got off to a marvelous start to the season, when Hall was healthy and the team was at home for the majority of their games (in October, five of eight games were at the Rock). As November rolled on and Hall needed surgery on his knee, the team’s energy and win/loss record declined precipitously. When at home, the Devils have only lost one game in regulations (last night), and one in OT (against Detroit on 11/25). All the others, the team has won.
But since November 1st, only six of New Jersey’s contests have taken place at the Prudential Center. When these scheduling issues are combined with the loss of Hall for awhile last month, it spelled disaster for the team’s momentum. And we all know that momentum is critical in hockey. How long can a team be expected to play away from its home and not have it affect its compete level?
It will get a little better over the next three weeks, when four out of the next ten games are at home, but the schedule never becomes a balanced one for the Devils, and they are not at the Pru as much as they are on the road until early February. In fact, more than 41% of New Jersey’s 41 home games take place in the short month February and March. But by then, the fatigue of being on the road could have put the Devils out of any hope of a playoff appearance.
In addition to questions about how fully recovered Hall is and what the schedule has done to the momentum of the team, there is an issue of the defense. It is true that New Jersey’s blueline has provided nine of the team’s 38 goals over the last 14 games, but more importantly than how much it has contributed offensively, is the fact that it is one the most porous defenses in the league. And defense is first and foremost just that, defense.
No defense requires those tending the net to constantly make unbelievable saves. Some are possible and Cory Schneider especially has done just that. But it just cannot be done all season. It is not the entire defense that has been a problem though. Andy Greene, Yohann Auvitu and Ben Lovejoy have generally been fine, but Damon Severson (who is more of an offense first blueliner) has been a liability. Jon Merrill has been a total disappointment.
Why not move Severson down to play in the second or third pairing and move Lovejoy up to the top pair? Or have Auvitu and Lovejoy play against opponents’ best forwards. In any case, the team needs another solid defensive defenseman and management should actively be looking for a trade or waivers to get it.
At the same time, there is a Devils’ 2014 first-round pick, a forward, John Quenneville, who is tearing up the AHL and should be strongly considered for a call-up. Quenneville, who is a cousin of Blackhawks’ head coach Joel, is a center who can play on the left side, and currently has a seven-game point streak in his rookie pro season with Albany. With decent size and quick feet, Quenneville could be the spark that the team needs right now. He could replace Miles Wood on the fourth line, or Pavel Zacha (if he goes on IR for the facial laceration), or perhaps even Sergey Kalinin, who has been mostly ineffective up the middle.
Whatever the coaching staff and Ray Shero decide to do, Hynes was never more correct than when he critiqued the team last night. It is not possible for the team to change the schedule, but something has to change before the Devils meet the Rangers at MSG tomorrow evening or the downward momentum will continue and the playoffs will become more and more out of reach.