It has been a depressing month of December in New Jersey. In the 10 games played thus far, New Jersey has only won two of them. The current losing streak is seven. With 31 points (seven of which have come in OT losses), the Devils now sit 27th in the league standings, with only 12 wins in 32 games.
This is far different from the November Devils, who at one point sat in the first Wild Card spot.
Yes, there has been adversity, including the momentum-killing injury to Taylor Hall in mid-November. And it is true that there is one very positive statistic at this point of the season–the penalty kill percentage is 82.7% (tenth among the 30 NHL teams). But just being good on the penalty kill will not in itself win any games, and every team faces adversity at some point in their 82-game season, so the fact that Hall came back quicker than expected should have been a positive catalyst for wins, not a cause for a further slide down the standings.
Watching this team, it is easy to see the Devils’ biggest problem. It is heart–or the lack of it. From the seats, it looks like the players have lost their fight–the players’ desire to win is just not strong enough to overcome the mid-season malaise that has set in.
There is really no excuse. Unlike in previous years, there is the firepower in New Jersey to put the puck in the net. But the team is not winning battles along the boards and is just not hard enough to play against. No one dreads coming into the Prudential Center to play the Devils. The defense is soft. They do not move the puck well, and they do not snarl at opponents. Even the goaltending has slacked off, with world-class netminder Cory Schneider letting in goals that he usually stops.
Something needs to be done. But what is it that the Devils need this Christmas?
Head Coach John Hynes says that he wants the team to “play harder.” Meh, no kidding. The question is what is going to make that happen. Hockey history has shown that what works in turning things around for a team going through some of these issues is to shake things up–in other words, one of two things–a change in player leadership or a change to a coach that starts to stong-arm the players.
This is captain Andy Greene’s 11th season in New Jersey. A life-long Devil, in his second year wearing New Jersey’s “C”, he has a long-term contract with a no trade clause. Greene is a popular figure in and out of the locker room (Thursday is his bobble-head night), however, not an extremely strong, inspiring Mark Messier-type captain.
As for Hynes, he is a player’s coach. Although the team may need a more fiery coach to get it moving right now (and it is certainly easier to fire the coach than the players), long term, he may be the right coach for this team, that is getting younger and more skilled.
So, management has a conundrum. How does it make a necessary change without mortgaging the future?
My suggestion will not be a popular one, for sure, but I think the Devils should change the captain. Give the reins to Taylor Hall and let him run with it. Hall was the de facto captain in Edmonton last season and did well in that role. He has a fire in his belly. Give Hall a chance to show that it will be his team going forward. And see what happens.
It may not be the song’s “two front teeth” for Christmas on a hockey players’ wish list, but changing the Devils’ captaincy may be enough to alter the direction of the team in the New Year. And what better Christmas gift could there be for this organization.