Happy Halloween, Devils fans! The New Jersey Devils treated their fans last night (those watching at home and especially the fans at Amalie Arena) to a terrifyingly showing from the team clad in white. The Devils jumped out to a 2-0 lead early in the game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, only to end up losing the game by a final score of 8-3. You can read our recap of the slaughter here.
The Devils opened their season with four consecutive victories, posting two shutouts and outscoring opponents 17-4 in that span. Since then, the team has gone 1-3-1 in their last five games played and have been outscored 24-14, with their only victory coming from a 3-2 win over the Florida Panthers (where they surrendered two goals late in the third period and looked like Bambi on ice for the last 20 minutes).
Earlier this season, fans were ecstatic and inspired by the Devils’ promising start. With the same core returning from their first playoff appearance in six years and the team looking phenomenal, who wouldn’t be? Over these last five games, however, the Devils have struggled with consistency and at times have been outright outworked and outplayed by opponents. This was incredibly evident in the game against the Lightning on Tuesday night.
Now, after an abysmal stretch, many fans are wondering: are the New Jersey Devils a good team? Let’s answer that question first. “Good” is a very vague term that leaves a lot of room for ambiguity. The way I choose to look at it is this: the Devils are a very young team, and are also one of the fastest teams in the league. Their special teams this season have been remarkable, scoring a power play goal nearly every game so far with the eighth-best power play in the league (26.3%) and they also own the ninth-best penalty kill in the league (83.3%). When they’re on their game and outworking opponents, Jersey’s Team can wreak havoc on the forecheck and pressure opposing defenders into giving up the puck in their own defensive end or the neutral zone. They’ve shown flashes of excellence in all aspects of the game, and their goaltending has been largely solid – I would argue that the majority of goals that Kinkaid let past in the last five games have been out of his control and I’ll pin on a weak defense. Many will disagree with me, but I’ll stand by him.
When the Devils are on their game, I would classify them as a “good” team. When they are off their game, they are mediocre at best. What is “their game”? When they’re outworking opponents, forechecking hard, moving their feet, making crisp, hard passes, attacking the opposition and giving them no room to breathe or think, supporting each other, and using their speed to generate opportunities at both ends of the ice. That is the Devils identity, but they have not been doing that over the last five games.
So let’s say the Devils are a “good” team. Good teams make the playoffs, but have an early exit as we saw this team do half a year ago. I certainly think it is within the realm of possibility that this team makes the postseason again, but we are not even 10 games into the season yet, so I’m not going to open up that can of worms yet.
What do the Devils need to do to become a great team? A great team is one that not only qualifies for the postseason and goes deep, but they also play an unforgiving style of hockey game in and game out. The Devils have shown flashes of greatness, but they are not there yet. The Tampa Bay Lightning, for example, are a great team. Here’s what the Devils need to do to become great.
- Physicality – One thing we saw from the Bolts both last night and in the postseason was their physicality. They play a very physical game especially against the Devils’ top talent, as players such as Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac were continuously targeted while moving through the neutral zone or the offensive zone. If you need more proof of how effective this can be, look back to the Devils’ dynasty days when players like Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko terrorized opposing forwards while they moved through the neutral zone and entered the Devils defensive end. The Lightning, like the Devils of old, play a very fast and speedy style just like the Devils. The difference is that they do not hesitate to throw a big check, while the Devils seemingly shy away from any physicality (with the exception of Miles Wood).
- Consistency – This one is a no-brainer, but it is what great teams have. Great teams are consistent in all facets of their game night in and night out, with the exception of the occasional “off night” or two. Show up every night and play a full 60 minutes. Don’t sit back on a lead, expand upon it.
- Discipline – The Devils have trouble staying out of the penalty box. There have been games where they have taken five, six, or seven penalties in a game, at times killing penalties for nearly an entire period. It’s very rare that a team can generate offensive opportunities while on the penalty kill, and it also stifles any momentum that a team has gained while providing it for the other team. If any team takes excessive amounts of penalties every game, it’s hard to classify them as a good team, let alone a great team. Stay out of the box.
- Feistiness – Similarly to the physicality aspect, the Devils typically back down and hardly ever intimidate opponents after the whistle, especially in front of their own cage. One of the biggest rules in hockey is always protect your goaltender. If Keith Kinkaid or Cory Schneider cover a puck and a player in an opposing jersey comes near him, there should be a Devil on that man immediately. If they take an extra swipe at the goaltender, that player should be wrestled to the ground or shoved to the boards. The Devils need to know that they are not to be messed with and that they won’t stand for any cheap shots. The Lightning did this exceptionally well especially during the postseason and it frustrated the Devils, especially once they figured out how to defend Taylor Hall. It’s time the Devils return the favor.
- Killer Instinct – This has a double meaning: play physically, and also take advantage of opportunities. The Devils have gotten a lot better at the latter aspect recently, but there are a number of times where they will have an odd-man rush or breakaway and won’t be able to finish on the play. Those opportunities need to be converted on.
- Put Games Away – As mentioned earlier, don’t sit back on a lead. Did the Lightning sit back after jumping out to a three goal lead? No, they continued to pile it on and never took their foot off the Devils’ throats. If the Devils hold a lead going into the third period, they like to get complacent and sit on the lead. This almost never ends well. The Devils are not a solid enough team defensively to do this. They need to continue putting pressure on the opposition and drive the score up, not retreat into a shell for the final 20 minutes or however long of a game that they have a lead in. Put games away early and put teams away early. Not only does this make their lives easier, but it provides them with an opportunity to rest their star players and reduce their risk of injury while also giving the guys that normally don’t see a lot of ice some extra time to improve their skills.
- Depth Contributions – This is a recurring issue for the Devils. Beyond the top line of Hall-Hischier-Palmieri, the Devils haven’t been getting a whole lot of contributions from their depth guys. Blake Coleman and J.S. Dea are the exception to this, but other guys like Pavel Zacha, Marcus Johansson, Stefan Noesen and Miles Wood need to contribute more offensively.
The Devils have many of the pieces needed to make these things happen, but a few trades will likely have to be made to acquire guys with more grit. Re-signing Pat Maroon would have been great, but the two sides unfortunately decided to part ways. If the Devils can acquire more speedy guys who are not afraid to throw the body around, they would be much better off. The clock’s ticking.