These are certainly dark times for the New Jersey Devils, whose blowout loss last night extended their winless streak to seven games (0-6-1). Everyone from management, coaching, and players to the fans are seeking ways to lift this team out of their downward spiral. While the reasons behind New Jersey’s slump are apparent (low shot totals, constant defensive and positioning breakdowns, etc.), it’s clear this current lineup doesn’t possess the right combination of players to right the ship. Contrary to what the consensus of the Devils faithful would like to see, general manager Ray Shero hasn’t made a significant roster or staff shakeup just yet. The most recent move he’s made was sending defenseman Yohann Auvitu down to Albany to call up forward Luke Gazdic. The decision to send Auvitu down leaves the Devils NHL roster with six defensemen and 15 forwards, which has yet to result in any newfound success.
In Auvitu’s place, fourth-year defenseman Jon Merrill has become a regular in the lineup after being periodically switched in and out of the lineup after spending most of the season in the press box. Considering the indifference Auvitu’s demotion and Merrill’s gamely presence has since caused, it’s time to end this defunct experiment and call Auvitu back to the NHL.
In the 23 games Auvitu was in the lineup, New Jersey went 12-5-6 this season. This hasn’t been the case with Merrill, his apparent replacement who the Devils have yet to win a game with him playing. In Merrill’s ten contests this year, the Devils have gone 0-8-2. Aside from going winless in the nine contests where Auvitu hasn’t played this season (0-8-1), the Devils have earned just one point in the five games since his demotion, over which they’ve gone 0-4-1.
It doesn’t stop with the team’s record when Auvitu does and doesn’t play to indicate the impact he’s had on this team. Despite his demotion, Auvitu still has the third-highest shots per game average (2.2) on a team that’s nose-dived to 25th in the league in that category (28.4 per game). He has a total of 50 shots this season, which no Devils defenseman has yet eclipsed. In terms of advanced stats, Auvitu is the only Devils defenseman with a positive differential (+9) in shot attempts for and against when he’s on the ice, and has the second-highest rate of goals scored per 60 minutes (2.27).
Auvitu’s numbers aren’t without a catch however, as he’s been used very selectively by the coaching staff. Only 22% of his zone starts have been in the defensive zone. Coach Hynes is essentially doing the same thing with Merrill, whose defensive zone starts are only at 26%. In addition, there are distinct similarities between the two in playing time and gamely shifts. Auvitu has averaged 16:12 of ice time and 21.1 shifts per game, while Merrill is averaging 15:34 and 21.6 shifts. The biggest distinction between the two however, is that Auvitu was capable of producing (2 goals, four points), while Merrill has yet to register a single point this season.
The decision to demote Auvitu and replace him in the lineup with Merrill was a questionable and controversial one at that. Considering the strides Auvitu took this season and how high his ceiling appears to be, the best thing for him would have been to sustain his play throughout the season and steadily increase his ice time as the year progressed. While the Devils are currently headed down the road towards another playoff-less campaign if things continue to go unchanged, one of the most beneficial aspects of enduring these struggles is to focus on the individual development and growth of the team’s younger and core players. Devils management and coaching appear to have gone astray with Auvitu in this regard, despite the numbers that paint a clear and apparent picture of the impact he’s made when in the lineup.