Several NHL coaches believe in breaking the season down into 10 game segments and evaluate the team within that window.
What could John MacLean take from the first 10 games this season? Little to nothing. The Devils need to wipe the slate clean and start over in their next 10 games. In order to start from scratch, the team needs to identify the root of their issues.
There’s clearly a myriad of problems, but I believe these are the main culprits behind the Devils 2-7-1 start this season:
While it’s a broad topic, consistency covers a vast amount of the issues with the Devils. The first place inconsistency occurred through the first ten games was on the ice. In the Devils two shutout wins, the team gave complete, 60-minute efforts. But in their eight losses this season, the Devils went through stretches of bad play, where they lacked creativity, execution and hustle. It’s the reason why they’ve allowed five-plus goals in three of their ten games.
No where has this been more evident than the second period of games. Through 10 games, the Devils have been outscored 18-4 in the second period of games. The Devils will bring energy in the first and third periods, but the team's play significantly decreases during the middle period. There have been some exceptions, but the team can't afford to be that inconsistent in one period of a game.
The inconsistency also occurs throughout the Devils’ locker room. Players say the right things, citing the need to work harder, create chemistry, etc. It’s all lip service until it’s seen on the ice, and so far, the players struggled to translate their talk to on-ice success. Combined with the on-ice consistency, the erratic play is causing frustration throughout the locker room and coaching staff.
What can the Devils do to fix their consistency issues? It seems like a no-brainer to me - focus on the ice. Don’t take a shift off. Keep up the intensity. These aren’t hard things to accomplish. The players need to play with a purpose. There’s been too many times when the Devils stand around or glide rather than skate hard. When the team plays consistently good hockey, the results are great. For some reason, the Devils’ players take shifts, periods and even games off. Instead of playing like a two win team, they’re acting like an undefeated squad who can afford a few nights off. Giving a consistent effort will lead to better performances and, hopefully, more wins.
2. The System
The Devils don’t have the proper players for whatever “system” MacLean attempted to install during training camp. The defensemen haven’t moved the puck well, and the scorers look lost on the ice. MacLean wanted to install a puck-possession mentality, but the Devils simply can’t play that style of hockey right now. The team looks lost in the system.
MacLean needs to realize this and change it accordingly. Yesterday’s successful powerplay conversion showed the importance of tailoring the system to the players. Instead of fancy passing and holding on to the puck to long, the Devils fired a shot on net and crashed it, looking for rebounds. Surprise, surprise, the play led to a goal. MacLean had ten games to tinker with his offensive system, and it failed. The team needs to return to the “Devils” game - solid defensive hockey, capitalizing on opportunities, slowly squeezing the life out of an opponent. It’s not interesting or exciting, but that’s not what the Devils need right now. They need wins.
3. The Power Play
Once again, the Devils have an issue with their man advantage play. The Devils powerplay is 3-for-33, including 1-for-20 on the road. Those are absolutely miserable numbers, and inexcusable for a team with this much talent. The Devils haven’t even scored a 5-on-3 goal! The organization brought in Adam Oates to help the powerplay, but his influence has been nonexistent. The Devils are already the lowest scoring team in the NHL (17 goals for), and they need the special teams to get the ball rolling. The opportunities are there, but the team can’t cash in.
The Devils need to find consistency and communication during their extra-man opportunities. Last night, the players passed the puck to open points, ran into each other and looked out of sync. The team continually practices the powerplay, but they haven’t found something concrete to work. The team needs to simplify the powerplay. Work it around, get a shot, follow it up with a body crashing the net. It’s the simple plays that will lead to goals, and may be the best strategy for the Devils anemic powerplay.
4. Lack of Scoring
This goes hand in hand with the Devils powerplay struggles. New Jersey can’t score goals. Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise and Jason Arnott have three goals each, which leads the team. It took David Clarkson 29 shots to get his first goal. Jamie Langenbrunner is goal-less, and Patrik Elias and Travis Zajac each have one. Right now, the Devils can’t score goals. They’re missing opportunities, trying to force passes, and taking shots. It's not exactly a recipe for success.
So what’s the solution? SHOOT THE PUCK! The only way to score goals is to shoot the puck at net. The only bad shot is one that’s not taken. The players don’t need to score highlight reel goals. Put the puck on net and see what happens. Get to the front of the net to clean up the rebounds and score “dirty” goals. If a couple of guys get rolling, then the scoring will pick up.
5. Defensive Play
This one is the toughest of all for the Devils. For so many years, the team plugged in players along the blue line and continued to chug along. But it’s been a complete 180 degree turn this season. With the injuries to Anton Volchenkov and Bryce Salvador, the team dresses three rookies on a consistent basis. While they’ve played o.k., the rookies are making mistakes that lead to goals. We talked at the beginning of the season about whether or not the Devils could live with rookie mistakes. So far, the team hasn’t been able to deal with those errors.
There’s no real solution to this issue. Larry Robinson needs to drill his younger guys, but the team also desperately needs their defenseman back. Volchenkov will help bring toughness and shot-blocking back to the blue line, and Salvador brings a physical, veteran presence. While Volchenkov may return during this road trip, Salvador has yet to skate after being concussed during the pre-season. The Devils will play with rookies this year, but the return of Volchenkov allows the team to have at least one shutdown pair of defenders.
These are just some of the Devils issues through the first 10 games of the season. I’m sure there are several others we can identify, including the pedestrian play of Martin Brodeur, the awful play of the veterans (Arnott is a -10!), and the terrible home record. But it hasn’t been all terrible. Dainius Zubrus looks good in the early going, and Matt Taormina is quickly becoming the Devils best offensive defenseman. Rod Pelley grew into a John Madden-esque role, including the lack of scoring, but became an important penalty killer and energy player.
Clearly, the first 10 games haven’t been what the Devils expected. The next 10 games present an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. We’ll see if the Devils make any changes and can find a way to improve through games 11 - 20.
Here’s the Devils next ten games:
Devils vs. Anaheim Ducks - October 29
Devils vs. Los Angeles Kings - October 30
Devils vs. Canucks - November 1
Devils vs. Blackhawks - November 3
Rangers vs. Devils - November 5
Sabres vs. Devils - November 10
Oilers vs. Devils - November 12
Devils vs. Bruins - November 15
Devils vs. Maple Leafs - November 18
Devils vs. Blues - November 20