Before December, the New Jersey Devils were 9-7-4 and managed to be in the hunt for a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference standings. The last three weeks have not gone how the team and the fanbase have wanted, as the Devils have only won one of the 10 games played. The team has made mistakes that have cost them games, such as committing turnovers like in the most recent loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins where Jack Hughes’ attempted pass on a power play was cut off by Teddy Blueger, who scored on a breakaway. Let’s take a look at what is on the Devils Christmas wish list.
Get the Roster Healthy
The NHL has had several games postponed in the last week due to a surge of players on several teams entering COVID health and safety protocols. The Devils have been one of the teams affected by COVID-19 as they currently have five players in protocol — P.K. Subban, Nico Hischier, Ryan Graves, Christian Jaros and Jesper Boqvist. Jesper Bratt, the leader in points for the team, missed the game against the Detroit Red Wings to a non-COVID illness.
MacKenzie Blackwood has been inactivate the last two games with a neck injury, leaving the Devils with goaltending options that lack experience. Jonathan Bernier, who the organization signed to a two-year deal in free agency, was placed on injured reserve (IR) on Dec. 10 with a hip injury that has bothered him for some time. The team traded for Jon Gillies of the St. Louis Blues on Dec. 15 to give them another goalie. Akira Schmid, who was called up from the Utica Comets of the American Hockey League (AHL), is only 21 years old and still needs to work on his game.
The Devils have had two of their scheduled games this week postponed — a road game versus the Penguins on Tuesday followed by a home game against the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday. The team’s next scheduled game is Dec. 27 against the Blues. Hopefully, the extended break will allow the team to get healthier in preparation for next week.
Improvement on the Power Play
The Devils have had concerns on the man advantage this season as the team ranks 30th in the NHL with a power play percentage (PP%) of 12.9 percent. The team has had problems managing the puck as well on the power play as evidenced by Hughes’ turnover against the Penguins that led to a shorthanded goal by Blueger. Two players — Pavel Zacha and Tomas Tatar, are tied for the lead on the team with only two power-play goals while Zacha and Dougie Hamilton lead the Devils with just five power-play points (PPP) each.
Since he was hired in September 2020, assistant coach Mark Recchi has struggled to improve the power play. During the 2020-21 season, the Devils were 28th with a PP% of 14.2. Many of the issues still remain this season despite the signing of Hamilton in free agency whose strength is quarterbacking the power play.
The first power play the team had last Sunday against the Penguins was one of the rare times the Devils contributed scoring opportunities on the man advantage. The Devils have converted eight times on their last 72 power-play chances, which averages to one goal every nine times. The team needs to create consistent chances on the power play and improve their puck management, which will decrease the amount of turnovers and scoring chances for their opponents.
In addition to Recchi’s struggles with the power play, head coach Lindy Ruff has struggled in implementing the correct line combinations in an effort to jump-start the team. He does not give enough ice team to his best players and appears to be outsmarting himself with his decision making. With the tailspin the team finds itself in, it is fair to wonder if a head coaching change is in order as the players are not responding to him.
Ruff explained on Dec. 18, after the 5-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings, that the top guys are not doing enough and are putting the team in bad situations. If that is true, part of the struggles are the player’s responsibility but the coaching is also to blame. As 2022 is upon us, if the problems the Devils are having do not improve soon, it is likely a new head coach will be leading the organization.
The Devils are in the midst of a struggle that they have to continue to fight through in order to break their losing streak, regain their confidence and get some wins. Getting improved coaching, a better power play and a healthy roster would be a start in turning around a floundering franchise. Perhaps the team will be rejuvenated after the Christmas break because things can not get much worse for the Devils due to the nightmare of a month they have had.