After sending Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac to the New York Islanders at the trade deadline, general manager Tom Fitzgerald and the New Jersey Devils once again made it clear that the future is what currently matters most to the organization, and that there is a long way to go before New Jersey is to be a competitive hockey team again. The team’s season has been nothing short of disastrous so far, and that disaster was only further highlighted with the rival New York Rangers completing a dominant, four-game sweep over the rebuilding team. Just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and it has to be incredibly frustrating to be a player or fan of the young team at this point in time.
Consistently Awful Starts
One common thread throughout New Jersey’s series against the Rangers was their inability to get out to a good start and score the first goal of the game. The team was outscored 9-0 throughout all four first periods, which is obviously just awful. If you ask any player or coach, they will tell you just how difficult it is to win when you are always trailing from behind and pushing for a comeback. In fairness to the Devils, they did manage to show some fight and heart in Games 3 and 4 of the series by nearly completing two comebacks, but they ultimately fell short and went home disappointed. Maybe they would have won those games if they had played a full 60 minutes from the start instead.
Game 1 set the tone and theme of the series early on, as New York easily sliced through the Devils’ porous defense with several odd-man rushes, breakaways, and partial breakaways, just before getting on the board. The only real respectable start New Jersey had throughout the series was in the final game, but that was all nullified after Nico Hischier went after Jacob Trouba for a hit on Andreas Johnsson. Hischier’s retaliation resulted in a power play for New York, and a subsequent power-play goal to put the Devils behind on the scoreboard once again.
The lack of defensive coverage and discipline throughout this short series was/is absolutely alarming, but what should be even more concerning is how next to no adjustments were made by the coaching staff to correct these issues over the span of four games.
Coaching is Becoming More and More of a Concern
Lindy Ruff was brought in over the offseason to help guide and develop young players like Jack Hughes, Pavel Zacha, Nico Hischier, Ty Smith, and so on. The organization surrounded Ruff with assistant coaches Alain Nasreddine (who is in charge of running the penalty kill), and Mark Recchi (who runs the power play). While most of the young players on the roster have generally improved their game under this regime, it is still very hard to look at the coaching staff’s performance thus far and not be concerned about both the present, and the future.
A Completely Broken Penalty Killing System
Nasreddine and Ruff’s penalty-killing scheme is legitimately terrible, and the Rangers’ absurd power-play conversion rate of 40% (4/10) throughout the series, proves just that. The Devils racked up 32 penalty minutes in four games, which very obviously didn’t help their cause whatsoever, however, a decent hockey team would find a way to survive the time spent shorthanded and keep themselves afloat, and in the game. New Jersey didn’t (and doesn’t) do that. Instead, when they are on the penalty kill, it feels like a goal from the opposition is almost certain – and it usually is.
If you take a look at Mika Zibanejad’s game-winning power-play goal on Sunday afternoon, you will see a complete breakdown in basic defensive zone coverage on the Devils’ penalty kill. Zibanejad floats freely around the slot area, while P.K. Subban basically just lets Ryan Strome’s pass through for an easy one-time goal that gave the Rangers the lead late in the game. Jonas Siegenthaler once again lost his man and was partially responsible for yet another goal against in his young career with the Devils.
Some time to learn the system should do him some good, but as of right now, trading a conditional third-round pick for him hasn’t exactly worked out well for Fitzgerald so far. It’s not a significant trade by any means (especially since the pick is conditional), but if New Jersey does manage to give up a third-rounder for him, it could very well be seen as a loss on Fitzgerald’s part if Siegenthaler does not improve going forward.
Reasons for Optimism
It has been a very rough stretch for New Jersey over the past week or so. Losing four in a row to any team is going to hurt, but even more so when it’s against a rival like the New York Rangers – a middling team that is still fighting for a playoff spot in a heated race against the Boston Bruins.
It has to be hard to be optimistic as a Devils fan right now, but fans at the very least can be excited about Nolan Foote’s debut, where he registered his first NHL point (an assist). Marian Studenic is likely not a key piece to the team going forward, but him registering his first NHL goal a few days ago is a nice story that fans can latch onto for a little while.
Finally, and most importantly, Swedish winger Alexander Holtz just signed his entry-level contract with New Jersey. He has tremendous potential and could very well change the trajectory of the franchise once he steps on the ice in a Devils uniform. Him and Jack Hughes could be a lethal combination for years to come, as their games both seem to match each others very well, based off of the scouting reports. The Devils are going to need the both of them to become high-impact players if they are to ever break out of what seems to be a never-ending and painful rebuilding cycle.