Just like all good things, the opening month of the 2016-17 hockey season has officially come to an end. October delivered plenty of frustration, excitement and even some confusion, but that simply means that the season began the way that it should.
After sputtering in the beginning, the New Jersey Devils ended the month on a positive note by taking seven out of a possible eight points on the team’s four-game homestand, which resulted in a 4-2-2 record. It is always hard to determine a team’s projection in October, but the Devils did what they had to do in order to remain in the middle of the competitive Metropolitan Division.
After New Jersey acquired star forward Taylor Hall from the Edmonton Oilers, the feeling around the team’s offense shifted. The Devils already had two 30-goal scorers in Adam Henrique and Kyle Palmieri, but the addition of Hall catapulted the offense’s potential and ensured more goals. The improved offense was supposed to display more depth and the ability to score on virtually every line.
Nevertheless, it appeared that not much had changed for the team’s scoring ability to start the season. The Devils struggled to assert themselves in the offensive zone and lacked sustained pressure. There were previews of bright spots but those were not enough as New Jersey dropped four games, all of which were decided by one goal. Furthermore, in the games the Devils did win, the scoring originated from the same players, Hall, forward P.A. Parenteau and Travis Zajac. Without their contributions, the Devils could have found themselves in an early hole.
But as October ended, the offense showed that it may be warming up. This was particularly true during New Jersey’s final game of the month, a 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning, in which Henrique netted his second goal of the season while defenseman Damon Severson and forward Devante Smith-Pelly both scored their first. Although it was Severson’s first goal of the year, he has played an instrumental role in all four of the team’s victories and has already tallied up six points in only eight games.
The Devils were not only strong on the puck against Tampa Bay, but they also broke out of their defensive end well, skated with authority through the neutral zone, forced turnovers and connected on their passes. New Jersey displayed the chemistry that it had been missing throughout the beginning of the month. The next step for the offense is to prove that it can consistently establish the same kind of pressure it showed against Tampa Bay, and continue to generate shots and scoring opportunities.
Specialty Teams: C
The importance of the power play and penalty kill cannot be overstated. Even though New Jersey’s offense struggled throughout much of last season, the Devils power play was a bright spot and often a major factor in the team’s victories. This year, though, it has not shown the same intensity that helped make it the ninth-ranked unit in the NHL last year.
Similar to the offense, the power play showed signs of life toward the end of the month. Although New Jersey’s power play is currently ranked 12th overall, it still has not generated the amount of offense the team will need as the season progresses. The unit’s puck movement has greatly improved as has its shots on goal but it will need to find a way to breakthrough more consistently.
Another reason the power play needs to produce is because the team is taking too many penalties, which means the opposition is getting far too many chances to score with the Devils down a man. New Jersey has already accumulated over 54 minutes on the penalty kill. While the unit has bent, it has not completely broken down, which is partly due to goalie Cory Schneider’s stellar play. Taking too many penalties is not a recipe for success. It is a trend that will hurt New Jersey down the stretch.
Overall Play: C
October was far from perfect. There are undoubtedly areas of play that the Devils need to improve upon.
First and foremost, New Jersey needs to find more balanced scoring and the team needs to close out games. Some of their losses were rough, but the Devils had the opportunity to steal all of those games. The team cannot win every night and there will be many more one-goal losses throughout the season. However, the Devils will need to find a way to protect leads and not allow teams to climb back into games. That alone may be the key to New Jersey’s season.
Even though the games were not flawless, the Devils currently sit two games above .500 with 10-points. Moreover, New Jersey is establishing home ice advantage at the Prudential Center where it has achieved a 4-0-1 record. The four-game homestand was a statement for the Devils. All four opponents were going to present a challenge, even the Arizona Coyotes, who were a desperate team and often times desperation translates to being a dangerous team.
The overtime loss to the Chicago Blackhawks hurt, especially since the Devils dominated play throughout the first 40-minutes of the game. The club showed resiliency, though, by coming back 24-hours later and playing its best game of the season thus far.
November will be a big test for the Devils. New Jersey will find itself back on the road to face both the Florida Panthers and Lightning again as well as out west for the team’s annual California road trip. The Devils will also play two home and home series against the Carolina Hurricanes and the Buffalo Sabres with eight important points up for grabs. Not only will New Jersey not want to relinquish points to two Eastern Conference teams, the Devils need to beat opponents beneath them in the standings. This was a major issue for the club last year and cost them in the end. November could wind up being a critical turning point in the team’s 2016-17 season. If New Jersey can pick up where it left off in October, then the team should be up for the challenge.