Well, it’s been a long December and there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last. Before the New Jersey Devils entered the final month of 2016, they were clinging onto the second Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference. All of the feel-good vibes carrying over from the 2015-16 campaign were still intact.
Then, the roof collapsed.
New Jersey’s defense became a sieve, the offense sputtered and their goalie became frustrated.
The Devils finished the month 4-9-1-1. On the season, New Jersey is two games under NHL .500, 14-16-7 (35 points) and are 10 points out of a playoff spot. Conversely, the Devils are 10 points removed from having the top spot in the NHL Entry Draft.
Will the Devils turn it around in the 2017 portion of their schedule? Would they be better off “tanking” the rest of the season and letting the kids play it out and develop? With that, we look back, and ahead, to where the Devils are at and what’s in store for 2017.
The longest-tenured Devil is the most consistent. The Devils center leads the club with 16 helpers and 24 points. On Dec. 1 in a 4-3 losing effort at Chicago, Zajac netted the second hat trick of his career. Perhaps an All-Star nod is in the works for the Winnipeg native.
While the Devils defense has been porous, to say the least (we’ll get to that below), Damon Severson has given the offense some jump. The former Kelowna Rockets defenseman leads New Jersey’s blueliners with 18 points and is sixth on the club in scoring overall. Severson is four points removed from surpassing his 2015-16 total of 21.
While his final outing was rough, the Union College product was a breath of fresh air in a 2-1 shootout victory over the Washington Capitals on Dec. 29. Following two consecutive three-goal thrashings at the hands of the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, Kinkaid rallied the troops and made 43 saves to snap a six-game road losing streak.
Showing Some Muscle
After dropping seven straight, New Jersey decided to mix it up both literally and figuratively. Adding defenseman Seth Helgeson from AHL Albany and enforcer Luke Gazdic, the Devils threw off the gloves and threw their weight around. The Devils racked up 30 penalty minute against the rival Philadelphia Flyers. More helpful though were the four tallies and a shutout performance by Cory Schneider in a 4-0 victory.
In December, the Devils went 2-4-1-1 away from “The Rock.” At 5-12-5, New Jersey’s regulation road losses are tied with the Vancouver Canucks for the most in the league.
The Defense Rests Its Case
We’re reaching a tipping point where it may be fair to ask when the Devils make a change with how they coach up the defense. During the glory years, it was the likes of Jacques Lemaire, Larry Robinson and Jacques Laperriere working with the defensemen. As recently as two years ago it was Scott Stevens making an impact on the career of a young Adam Larsson.
New Jersey’s minus-28 goal differential is the worst in the Eastern Conference. On 13 instances this season, the club has yielded three consecutive unanswered goals in a game and that can’t be tolerated going forward.
Sagging Power Play
Last season the Devils compensated for spotty five-on-five play with a superb unit on the attack. Fast forward and this squad is having issues capitalizing with the extra attacker. At 14.1%, New Jersey ranks No. 27 in the league on the power play. During their final contest of 2016 against the Caps, the red, black and white went an abysmal 0-for-9 with a man up.
There’s no place like home after the holidays. That’s how the song goes right? If the Devils are going to make a playoff push, it starts with home cooking in January. New Jersey is 9-4-2 at the Prudential Center and were 20-13-4 during the calendar year of 2016.
The Devils begin the 2017 slate by hosting the Boston Bruins. Four of their first five contests will reside in the Garden State before the team embarks on a four-game western swing. Following that stretch, the Devils return home for three of their final five games in the month.