I can't shake the feeling of deja vu, because it feels like just yesterday I was saying the following about Cory Schneider, but it's not entirely Keith Kinkaid's fault that the Devils have an uncanny ability to be almost instantly and entirely uncompetitive in games that he happens to start.
Now, that comparison is insanely unfair to the latter, as #1 has more heroic postseason pushes under his belt in the past year than #35 has wins. Also, due mostly to MacKenzie Blackwood's minor injury, it's more than worth mentioning that Keith Kinkaid has been bitten by getting the lion's share of the unfavorable match-ups as of late. I personally think it goes without saying that he hasn't had the luxury of winning a game during which he gave up a handful goals (like his understudy did against the Blackhawks just two nights ago) while trying to weather the storm against dominant teams that were repeatedly skating the Devils out of the building when Taylor Hall was actually in the lineup (i.e. Maple Leafs, Blue Jackets).
All that being said, for reasons that are both highly intangible and remain unknown, the Devils just look like a more engaged, energetic, and...well...exciting team when playing in front of their rookie netminder. That's probably somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy that's subjectively aided by the fact that each of his big-time, point-blank saves is a positive sign for his long-term future in net whether as those of Keith Kinkaid are seen as a dollar sign for his short term future in free agency. Especially since he undoubtedly gets a disproportional amount of bonus points for pissing on the Flyers' parade for their promising rookie goaltender. However, it's also an opinion that's aided by an eye-test for which MacKenzie Blackwood has set the curve with timely stops and a quiet confidence that appears to consistently rub off on his teammates.
Again, it's not Keith Kinkaid's job to motivate his dismal group of defenseman to not let a noted Devil-killer like Artemi Panarin whistle fucking dixie while gliding casually to the front of the net off an in-zone faceoff...
It is, however, his job to swing momentum by making up for their inexcusable mistakes from time to time. He's not currently getting that job done with an efficiency that allows for the final product to be anything more than channel-changing while MacKenzie Blackwood's command of that same crease has largely been must-watch television. Admittedly, it hasn't exactly been the fairest of fight, but the 22 year old with unteachable size and undeniable athleticism has taken full advantage of every single advantage that circumstances have offered him in battling his way to the top of an otherwise underwhelming card.
A Fanbase Has Undoubtedly Been Divided, As The Devils Did The Right Thing By Signing John Hynes To An Extension
Before I ramble on about how reassuring it is to see Ray Shero imply accountability for an unready roster by turning a blind eye to the over-reactionary haters (of which there are many) and re-committing to a young, first-time NHL head coach that has grown in leaps and bounds since taking the job while...::pauses for breath::...commanding the respect of both his players and the entire hockey community, I do have to question the timing of this announcement.
If not for some puck luck and Mackenzie Blackwood standing on his head, the Devils easily could have lost by double-digits last night. Like, think of the book-based movie that did the worst possible job capturing the essence of its muse and then watch that instead of a scoreboard that flat out lied about the game script of a 5-4 loss. Somehow, registering just two shots through the halfway point of the game doesn't even come close to telling the whole story, as the most offensive aspect of the Devils' performance was their laughable lack of defense.
Of course, one god-awful game, especially one that comes on the heels of an uplifting winning streak, dictates not the hands in which you plan to place the fate of your franchise. However, as it was bound to be a polarizing decision regardless, I probably would have slapped it onto the ass end of a victory. I truly believe that John Hynes is the best man for the job and that the Devils would have lived to regret firing him just to turn down the heat under everyone else's seat during a humbling season. Still, last night was only evidence of his positive influence in the way that ashes are evidence of a loving home after it's been burned to the ground.
That said, regardless of the timing, this is good news. Some won't see it that way, as coaches are the most typical of target during times of tension, but John Hynes didn't go from master motivator of a young, upstart team successfully making an unexpected playoff push to an unqualified idiot in six months time. The Devils, as an organization, are doing their best to recover from somewhat expected growing pains, and canning a guy for failing to live up to unreasonable expectations that he helped to create in the first place would be to cut off their nose to spite their face while being more shortsighted than the length of two nostrils.
For what the Devils aren't, which is currently a complete team that's capable of contending, they are a cohesive group that appears to be on the same page. Time will tell whether that page eventually gets turned to a more promising chapter, but - even in a ruthless, results-oriented business - John Hynes has earned the right to be the one left licking his thumb. To think otherwise would be to not think at all, because the look we got Behind The Glass was almost an undeniable glimpse at a fair but firm leader who has earned some semblance of job security while developing a following more favorable to success.
The moment is a real son of a bitch. Far too often it's quick to imprison even the most objective of fans in it's unforgiving web of dire pessimism or, more recently, unadulterated optimism. For that reason, Mackenzie Blackwood's awe inspiring start to his NHL career has the jump to conclusions looking like the line for the diving board on the first day of summer. Expectations for the Devils' future in net are growing at a rate that is more unsustainable than maintaining a 1.25 GAA behind a defense that's more leaky than the ship on which their playoff hopes rest...well...restlessly.
Unfortunately, I can't even blame those that are getting their hopes up, because the rookie netminder has basically served as the anti-venom in running through a gauntlet of New Jersey's crippling kryptonite unscathed. Artemi Panarin, the Boston Bruins, and the Carolina Hurricanes would be the type of bosses that would make them routinely restart the console if the rigors of a typical NHL season were put it into video game form and the controller was placed in the hands of the Devils, so suppressing the excitement from a run of victories (be they actual or moral) that were previously unthinkable is not currently an option. Mix in the uncertainty of their early season goaltending woes, splash in a spritz controversial contractual situations at the position, and - voila - you have the recipe ripe for people to get dumb drunk off what, in a perfect world, would be an intoxicating dawn to a new day.
Plus, it's not just the statistics that Mackenzie Blackwood has put up during four starts, three straight wins, and two straight shutouts that are so encouraging, but also the reactionary saves, the rebound control, and the positioning and awareness that make both those things look much more casual than Devils fans are used to. All due respect to Keith Kinkaid, who has had bursts of brilliance over the course of Cory Schneider's winless year, but even at his most impenetrable he wasn't confidently commandeering the crease the way Mackenzie Blackwood has of late. He is very much finding the puck and dictating its path as opposed to vice versa. His numbers are definitely due a reality check, but there's nothing depreciating about assets such as the size and athleticism he's displayed while inflating them.
The truth is, throughout the last week and change, the last line of defense has made all the other lines of defense look better by association with timely saves, smart covers, and perfect puck placement that have helped immensely in weathering the storm. I'm not ready to start awarding Mackenzie Blackwood imaginary assists, as the Devils uptick in being opportunistic offensively was inevitable. However, there's probably some correlation with how much looser players like Blake Coleman, Nico Hischier, Pavel Zacha, and Miles Wood have been gripping their sticks in knowing their margin for error - even without the Hart beat of Taylor Hall setting the pace - is no longer infinitesimal.
To label a rookie goaltender who spent time in the ECHL as recently as last year the savior is getting laughably ahead of yourself. The regression, even if it's just relative, is coming soon. That said, it's next to impossible to not only like but love what you've seen out of the kid thus far. He's not always going to be without error in using them to their max efficiency, but the tools to put together a bright future in between pipes that have otherwise yet to be taken ownership of this season are all there. That's something that couldn't have been said about the Devils' goaltending situation no more than two weeks ago.
Mackenzie Blackwood Put Forth A Winning Effort In His First NHL Start, Even Though The Devils Did Not
Full disclosure, if not for a rookie netminder displaying veteran-like composure in keeping a largely lifeless team in the game for the first 40 minutes of game that they probably shouldn't even have had a chance to win in the final 20, I wouldn't have had enough original things to say to be writing about yet another demoralizing Devils' loss.
The laughable desperate lineup changes that can be best explained by the type of inquisitiveness that could get someone to eat dog food out of morbid curiosity were quickly boycotted. Sami Vatanen and Damon Severson basically gave the middle finger to both their coach and their goaltender by jockeying for the position of RHD while the LHD's responsibility tapped home a goal that was easier to attain than the signing up for a gym membership step of getting in shape...
Taylor Hall, as he's become one to do in trying to dig the Devils out of their depressive state, did a little too much in turning an odd man rush for into a scoring opportunity against so quickly that it made Nico Hischier jealous. Then Cam Atkinson, as he's become one to do over the years, killed the Devils, this time with the resulting penalty shot...
I suppose a bunch of other shit happened along the way, but - all in all - it was a familiar 'too little, too late' type effort from a Devils' team that made things far too easy on their opponent and waited until the 3rd period to show any sort of urgency offensively.
What wasn't familiar, however, was Mackenzie Blackwood and the combination of size (I don't know if you've heard, but you can't teach that), positioning, and athleticism he put together in giving his team every opportunity to conjure up some competitiveness. Whether it was stopping Artemi Panarin on the doorstep more times in a three second span than he's been stopped by a Devils' goaltender...well...maybe ever, or getting across the crease in a form and fashion that made Cory Schneider in fast-forward seem slo-mo, Blackwood was a breathe of fresh air to a crease that basically been black mold whenever Keith Kinkaid isn't at the top of his game.
One game makes not a successful career, of course, but it was encouragingly obvious why he was drafted so high, and (not to name names, but...) that's sadly not something that can currently be said of all members of that same Devils' draft class. Relative to a season of overwhelmingly negativity, a standout effort that - even in defeat - made the goaltending situation seem slightly less doomed is a pretty big positive. For that reason, I'm not sure MacKenzie Blackwood is more deserving of a 'thank you', a 'congratulations', or a 'sorry', because (with the help of a few posts) his 36-save performance was an appreciated accomplishment that went completely to waste...
And there you have it folks. We've officially reached the "I wonder if this shit will stick to the wall" portion of an incredibly underwhelming season. Seems like just yesterday it mattered who was playing with whom, and all the sudden curiosity has taken over for chemistry as the driving force behind lineup decisions.
The truth is, after having suffered through watching their collective face get rearranged during Tuesday night's 60-minute assault, I wouldn't blame John Hynes if he randomly put players together like one might assort their laundry while wasted. Hell, I'd be half-surprised if a fifth of warm whiskey wasn't the lubricant on which Taylor Hall slid down to the second line.
Shall we keep going? Bratt on the fourth line? Severson and Vatanen together? Lovejoy being bumped up instead of out of the lineup by Santini? God bless Mackenzie Blackwood's heart, because the first start of his NHL career is pretty close to the last resort for a team that's now changing lines like one might get dressed in the dark.
Again, I don't blame John Hynes (nor want him fired, for that matter). There's only so many ways to inspire a team that still no-shows on a weekly basis, but one that was still available to him was making his players think they are driving him to drink. I have my doubts as to how well sympathy will work as a motivation tool, but it can't be any worse than whatever alcohol they were running on as Toronto put their toppling, tipsy ass in an Uber by the start of the second period. Who knows, maybe it's just crazy enough to work. Not like anything else is anyway...
Despite the depressiveness of the Devils' season thus far, I've tried to refrain from going full-blown eternal pessimist. In managing to take three out of the last four points despite facing third period deficits against superior teams without the help of the reigning league MVP on back-to-back nights, they've proven that the right way to approach a humbling year that - if only due to the ineptitude of the rest of their division - somehow still possesses the improbable potential for a playoff berth.
Unfortunately, as it pertains to the status of the one player who was the biggest unknown over the offseason, I'm not sure optimism is still a legitimate option anymore. Hell, at this point, I don't even know what the optimistic viewpoint would even be. Either Cory Schneider really is dealing with yet another injury to a part of his body that is essential to him doing his job with any consistency, or his injury is partly an excuse for his undeniable inability to do said job with consistency in anything other than losing.
On one hand, you'd hope that a physical ailment is what restrained him from getting from one post to the other in giving up an inexcusable backhand wraparound just over a minute into his first home start of the season...
And on the other hand, it's insane to hope that a goaltender who has yet to regain even a single shred of confidence following offseason hip surgery has been dealt another blow to his lateral quickness.
Cory Schneider carries a 6 million dollar price tag for 3.5 more seasons, and - as much of an apologist as I was - the Devils have only been somewhat worth the price of admission when he's nowhere near the net. We're talking about someone who took a routine glove save on a nothing shot and, in opposition of all findings of science, managed to help guide it through his own 5-hole...
That's not the work of a strained abdominal as much as it's the work of a shattered spirit. The Devils have undoubtedly been at their most disastrous with #35 in between the pipes, but the fact that they have often refused to play defense in front of him doesn't change the fact that his play has been indefensible. The only case he's made for himself so far is that his career as an NHL caliber goaltender is over. If the goal is to even stay on the outskirts of the postseason race, then the goal simply can't be manned by Cory Schneider. That's really the long and short of it. So, while in the short it's not incredibly awful news that he'll be inactive for a week during which a young player will presumably get a chance to prove himself, in the long there is no remotely good news regarding a player who appears broken mentally during the increasingly rare occasions in which he's not broken physically.
NHL.com- What do you say to those emotionally invested fans who want to see improvement over last season?
"Last year gave both hope and optimism. There was light at the end of the tunnel. Our fan base finally saw the vision we talked about my first two years through drafting, developing, and making proper trades; you could see it start to come together. We established something where you could see more talent, more belief and a commitment to hold each other accountable, whether they were younger players or veterans.
"I know we have a ways to go, not just to get to Game 82 (this season), but over the course of the next two or three years. It's all really the start (of our build) I envisioned when I came here. I said last November (2017), that I felt like this is turning. I know it, I've been through this before with Nashville and Ottawa (as assistant GM). With Josh and David, we have stayed true to our plan, no shortcuts. There will be speed bumps along the way, but this is the right way to do it.
"Rebuilds are not for the weak. (New York Islanders GM) Lou Lamoriello once said, 'I have a five-year plan and it's changing every day' so you have to be prepared and have an idea what you want to do for the short- and long-term. We want to be a team that competes for a playoff spot every year and not just by chance or luck, and then from there become more of a contender.
"Our fans have shown their passion. We all felt the excitement last year, as we had a great run at the end of the season and witnessed how electric the building was when we clinched the playoffs at home. We built this the right way and our fans, other teams and the League noticed. We were selected to do the first-ever behind the scenes all-access training camp series, and obviously picked as one of the teams to go to Europe (for the NHL Global Series). That is on- and off-ice progress which we should be proud of."
Your thoughts on Taylor Hall in his third season with the Devils, and how do you think he handled his recent benching by coach John Hynes?
"I once told Taylor that he can't expect to be on his game all the time, but it's how he helps the team win when he's not on. I sent a text to coach Hynes after he benched Hall for the final seven minutes of the second period in our loss to Tampa Bay (on Dec. 3) and asked how Hall was doing.
"[Hynes] said he was fine. He said Hall apologized for putting him in a situation to sit him. He respected what [Hynes] did, and he still played him 16:17 and [Hall] said that was more than enough for him to get his game back. [Hall] appreciated the way we treated him and how we held him accountable and knows he has to be better and wants to be better. [Hynes and Hall] have a healthy respect for each other and Hynes was confident Hall would be OK. Hynes told me it was really a reset for him and Taylor's response was great.
"That's the kind of player and person Taylor is. He wants accountability for himself and those around him. What does he do after that conversation with John? He goes out the next day and is the best player in practice, he leads by example. These are the kind of things that prove how driven he is, how much he cares."
Hall, who won the 2018 Hart Trophy as NHL MVP, has one season remaining after this one on his seven-year contract he initially signed with the Edmonton Oilers. The earliest you could sign Hall to an extension is July 1, 2019. How soon will you begin talks on a new contract?
"Taylor and I had dinner at the end of the 2016-17 season, and it ended up turning into this enlightening four-hour conversation covering so many different topics. Taylor was determined after that season. I met with all the veterans at the end of the season and it was clear they all shared their disappointment.
"Based on what his response was, the conversation could have lasted just five minutes. But he said to me this was the right fit. I told him that his legacy is important to me and that I cared about it. When I asked him about Hynes, he told me he was the best coach he's ever had. Once you hear those things, you know you have something together. Taylor came in and transformed this franchise.
"We will definitely talk after the season, and he is a priority, but an announcement, if any, won't come until after (July 1), per league rules. Our feelings haven't changed about Taylor. He's an incredible addition to our team and franchise. Like I said before, he has come in, bought in and transformed this franchise. This is a faster, younger and more exciting team in part because of Taylor. We made a trade for a player that became the MVP which is only the second time NHL history that has happened (Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks). I think we have a lot of unfinished business and it's been a great fit for both sides."
Why does John Hynes remain the clear choice as coach moving forward?
"The three areas important to me in a coach are an ability to teach, inspire and discipline. There's a fine line between being a friend and establishing a relationship and John has done that with his players. You've got to hold everyone accountable and can't defer to veterans. In three seasons he's shown great growth in how he's dealt with our veterans and young players. John's growth path has mirrored that of our team, and I like to see that. He's taken hard-working teams and helped them accomplish more. He coaches to his players' strengths and helps them find a gear or aspect to their game and brings it to the forefront. He's coached an immensely talented player to become an MVP. Everyone had a great inside glimpse into John with the Behind the Glass all-access series as a communicator, motivator, and his direction as a coach. You have to be honest with yourself as a coach, and sometimes that's not comfortable, but John has matured in that regard, too."
Can you offer your assessment of goalies Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid?
"Cory has worked really hard and he's physically fine. There are things we can help him with, but at the end of the day if Cory wants the net back he needs to be the best goalie in practice and that will help him become sharper when he gets into the game. He's got to push Keith and continue to be supportive, too, just as he was for Keith during his run last year. He's been great in that regard. Sometimes it comes down to the player and the player needs to make a difference.
"I tried to hire (goalie coach Roland Melanson) when I was in Pittsburgh (as GM) because I knew of his reputation. Rollie has worked hard with both Cory and Keith. He's helped Keith develop and take the next step and continues to work with Cory, day-in and day-out."
To be honest, I'm not sure what I expected. As someone who wants to believe in Taylor Hall's long-term future with the franchise, as well as John Hynes' ability to turn things around as a well-respected coach that - largely by default - gets more grief than he deserves, I like what I read. As someone who was hopelessly hoping for something other than the most elaborately worded translation of "status quo" that all-too-fittingly quoted Lou Lamoriello, doing so kind of triggered my gag reflex.
The truth is, I just don't see any drastic changes to be made that are going to help fix this team in the short term or long term. It sucks to...well...suck, but riding out a step back in the rebuild is better than setting fire to the undeniable progress that has been made solely because the high that comes as a result of destroying shit - like a foundation - is good as an extremely short-sighted cure for frustration.
There's no doubt that watching this team play has been an experience that's bi-polar to what it was last year, but to not understand the amount of promising pieces that have been put in place since Ray Shero took over is to have a comically short memory. Take a look back at the average AHL/AARP roster he inherited and impossible not to be impressed by the work he's done in flipping it. His plan might be one that's longer than either he or Devils' fans expected, especially after the seven month adrenaline rush of last season, but at least it's a plan. There's not one (undoubtedly overpriced) free agent that was actually attainable who would have this team in a drastically different position right now, and there's not one panic move to be made that's going to change that pathetic position for the better in the very near future.
It's painfully obvious this team isn't anywhere near complete, and that Taylor Hall playing God was as much of an impetus for their unexpected playoff appearance as his Hart Trophy indicated. However, doing something just to do something isn't going to miraculously recapture that magic, or guarantee the re-signing of the person who possessed it, as the Devils' shattered confidence isn't a single outside player or a new coach away from being reconstructed.
The goaltending has been garbage in a way that's fitting of the defensive dumpster fire around it, and that's a whole lot more problems than are fixable midseason. The climb to being a contender isn't always a steady one, and - if him saying nothing too shocking or scathing is any indication - then it looks like Ray Shero is prepared to wait out the occasional pitfall with a young, developing team as that makes for a more proven way up than letting pure desperation guide your decision making.
"The New Jersey Devils play better in front of Keith Kinkaid."
Even if you follow the team from afar, that's something you have heard deafeningly whispered about their inability to win a single game in which Cory Schneider gets the start. As of late, it's something that's become harder and harder to believe, as the quick fix of leaning heavily on Keith Kinkaid has stopped the bleeding about as well as a bandaid placed over a bullet wound.
Which honestly makes it all the more depressingly impressive that they went to such laughable lengths to keep that narrative alive last night. By the time they tipped, flubbed, or whacked the third puck into their own net, I was just about damn sure that they had taken it as a personal challenge to prove that they had saved a whole new level of dysfunctional defense for a goaltender who has become nothing short of disgraced.
Count em', one...
And, despite making solid contact, three strikes...the Devils arrrrre OUT of luck when #35 is in net...
The first goal he let up was an eye-roller, but Schneider made plenty of huge saves and gave his team plenty of timely opportunities to help out his shockingly sad record as a starter only for them to, almost literally, throw them back in his face.
The truth is, aside from netting a hat trick of self-harm, the Devils played pretty well in picking up a third of four possible points on a road trip that, historically speaking, has given them fits. Unfortunately, it's hard to think of it as even a small victory as they all but beat themselves prior to a shootout loss. One less own goal or one less missed breakaway and we're talking about a team whose inventory is still clearly lacking in the confidence department finding a way to turn things around while dealing with the ruthlessness of the road. Instead, we're left wondering if Cory Schneider accidentally sent a dick pic to a group chat containing every team mom over the offseason, as that seems just as rational a reason as any for how actively disaster prone they've been in front of him during what's been a relentless return from hip surgery.
If they manage to secure a win in San Jose then it'll be easier to forget that they pumped another elusive point passed their own netminder, as 5-outta-6 on the West Coast ain't bad. What won't be so easily forgotten is that their goaltending is as much a problem in and of itself as it is a byproduct of a bigger problem. That being that their mettle - offensively, defensively and otherwise - is currently as flimsy as tin foil...no matter who has the misfortune of taking a disproportional amount of blame simply by being in net on any given night.
In retrospect, the only thing that could, should, or would have gotten in the way of seeing what was easily the Devils' most incredibly inept performance of the season coming was blind hope. After emptying the tank to tie things up late against Winnipeg on Saturday, just about every epidemic that has plagued this team was on full display in overtime. Hesitancy with the puck that led to inexcusable turnovers. The ability to make basic defensive principles look like they were only more of an inconvenience than taking out the trash in wasting their own golden scoring opportunities. The Prudential Center might as well have been popped like a balloon when the Jets' tapped home the game winner, because managing to pull one point out of their ass only made the entire building's deflation that much more palpable after they actively found ways not to get two. Considering an opponent that has built off a dominant playoff series in making the Devils look like they are playing an entirely different sport (and doing so in weighted equipment) this season was en route to 'The Rock', a 60 minute pity party probably wasn't all that unpredictable.
That said, the fact that those in attendance last night were initially as optimistic as a mortician with seasonal affective disorder didn't make the unrelenting pessimism playing out on the ice any easier to bear. Long story short, the Devils were pathetic. Overmatched would typically be a good way to put...if they had even bothered to show up to the match. What took place last night wasn't even an ass-kicking, because they barely got off the mat long enough to expose their butt-cheeks. The Lightning got them down and kept them down, but in an extremely casual way that highlighted the depressing disparity between the two teams. I suppose it could be best described as a bullying, because they were ready to play the victim in handing over their lunch money before one single fist even got raised.
The truth is that Murphy's Law slammed it's unforgiving gavel down on the Devils, and they've responded by gripping their sticks as tightly as they've clenched their assholes as the season has devolved into one long bout of constipation. It's just as much, if not more so, due to trying too hard as it is not trying at all, and it you needed proof of that then look no further than Taylor Hall.
The reigning MVP of the entire league was benched during the second period for letting a routine outlet pass that he could have caught in his sleep last year glide helplessly under his stick only to deposited in the back of his net in a way that made all 73 seconds of positivity provided by Egor Yakovlev's first career NHL goal seem patronizing. There's not a doubt in mind he wants better for this team, but even someone who successfully carried them last year has looked like he knowingly took on two too many bags of groceries in mishandling pucks all over the place as of late. I genuinely can't believe I'm saying this, but his prolonged seat on the bench was well deserved, if only because all ten participants on a perfect penalty kill of a putrid powerplay couldn't all fit into it.
Speaking of the powerplay, there might not be an area of the game in which there lack of confidence proved more laughable. Passes to vacated points. Uncontested cross ice feeds that were closer to being caught by their intended target's mouth, hibachi-style, than landing on their tape. While Brayden Point was comfortably nuzzling his way into an abandoned slot to end up on the receiving end of a play that everyone, except the Devils apparently, knew was coming, New Jersey used their time with the extra man as nothing more than an opportunity to get the game two minutes closer to completion. Hell, they may have failed in doing that, as they were so uninspiring that it felt like even time stood still.
Because it made for a fitting ending to the same ole' story, I considered the conclusion of the game reached when Steven Stamkos was left alone in his sweet spot to fire an extremely stoppable shot past everyone's favorite scapegoat, Cory Schneider, all of twenty seconds into his relief appearance. I may have gone comatose after that, because I hear they aimlessly whacked the puck around for another 19 minutes and 40 seconds, but almost everything that came prior was the picture perfect outline for a painting entitled 'The Lost Season'. As inevitable as it's starting to look, I personally think they'd live to regret it if shit-canned John Hynes as an attempted quick fix at a foundational problem. However, they better find some sort of footing fast because they are about 40-some-odd long strokes of stupid away from putting it on sale.
I guess if you wanted the short story of what's been going on with a Devils' team that would be desperately pounding the panic button like it were a Piñata full of points if not for a 4-game win streak to open the season, the following 37 seconds is about as succinct as symbolism gets...
Of course, Sami Vatanen adding insult to another absolutely awful outing by a goaltender whose team has given him nothing in the way of comfort since returning from injury was just the cherry on top of what was a shit Sunday. Still, what served as the punchline also served as a fitting #FAIL during yet another game that was lost in either the first or the last five minutes.
During a lengthy 82 game season, it's silly to point out one instance in which a team let what could easily prove to be a precious point in the playoff race slip through their grasp. Luckily for premature prognosticators (and unluckily for those invested in the success of a team who, at it's most resilient, snuck into the postseason by the skin of their teeth), the Devils don't have one of those instances. They have about eight...merely 23 games into a season that went from a solid reassurance to a complete shitshow in about as long as it takes for them to leave someone wide open in the slot when Cory Schneider happens to be starting. As evidenced by what was yet another comically tenuous 2-0 score last night, the only multiple goal leads that have been any sort of safe have belonged to the opposition during a time of the year in which padding your point total is at a premium.
And look, I get it. It's inherently a gimmick, so the results of 3-on-3 overtime are bound to be fluky. Unfortunately, if not for a forgiving post, the Devils could have just as easily let the 3-2 3rd period advantage become a 4-3 regulation disaster last night. If not for the reigning MVP of the entire NHL whiffing on a one-timer, Marcus Johansson wouldn't even have gotten the chance to beat the clock in batting the boys into an extra session against the Islanders. Simply put, they drew about even in the "shit happens" department in finding two points that just as easily could have been lost, and that still left two points to be desired in games that sandwiched an unwatchable shellacking.
It's not that there haven't been some positives. Aside from the occasional hiccup (more accurately, coughing fit), Keith Kinkaid has played to the level of an NHL starter that they otherwise don't have right now. For those that aren't still crying over spilled milk that has molded into a rotten testament to retrospect, Pavel Zacha is starting show himself on the scoresheet after providing a palpable boost defensively when called back up. Even in comparison to the 6th round shocker that successfully filled in as first-liner to start his rookie year, Jesper Bratt has been nothing short of a revelation since his return. Damon Severson has been everything asked of him and more in making those that lazily criticize him look increasingly stupid. The whipping boy that is Travis Zajac has been productive in a way that leaves you looking around corners and in closets to see where he's hiding Zach Parise. Blake Coleman has continued an upward trajectory that's matched only by his pickle juice sales. Kyle Palmieri has gotten quieter in remaining on pace for a career year. Nico Hischier has largely avoided a sophomore slump, and Taylor Hall is statistically right on track with a season in which his dominance proved award-worthy.
The undeniably negative, however, can be summed up in the following example: Damon Severson and Andy Greene have played their way into occasional first pairing minutes, which has only been a painful reminder that the latter belongs nowhere near a first pairing. In essence, the roster's select successes have only sustained success in showing its fatal flaws.
Analytically, the Devils are probably due for some positive regression, but the fact of the matter is that the things that have kept those percentages from evening themselves out in the standings are the type of stupid and untimely mental mistakes that can't be solved by any amount of math. I don't think they are bad as their record, especially recently, indicates. However, in a league with so much parity, there's not all that much difference between the bad teams and the reliably unreliable teams, and New Jersey couldn't possibly better fit the description of the latter right now.
If there is anything that the Devils and their fanbase should have learned during the most deflating of road trips, it's that the rigors of an 82 game schedule are far too unforgiving for any apologies to be necessary when things do happen to be bouncing your way. Anyone that watched that game can attest that 3-0 probably doesn't do justice to the run of play. However, while the sights weren't always pretty either, it was one unmistakable sound that served as the perfect score to holding the Flyers' scoreless. The ping of the post was just about as friendly to the Devils as it's ever been, and it afforded a team that's found ways to lose on the road a chance to start flipping that script.
Now, that's not to say the Devils were entirely at the mercy of the iron. For almost each and every time they were saved by the proverbial bell, there was a time in which they managed to blow a glorious opportunity to extend the most precarious of leads. It's not like they were doing nothing more than standing in front of a shooting gallery and hoping not to get killed. Instead, it's more like they took a whole bunch of breaks to fire at their own foot (instead of a wide-open net) in between standing in front of a shooting gallery waiting to get killed.
All this sounds very pessimistic, but the truth is that I was impressed with the Devils' defensive play as they fought for another leg to stand on after Sami Vatanen limped off early. Admittedly, the road trip from hell has set the bar extremely low in giving me a new found affinity for basic in-zone accountability. For example, I'm already about ready to die on the hill that Pavel Zacha could set the NHL record for games held pointless and would still be a net plus to a team that desperately missed his size, strength, and positional play inside its own blue line. Still, they had no problems clearing that bar against Philly. Simply put, giving themselves even a chance to win was too much to ask as of a week ago, so they are slowly, surely, and structurally headed in the right direction.
I want it on record that the last time I said the following was probably two seasons ago when I was convinced that Taylor Hall was about as appreciative of being in New Jersey as the Statue Of Liberty, but he was probably the most turnover prone player on the ice last night. That's not me complaining, as the disproportional load he carries for this team (especially without Nico Hischier in the lineup) is bound to wear on him at times. Rather, it's meant as a credit to a roster that was able to get to the finish line first without riding his cape-tails or following his lead. Seeing the point-producing and penalty-slaughtering revelation that is Blake Coleman team up with two rookies in going tic-tac-toe for what eventually proved to be a game-winning goal was obviously awesome in giving Brett Seney and Joey Anderson some career firsts...
However, it was even more awesome in showing a flash of what lengthening out the lineup could do for a team that's been insanely top-heavy. With Jesper Bratt looking as shifty and strong on his skates as ever, you no longer need a magnifying glass to see where the offense might, and I emphasize the word "might", come from when the first line (who also helped...ahem...wrap-up a long overdue road win) isn't on the ice...
Last but quite obviously not least, when Keith Kinkaid wasn't showing tell-tale signs of watching too many highlights during Marty Brodeur's HHOF induction, he was absolutely awesome...
As was the case when the Devils were putting forth winning efforts earlier in the year, I would imagine it's his crease until further notice. The post certainly helped but, as he stopped everything else thrown at him, he's been granted the benefit of claiming it was the only thing he gave the Flyers to shoot at. Cutting down on the close calls would be nice, but - for whatever reason - consistency in net has come part and parcel with consistency in front of it, and the Devils are back to showing a little bit of both after showing a whole lot of nothing.
If Last Night's Win Over The Penguins Is Any Indication, The Devils Aren't As Dead As They've Looked Of Late
First, let's start with an unfriendly reminder. The Devils were coming off a seven game road trip in which they went 1-6 and were outscored by no more than 17 goals in such a lopsided fashion that it seemed like no less than 170 goals. One single win, no matter the context or the competition, can undo all that went disastrously wrong during their tumultuous travels. Winning in the welcoming confines of their own building hasn't been the issue, so all the Devils really accomplished last night was not bringing their problems home with them like a hostile husband who hit 'Happy Hour' so hard that it became extremely sad.
All that being said, after falling far too close to rock bottom for comfort, they had to start somewhere in getting back on their feet and last night was a stand-up victory. I tend to think that Thursday in Philadelphia will say more about this team than last night did, but overcoming multiple suspect calls that directly and negatively effected the scoreboard is something that even last year's Devils struggled in doing.
Phil Kessel erased an insurance goal off the stick of Jesper Bratt after inviting All-Beef as an infantile reaction to the protein deficiency he procured by going without his pregame hot dog...
...and, according to a league that still has a problem defining goaltender interference through the lens of their own anus, a love-tap is all it takes to allow for one of world's strongest and most technically sound skaters to kick an opposing keeper into the corner...
As a team whose confidence appeared shaken by the insult that had been getting added to their own injured play by bad breaks, either one of those proverbial kicks in the groin could have had them taking their balls and going home. The excuses were Hot-N-Ready to be made, but instead a lineup who was without its number one center and has been nothing short of marshmallow soft finally decided to be harder on the puck in not only gutting out a much-needed win, but gutting out a much needed character win.
Keith Kinkaid helped to make up for a performance that wasn't always pretty, though putting an end to the sloppiest of slumps rarely is, and they needed Taylor Hall to expend every beat of his Hart in dragging their ass to the finish line. However, there was a familiar resilience amongst a group that was assumed to have misplaced it somewhere during their terrible, awful, no good, very bad two week tumbling trek to the bottom of the standings. If nothing else, it was an encouraging step in the right direction, though they'll need to piece a few of those together before this one is considered anything other than the step a baby might make before stumbling ass-first back to cold, hard linoleum.
Metaphorically Speaking, The Devils Are Being Towed Back From Their Road Trip With Four Flats And A Faulty Transmission
"Fun" fact: Somehow, someway, that -17 stat includes a lone 5-1 win. In essence, make that outscored by 21 in their last 6 losses.
Welp, road trips don't go any worse than that. Seriously, there is a cult classic called Road Trip with the entire plot revolving around unforeseen, if not seemingly impossible, ways in which an extensive period of travel can go comically wrong, and even those half-witted, down-on-their-luck college kids wouldn't trade places with the New Jersey Devils as they embarrassed themselves up, down, and all around multiple countries.
Now, I can sit here and say that I don't think a young roster that, after last season, no longer has the benefit of taking teams by surprise isn't anywhere as bad as they've looked outside of their own building, but with each passing uncompetitive effort even their confidence has to be shaken by questioning whether or not that's true. To be clear, it's not the 1-6 record that is the most discouraging, as no one should have expected such an unforgiving stretch to go smoothly. Rather, it's the type of lopsided scores that leave all the room for overreactions while making any and all optimism sleep outside in the cold.
It's typically unfair to compare teams from year-to-year considering the average amount of roster volatility. However, with the lack of offseason moves made and, in turn, the abundance of trust shown by Ray Shero, the only thing that's changed considerably between the end of last season and the start of this one is the color of the leaves on all 6.5 trees that stand within Newark's city limits. Therefore, I'm not sure how you go about judging this team's woes without wondering what kept them from being, well, so goddamn woeful during a season that, even at its worst, was objectively encouraging.
Ruts of bad penalties, bad calls, bad breaks, bad bounces, bad decisions, bad positioning, bad depth, and bad goaltending made for sizable losing streaks just 8-12 months ago, but none of them appeared anywhere near as hopeless as the Devils did in dragging ass all over North America the last two weeks. Luck certainly hasn't been on their side, but - as much as I hate cliches - there's definitely something to be said about creating your own luck and that something probably isn't "eh, just keep trying the same crap and odds are it'll start working in a way that keeps things close past the second period".
From Cory Schneider to Keith Kinkaid and then back again, the goaltending has been absolutely brutal. There's no way around that, and yet a team defense that's fallen apart at the seams in leaving open all the ways through it just might make the play directly in front of the net worse than the play in the net. The Devils cumulative GAA (which, given the overall product at this point, is as much a team stat as it is an indictment of the two guys who have failed in covering for its mistakes) is trending dangerously close to looking like the price of an in-arena hot dog, and yet I'd rather pay double to deal with the indigestion caused by soggy, low quality pork products than watch third periods that have become nothing more than formalities as of late.
The Devils, for all intents and purposes, have been pathetic away from Prudential Center. If that doesn't change soon in a big, big way then they'll have both a Head Coach and a General Manager that were rightfully beyond reproach just weeks ago answering to both a stark change in play, a lack of change in personnel, and - most disappointingly - not only a half-assed halt in progress but the hapless reeling of a regression.
They say that winning cures all, and with the Devils not doing much of that these days each hiccup has grown louder and more pronounced. None the least of which being a devastating shock to the immune system from the hands of the Senators, of all opponents, that exasperated each and every vulnerability within a team that looked like it turned the lights off, cuddled up in bed, and decided to just sweat out a vomit-inducing defeat instead of actually doing a single thing to combat it. Simply put, playing the right way and getting back on the right side of the scoreboard with some consistency is the only thing that will truly nurse New Jersey out of their state of nausea.
That being said, the return of a player whose absence has been felt through both sickness (this miserable 2-6-1 stretch) and health (their 4-0 start) isn't the worst prescription I could think of. Now, I'm not putting the entire hose on the slender shoulders of Jesper Bratt and asking him to extinguish the raging dumpster fire that the Devils were on Tuesday night. However, if you ask Marcus Johansson during a moment of weakness what it's been like trying to coax goals out of the cluster of mediocrity that's joined him on the second line then he'd almost certainly tell you he's been longing for the season debut of the second year Swede. Other than Cory Schneider, who apparently only starts on nights in which his team experiments with pregame Ambien, no one on the roster has had their performance more stifled by their surroundings than MoJo. Conservatively speaking, he should probably have about 3x as many assists as he does, and if he were flanked with just a little bit of finesse then it's a distinct possibility that the Devils wouldn't be leaning on their first line more shamelessly than Jesper Bratt leaned over his toilet while "eating" during his liquid diet...
Of course, it will probably take him a little while to get acclimated to the game speed having not yet participated in a contest with actual consequences this year, and the line of him, Seney, and Johansson is probably better in theory until they work in some more practice. Still, the puck skill, creativity, and ability to go for an extensive skate on a frozen puddle that Jesper Bratt brings to the lineup is sorely needed on both the second line and the second power play unit. Despite his struggles to end last season, that much has been made blatantly obvious this season. His absence has made the heart grow fonder, if only because it's cooled everyone on the Devils' offensive depth.
The Only Uber Disjointed Team That Looked Like They Were Along For The Ride In Ottawa Last Night Was The New Jersey Devils
To be honest, the phrase "compete level" is already growing pretty old. There's only one thing I hate more than cliches, and it's overused cliches. I hardly see him as the problem, but John Hynes has been so aggressive in going to the well of effort-based adages that he doesn't even have to be the one to bring them up in trying to explain his team's otherwise inexplicable struggles anymore...
Unfortunately, I'm just not sure there was anything more apt to criticism than their effort last night. The Devils spent the first half of the first period creating the type of contrast that has drunkards covering their eyes and squinting away from the sun when they walk out of dive bars mid-day, as the lopsided beatdown that followed was only made all the more painful to watch by what preceded it. Never mind the flipping of a switch, it was honestly as if someone cut the power lines to their pulse the second the first line continued their torrid tear in jumping out to a two goal lead. There are ebbs and flows to every game, but there are also drug addicts that would have a hard time comprehending how rapidly the Devils went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows in having a withdrawal from working hard.
It's John Hynes' job to play exterminator in coaxing out whatever crawled up the Devils' ass twelve minutes into a game they had already proved winnable, but I too might be at a loss for an original answer if my team randomly decided to toss a working arrangement directly in the trash. Against an opponent that was still saying its our father's and hail mary's after going full Taxicab Confessions in roasting its coaching, New Jersey turned into the team that looked like it had gone comatose during the last three weeks of film study. Whether it was following the puck like a pack of first graders or getting bent over backwards in just about every board battle, the Devils were somehow left more desperate for a reliable Lyft than the Senators were a week ago. After putting forth a masterpiece against the Penguins a night earlier, a young team whose only success has come when they've out-worked opponents didn't even have the decency to conjure up a cough before clocking out early.
Of course, there were some obvious flaws at fault. The first line was creating just about all of the offense. The team defense was about as brutal as the actual defense was expected to be this season. Drew Stafford literally stinks on ice. Miles Wood finds the confines of the penalty box far too friendly. Damon Severson has been a stud as of late, but - as evidenced by the game-tying goal - his wires still get crossed whenever he steps foot in the blue paint and the glitch results in him momentarily forgetting that goals are scored with sticks. That said, as has been the case far too often, no one thing sabotaged the Devils' hot start more so than their own collective lack of competitiveness. The following opinion is definitely influenced by recency bias, but it already seems as though the Devils have completely lost focus and checked out of more games this year than they did all of last year, and the embarrassing amount of blown leads turned blowouts reflects just that.
In theory, that should be a more fixable problem than a lack of speed or skill, but it's also one that's hard to repeatedly answer to without sounding like a broken record of overplayed hits.
As it pertains to Cory Schneider, I don't want to hear it. It was always going to take him some time to get comfortable following hip surgery, and - by playing two of their worst games of the season in front of him - his teammates have afforded him absolutely none of it. I don't know that he'll ever get back to being the backbone we saw in the playoffs, but I do know that it'll be impossible to tell if five players continue to stand around mesmerized by the puck (much like below) while he's in net. For whatever reason, the Devils go braindead when backstopped by #35, but - while he hasn't been good - I have hard time blaming him for the type of mental block that teams who are worth a damn can bust through. I've accepted that Cory Schneider might, in fact, be done, but I decline him being anything close to the main reason they lost a game in which they appeared to misunderstand the meaning of the phrase "quit while you're ahead".
Brian Boyle Netted His First Career Hat Trick On 'Hockey Fights Cancer' Night, Because Of Course He Did
815. Prior to last night, that's the amount of times Brian Boyle had stepped on NHL ice for a meaningful game as the type of big man who is expected to create room for the scorers as opposed to doing a heck of a lot of it himself, before later leaving it having not tallied at least three goals on the afternoon or evening.
There was really no inclination that 816 was going to be much different, except for the fact that he was already living proof that sports have this weird way of making absolutely no sense by finding the perfect times to make all the sense in the world...
I don't want to imply that this is some sort of Angels On The Ice situation, as Brian Boyle was simply rewarded for doing the type of dirty work that's helped him find his niche in a younger, faster NHL the last few seasons. However, there's just something surreal and cinematic about that reward coming in the form of his first career hat trick on a night devoted to the ongoing battle against the deadly disease he recently sent packing into remission.
It's only right for Brian Boyle to be on the front lines as Hockey Fights Cancer, but the odds of him fully flexing his muscles on the scoresheet while his strength as a person was on everyone's brain are only reasonable if you see them as slightly fixed by fate. On a night where the 4th line showed out in a desperately needed dominant win over a quality team, it's heart and soul put forth a performance to remember. Not that we'd ever forget what he and others like him has been through in trying to kick cancer's ass, but it's tough not to be inspired by someone delivering it a knockout punch by repeatedly lighting the goal light at the end of the tunnel.
As for the game itself, a lot to like. Just as the whispers regarding Will Butcher's scoring slump and possession struggles were starting to pick up some volume he almost instantly silenced them, and the Devils finally cruised to a comfortable victory in a building other than their own. I can't say that the 4th line putting up a bunch of points in the process was a direct result of Kurtis Gabriel not being on it, but I'll settle for it being a reason that he's never, ever on it again. Regardless, it was a solid team win ahead of a second half of a back-to-back that provides them plenty of opportunity to build on it, assuming they kick the nasty habit of playing down to their less intimidating competition.
I suppose it's par for what's become a bumpy course to start the season that reading through the list of moves made in response to it elicits a somewhat manic set of emotions. Therefore, let's cut through the crap and get down to the feeling that best encapsulates each players' demotion or promotion...
Disappointed, which is not be confused with angry. It may have been a half dozen or so games ago when he was playing a productive brand of puck despite being allergic to putting it in the net. The way in which Marcus Johansson and Pavel Zacha gelled in the early going was basically the best case scenario realizing itself, but - as is the case with a kid who wears his confidence both in his body language and on the tape of his stick - each passing night in which he didn't grace the scoresheet resulted in a more passive version of a player who struggles with the game being played in his head more so than the game being played on the ice. John Hynes made himself abundantly clear on Behind The Glass, you don't have to keep a running tally like Taylor Hall, but to stay in the lineup - especially as a 2nd line center - you need to have a handful of moments throughout each game in which you're creating your own offense. In a way that's become all-too-familiar, Pavel Zacha struggled in doing just that, so hopefully some time in Binghamton will do him good.
Ecstatic. No offense meant to Kevin Rooney, who is too "meh" of a move to deserve its own paragraph, but - in theory - Brett Seney is the type of prospect that fits this team and system perfectly. I don't know that the term 'piss-ant' can be considered a compliment, but - given his size, skill set, attitude - I think it fits and I mean that fondly. By all accounts, he's feisty, tenacious, and an absolutely prick to play against. We will see how that translates for a 6th round pick at the NHL level, but you don't need to squint too hard to see the combination of him and Blake Coleman agitating the hell out of the opposition.
Disgusted, and - if I'm also speaking for my intelligence - then insulted. I don't get it. I don't like it. And as much of a John Hynes apologist as I am, nothing he can say will make me change my mind. Consider this, a professional production team edited together scenes with the main goal of making Kurtis Gabriel look like a sympathetic figure, and all it made me do was finally think long and hard about cutting the cord...literally. For a team that can't stay out of the box and a 4th line that can't stay out of its own way, I don't see how he helps anything, at anytime or anywhere. His "best" "skill" is instigation, and - in case you forgot - there's a two minute timeout that comes attached to that.
I'm sure he's a nice, hard-working guy and all, but I can already taste the vomit in the back of my throat and we're still minutes away from seeing how he looks in a New Jersey Devils' jersey when it matters. Honestly, his insertion into a lineup that's struggled getting depth scoring as of late is a forehead slap waiting to happen, as I'd much rather he be sitting next to me on my couch punching me in the face then waiting to be deployed by John Hynes as the type of big dumb animal that I could have sworn went extinct due survival of the skill...est(?).
Motivation. If nothing else, it's the one thing a Devils' team that got embarrassed and emasculated in Tampa Bay absolutely, positively should have had going for them. Throw in the fact that they were supposedly "playing for" a goaltender who had finally overcome offseason tail reattachment surgery after working it off in relief throughout a playoff series that was as short as the statement he successfully made throughout it, and the well of excuses they have to go to for another uninspired performance becomes bone dry. John Hynes routinely preaches being a "self starter", but players that haven't put together a single win in an NHL building other than their own shouldn't exactly have had to rub two sticks together inside their stall to get a fire going under their ass last night.
Of course, there's always ebbs and flows throughout any 82 game schedule, but the Devils starting off their first extensive road trip of a season that's still young relatively to the rest of the league shouldn't have them looking like they've grown tired of putting in the effort necessary to make up for an average level of skill. It's not that the losses are piling up and erasing what was a bullish sprint out of the gates, but rather how and why those losses are piling up. Occasionally you're going to get humbled by some of the more complete rosters in the league, as was the case against the Lightning, but New Jersey got put on their heels like they were walking a plank by an inferior team in Detroit. The Red Wings outworked, out-skated, and...well...out-Devils'd the Devils. Assuming Little Ceasar himself isn't in charge of ice maintenance at the arena that's named after him, they looked like they were trying to manually juice goals out of their sticks while doing so. However, it's not them having "one of those nights" that's most concerning, but rather the lack of urgency in battling through it.
Whether they were winning or losses in bunches last season, the Devils were pretty consistent in being a pain in the ass to play against. Unfortunately, while the inclination to go streaking has apparently carried over into them looking nudely vulnerable for stretches, being non-circumstantially competitive has not.
Teams that are difficult to play against don't repeatedly give up third period leads. Teams that are difficult to play against don't repeatedly take untimely penalties. Teams that are difficult to play against may get beat, but they don't beat themselves. Teams that are difficult to play against don't look like a shell of themselves on the road. All those things happened last night. Whether it be sitting in the box immediately after giving up a PPG or sitting in the box immediately after scoring a go-ahead PPG in the third, the Devils are finally being scolded for a defeatist lack of discipline. The most careless pass of Will Butcher's career stands out because it led to the unofficial game-winning, shorthanded goal, but it's only the most egregious example of the self-destructive ways in which they've costing themselves points in arenas in which those points are harder to come by.
John Hynes, as per usual, is right. It's up to the players - who are professionals, mind you - to find whatever confidence they might have lost over the last week and a half, and playing the way they fully embraced in earning a playoff spot last year is the most tried and true way to do so. If you look up and down the roster, there are definitely some problem areas (2nd line uselessness, a thrown together 4th line), but a brighter light gets shown on those problem areas when you start deviating from a system that makes everyone look better.
Those first four games weren't anymore of an aberration than the last six have been, so it's both disingenuous and premature to say that they don't currently have the horses to place in the playoff race at this point. They just need to get back to running together in lockstep, because the Devils are exponentially better as a team than they are as talents. Thus, when they don't play like the former it becomes harder to see the latter.
We're talking in baby steps, because Cory Schneider should be somewhat nurtured in his return to NHL action, but I feel comfortable in saying he made it out of the crib last night. The start was predictably rough as, if not for a fortuitous whistle, the first relatively pedestrian puck he "stopped" probably should have resulted in the first bad goal he let up, and him being two inches off the goal line while slow to the one-timer that breezed right past him was nearly as discouraging. That said, he definitely appeared to find his footing as the game progressed. He didn't look like it was his first appearance of the season for the last 45 minutes or so, and that's about as much as you could have asked for from a guy that gave his team more than enough of a chance to get a win for him while still getting acclimated. They are the easiest things to blame in times of crisis, but - much like the coaching - goaltending has most certainly not been the problem as to late.
I'll be honest with you, regardless of the source, it's refreshing to read a nuanced and (pun intended) calculated take on advanced analytics and their usefulness in coaching professional sports. While I look at just about half of the graphs and charts that get disseminated with the hopeless intensity of a far-sighted third grader trying to stare his way into solving a magic eye poster, I understand that they can be very chatty in telling people smarter than myself what it is that they are actually watching. They aren't the end all, be all of relating or relaying a message to the inherently emotional beings that are professional athletes, but they can definitely help craft that message. Unfortunately, as is the case with just about everything nowadays, the numerical study of sports has largely become something that people either loathe or love, as opposed to facts that can/should be paired with feelings.
Now, the idea that said source happens to be the first time NHL head coach tasked with continuing what he started in turning around a proud franchise that finally fell on hard times should make that answer all the more exhilarating to each and every Devils' fan. Never mind the current state of a team that got both humbled and embarrassed in Tampa Bay, because - win or lose - they've undoubtedly got the right type of open-minded attitude behind their bench. John Hynes has already proved his worth (and then some) as a mentally in-tune motivator of young men, but him both understanding and appreciating math basically makes him the coaching equivalent of the type of miraculous mixed-breed that would make a dog-lover mortgage their house.
To the dismay of those that have dug their heels in on treating underlying statistics like gospel, you can't simply coach hockey with a calculator. On the other hand, to the dismay of those that treat their belly like a crystal ball, you can't simply coach hockey with your gut. That answer above was a rarely seen rational take that did the unthinkable by taking into account both the sums and subtleties of a sport as covertly complex as hockey. Personally, I couldn't be made any more comfortable by the quoted individual being the man with which my emotional investment has been made, as John Hynes isn't just doing his homework, but also putting its purpose into one hell of a practice.
The Devils Faced The Perfect Storm In Tampa Bay, And Skated Away With Their Tails Between Their Legs
Prior to the third period, I probably would have told you that the score at the time wasn't entirely indicative of the competitiveness of the game to that point. After the first 40 minutes, I may have argued that just about all the issues the Devils have largely gotten away with failing to correct, due in large part to both Keith Kinkaid and an excellent PK, got exposed by a better team playing within the friendly confines of their own building. That might seem like a stretch, considering their quick 2-0 lead got counterpunched with fistful of answered goals. However, between starting the second period in a mindless malaise (goal 3) and looking as though they were intentionally testing the depth of their own penalty kill by refusing to stay out of the box (goals 4 and 5), the Lightning were more opportunistic than they were discouragingly dominant.
Unfortunately, the third period happened, and from the first drop of the puck it looked like just about every player in the Devils' lineup was wishing it didn't have to. Credit to the top notch talent up and down Tampa's roster for capitalizing, but - as evidenced by the pass Damon Severson ripped so hard off Pavel Zacha's skate that you'd swear it was wearing a stick costume (goal 7) - New Jersey didn't even force them to approach the door before tossing away pucks like they were Halloween candy. Hell, they might as well have slapped a sign on their bench that said "Take One", because the bell was simply not something they were interested in answering throughout the final frame.
Unsurprisingly, one was not taken, as the same team that ended their season in unceremonious fashion put up three during a period for which the Devils appeared to prepare by going on a 'Trick or Tequila' run. Everyone, from Brian Boyle and Kevin Rooney (goal 6) to Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri (goal 8), was left falling all over themselves in a way that was all too fitting of what was essentially a 20 minute face-plant.
Every regulation loss counts for the same amount of points, whether you lose by two or you lose by five, so this could easily be seen as a "scrap the tape"-type wake-up call for a team that really shouldn't need it this early in the season. Hopefully it is in theory but not in execution, as there are a lot of persistent problem areas that were finally picked apart. Every season has its stinkers, but how the Devils respond to this particular one will say a lot about a team that has yet to prove capable of putting forth a winning effort on the road. Kind of important to make that statement a positive one as, even after this road trip, they won't be spending too much time at home this month. Though, I guess the good news is that their next appearance can't possibly be more negative than one in which they looked like they forgot how to hockey during the final intermission.