The Devil Had Been in the Details for New Jersey
It’s a zippy 90-minute drive up the New Jersey Turnpike between the Wells Fargo and Prudential Centers for Wayne Simmonds, sometimes longer with traffic. Traffic, however, is what he has been one of the best at, except when dragging those skinny legs to the net front last season while recovering from abdominal muscle surgery.
“The doctors told me it would take six months and it took me six months just to heal, [let alone] prepare myself for a hockey season,” he says. “I feel great now, a million times better than I did last year.”
Actually, he is $5 million times better than he was in June. After crashing in Nashville following the worst of his eight seasons in Philly, you wondered if there was going to be any market for Simmonds at all, but five million smackers for a year to rebuild your value is good work if you can get it, and we’ll gamble here in predicting that Ray Shero has gambled well. It took Claude Giroux a full year –and a chorus of consternation from ever-impatient Flyer Nation that No. 28 was washed up as a premier player–to get past the same procedure before he showed reports of his demise were premature.
So if you had the cap room, which the Devils did and the Flyers didn’t after taking care of more pressing needs for Kevin Hayes, Justin Braun and Matt Niskanen, Simmonds seemed to be a good fit among several new ones for a New Jersey team presumed ready to take a playoff run after just reaching one berth in the last eight seasons.
The Devils won the lottery for Jack Hughes, picked up P.K. Subban for a couple of second-round picks, and, in Simmonds, got one of the NHL’s once-and again front-of- the net presences, plus all of his intangibles that endeared him to Philadelphia even though the Flyers won only one playoff series in the eight years he was there.
In addition to 25-30 goals, Simmonds brings character. Also by coincidence for lack of any plausible explanation, he has dragged with him to North Jersey the slow starts to the season that plagued the Flyers almost every one of the years he was one of them. In 2014, 2016 and 2018, they overcame them to make the playoffs, the rest of the years they did not. And while the Blues turned uphill into downhill on the way to Cup a year ago, this is far from an every year occurrence in the NHL. The majority of times in these post-lockout days of up to three points to the participants of each game, a bad pre-December becomes a sled ride on gravel.
So here are the Devils, 0-4-2 after Monday’s ghastly cough-up of a 4-1 lead into a 6-4 loss to the Panthers, turning a stumble out of the gate into a full level pratfall, with panic in the streets apparently spilling into panic with the puck. Bad decisions, like Kyle Palmieri’s Hockey 101 failure to dump the puck with less than 20 seconds to go in a second period with New Jersey leading 4-2, turned into a goal that got Florida back into the game, a continuing self-fulfilling prophesy of opening night’s squandering of a 4-0 lead into a 5-4 loss to Winnipeg.
They Devils have given up a maddening final minute of the period goals in four games, but you can’t chalk that up to just bad timing when they have been giving away the puck constantly for all 60 minutes. If we all hadn’t seen them coached to a 97-point season two years ago by John Hynes, we would swear they weren’t coached at all.
“Guys like me are not feeling a good about their games as they want to,” said Taylor Hall, the 2016-17 Hart Trophy winner, who has only one goal. Contagion of the heebie jeebies, an insidious destroyer of confidences, has set in, which never is helped by the yips in the stands. The Devils were booed off the ice at end of the Florida debacle by a lot of people who got awfully tired of waiting for that big year from Jacob Josefson and. now that things supposedly were looking up, are feeling set up for a cruel let down.
Everybody needs to calm down of course. But having said that, it’s more than fear itself that the Devils have to fear, lest a bad couple weeks turn worse. They are one of six Eastern Conference teams-Sabres, Canadiens, Flyers, Rangers and Panthers–who, having failed to make the 2018-19 playoffs, are coming into the season with reason to believe they are improved enough to do it this time. Considering the strength of the competition, three of them are going to get in, if that many.
The Norris Division went out of business 26 years ago. There is no longer any such thing as easing into a season and no way to rush the development of Hughes, who for all his skill and speed, at 170 pounds is thinner than the patience level of fans waiting for another Patrik Elias or even better.
Yes, they give lip service to patient understanding that this is child playing amidst men, but already the fan boards are rife with second guesses about Hynes’ choice of linemates for the kid. Having capably brought along Nico Hischier, another first overall pick–albeit not one with the Next One expectations attached to Hughes–Hynes can manage this again. But having made the playoffs two years ago and slipping backwards in 2018-19, there is a greater sense of immediacy for the Devils this time.
Hughes looked completely lost the first two games, and after a couple with a clue, was lost again Monday save except for one hurried chance that hit the post. If Hischier, who didn’t return after the first period, is out for any appreciable time, the need for Hughes to put on 20 pounds and become Sidney Crosby by next week if not sooner, builds, not what he needs.
”He’s really understanding how hard you need to compete in this game and how much puck battles and attention to detail mean when you don’t have the puck,” said Hynes last week. “I think he’s making strides in those areas.
“He’s just a step away from really creating some good offense. Good players adjust. He hasn’t backed down from the competitive part of things. He’ll understand from the mistakes that If you try one too many moves or get too tight on defenders, things get poke-checked away.”
Good to hear. Perhaps Palmieri, who has been in the league 10 years, can learn that too. Meanwhile, goalie Cory Schneider has not necessarily been the problem, but so far hasn’t been the solution. “Five unanswered goals, I’m embarrassed,” he said after the Florida debacle, later adding, “We have to have everyone playing on the same page.”
Right now the Devils are on the same page of a Steven King novel. But they hope to get steady Andy Greene back soon, in addition to developing a fourth line that can gain some zone time and putting together power play. Especially a power play. Still without a goal this season, it has yet to feed the population of Simmondsville, where the Mayor can still rule. That said, for all Simmonds brings to the edge of the crease and a locker room, he never been a catalyst for a line, actually difficult in playing style for centers to make productive at even strength.
On the theory that Simmonds’ veteran presence can bring Hughes along, he has spent a lot line time with the wunderkind. More of it has been in the defensive end, a clue this is not working, There seem to be better fits on a pretty good roster for such an anticipated player suffering anticipated growing pains, but that’s not the only thing for the Devils need to sort out before they begin to breathe normally. It happens to at least one team with high hopes every year: It has gotten late awfully early in New Jersey.