Back to the scene of the crime: Another rough ride in the Saddledome
By Gilles Moncour
In March of 2019, a depleted New Jersey Devils team, playing without Hall, Hischier, Zacha, Bratt, and Vatanen, came into Calgary riding a six-game losing streak. After a decent first two periods, the Devils came undone, allowing six goals in the third on the way to a 9-4 defeat.
Fast-forward eight months later, the Devils returned to Calgary and — alarmingly — the result may have been even worse. Because instead of a tired, injured team playing out the string, New Jersey was almost completely healthy, well-rested, and riding a six-game point streak as they try to turn a poor start around. Yes, this time Calgary only scored five, but the Flames and the referees each seemed to ease off the by the middle of the third period and MacKenzie Blackwood played fairly well to prevent a total rout.
The Devils are Still Fragile
The results of this thrashing, taken together with the sample size of the season’s first 14 games, lead to an inescapable and damning conclusion: as constructed by Ray Shero and coached by John Hynes, New Jersey is a fragile team. As soon as the opposition turns up the speed, physicality, and/or intensity, the Devils start teetering like a wonky Jenga tower… waiting for the inevitable collapse. For the first 25 minutes of last night's game, the Devils were making plays in all three zones and standing up to the speed and force of the Flames — it appeared to be one of their better efforts of the season! That it could turn around so quickly and devastatingly is an indictment of the players and coaches; this just shouldn’t happen to an NHL team unless they are in total rebuilding mode, which the Devils are most certainly not.
The breakdowns were made by everyone all over the rink but a couple stood out: Nikita Gusev has a deceptively quick release and may be the best finisher on the team, but his weakness in almost every other area of the ice means he can barely manage one chance per game. His two penalties were the kind that send players to the press box; on the back line, Matt Tennyson was totally overwhelmed on two breakaway goals by Derek Ryan and Johnny Gaudreau: to heck with the press box — these were the types of plays that get one sent back to the AHL.
Hall and Subban are not providing stability
Yes, Taylor Hall is getting his points — 14 in 14 games — he is skating strongly, throwing his body into harm’s way, and at a glance seems to be performing as well as ever. But, upon closer inspection, it appears that he is being affected by the upcoming contract situation in a big way: from his uncharacteristic rant about the home crowd’s boos vs. Tampa, to his mocking “I can’t hear you now” gesture following his goal against the Flyers in the next home game (for which he might have been run out of town in Toronto or Montreal), to the numerous turnovers he is making in dangerous areas, to his inability to pot in a big goal in OT or the shootout where he previously showed such prowess.
Yes, the skills that Taylor Hall won an MVP with are still there, but there seems to be a critical component lacking... which means a huge headache for Shero going forward: should he really sign this guy to an $80+ deal, and if he doesn’t, will the Devil’s collapse?
As for the other high-priced superstar on the team, the subtleties of PK Subban’s game have been sobering for Devil’s fans and coaches alike. PK is renowned for his slapshot, but whether it cannons off a teammate, maims an opponent, ricochets off the glass, or somehow finds the goal frame seems to be entirely up to chance. “Head down and blast it” is not the way it works in today’s NHL, but over and over that’s what we get. It is also surprising — shocking really — to see how poor Subban is with puck distribution. Three times last night PK meandered through the neutral zone and ignored wide-open, fast moving teammates primed for a clean entry, only to turn the puck over at the blueline or be whistled for offsides. On the man advantage, Subban’s inability to get shots through and lack of quick decisions means Sami Vatanen has found an unexpected home on the #1 power play distributing the biscuit to Hughes and Hall.
Subban is not playing that poorly, but his ceiling seems a heck of a lot lower now than it did in his time in Montreal or his first years in Nashville. While he is still an effective player and is the team’s most physical defender, it’s apparent that Nashville GM David Poile knew what he was doing when he got PK’s $9M salary off the books.
On to Edmonton
New Jersey plays in Edmonton tonight, and the team needs the players’ and coaches’ best efforts of the season to erase the bilious taste of last night’s game. Perhaps playing against his old squad will turn Taylor Hall’s attitude around. Perhaps going up against McDavid and Draisaitl (gulp) will inspire PK into a more focused performance. Perhaps Jesper Bratt can return and give the Devil’s a second line again. The good work that has been done by Jesper Boqvist has the third line on the verge of some very good things. Wayne Simmonds has helped the fourth line with his toughness and desire to get to the net. Yes, a lot of “ifs.”
Last March, the skeleton-thin Devils rebounded from their 9-4 Calgary thrashing to defeat the Oilers the following day and end a seven-game losing streak. This Devils team, with so much more talent and expectations, must do the same. This is a critical moment for this team and the coach. If any mouse ears are spotted in the Edmonton crowd tonight, it could signal the last act of Hynes’ run.