New Jersey Devils Steps to Right the Ship

To put it mildly, it’s been a rough month for the New Jersey Devils.  A rough month. What are some of the next steps to right the ship, both in the short term and long term.

In their most iconic song of the 1980’s, “Games People Play”, The Alan Parsons Project famously repeated sang the lyrics “Where do we go from here?” . As the New Jersey Devils undertake the hockey equivalent of navigating the treacherous waters of the Bering sea, looking to right the ship as quickly as possible this season, that phrase has a special meaning to all the club’s supporters.

At this point, “Where do we go from here?” is an anthem which seems wholly appropriate for the New Jersey Devils, who are seemingly disintegrating before our very eyes. We continue to see very limited production from certain forwards, a defensive corps who lacks an edge, and even cracks in the armor of our all-world goalie. Goals are flying into our net with alacrity. Leads are being blown. Our second periods are a veritable horror show.

A couple of people very close to me asked me recently “What should the Devils do now?”.  At the time, I had no immediate response. Was literally both speechless and incredulous.

But, however befuddling that question was, it is indeed a question which requires an answer. The sun will be coming up tomorrow, and the club will be moving forward and they need to right the ship. So, after a period of introspection to actually think through the question, here are some thoughts on where the Devils currently are and where they need to be in the coming months.

Coaching

Let it first be said, I don’t think John Hynes has done a great job the past few weeks. I don’t care what the circumstances are, if you don’t have injuries and the club you lead is conceding the most goals in the league, there are deficiencies in both structure and effort. Both of them are on the coaching staff.

The Devils have strong management and coaching. Panic or a knee-jerk reactions are neither helpful nor appropriate. But some tweaking might be helpful.

That acknowledged, I absolutely still believe in Hynes as a coach. He’s a good teacher. His message is consistent and solid. He holds players accountable. He’s willing to give young players a chance and he’s willing to expand their role if they have earned more minutes. Given the youth of the Devils and many promising forwards in the pipeline, all of his skills are very important to the Devils. Unless New Jersey completely jumps off the rails, any talk of a coaching change is patently ridiculous.

But there are some short-term changes I would like to see. One would be to keep particular forwards together on consistent lines. The incessant line juggling is dizzying.  For goodness sake, could you please play Taylor Hall and Adam Henrique together for a good 10-15 games? They were great in juniors. Give them a chance here.

And, speaking of giving them a chance, perhaps do the same with #19, #13 and #21? I do understand, and agree with, giving Miles Wood and Nick Lappin more time. They’ve earned that. But put them on the third line or slot one of them with #9 and #14 and leave it be. There is value to cohesiveness, you don’t need to change lines every single game.  Can we see a bit of stability. Please.

Management

My viewpoint here is similar to that of the coach. Ray Shero is doing a good job. Clearing out the dead wood, seeking younger and faster players, and trading for a premier forward are all tremendous moves. No problem at all with the general approach here.

But what I do have a huge problem with is the team’s salary cap situation. The New Jersey Devils have a astronomically large amount of available cap space in the league, close to $10 million. Injuries can muddle this a bit, but more or less the Devils rank second in the league (to Carolina) in this area. And, that number does not include the roughly $9 million in money allocated to two retired players, Ryane Clowe and Marc Savard.

So, to sum up, the Devils are more or less $18 million under the cap of $73 million.   For those of you who didn’t pay attention in 5th grade math class, that’s approximately 25% under the cap.

As Eminem said to jump start “The Real Slim Shady”…

May I Have Your Attention Please! 

May I Have Your Attention Please! 

Those are utterly ridiculous cap figures.  Utterly ridiculous.  Teams that win or want to win spend to the cap.

Teams that are rebuilding and want to win use cap space as an asset for future assets.

We all agree throwing tons of long-term money at average players is not a smart move. That’s not what I am suggesting. Not at all. Here are my thoughts on the topic.

Ray Shero did make one great move last summer to exchange cap space for an asset, that being the Marc Savard trade where they took on his contract and received a second round draft pick from the Panthers as compensation for doing so. Bravo! That was a great move.

The problem here is, if the Devils are truly in a rebuilding move, they should have, at a minimum, completed two more of those types of trades. It only costs money, something Mr. Harris has more than enough of to use in exchange for upgrading the talent pool of the organization. To repeat, they have $9 million or $18 million of available funds, depending on how you look at the situation.

Alternatively, if the Devils thought they could win this year, they could have thrown an above market season-season offer to someone like a Kris Russell.  Is Kris Russell God’s gift to hockey? Of course not.  But he was available all preseason long, is paid a mere $3 million or so, and has a plus/minus of +5 playing 20 plus minutes a game for a team in playoff position. Paying him $4 million a year for this season would have improved the Devils with absolutely no long-term commitment or implications for the cap after the season. Or $5 million or $6 million.  The amount doesn’t matter, the Devils have all the cap space in the world.

The failure to use this asset to the fullest is the definition of sports management maleficence, in my view. They will never, ever recapture this asset. It’s going to waste. The Devils absolutely, positively should look at the trade deadline to take on a few more “bad contracts” in exchange for prospects or picks.

Many fans say the ownership is not cheap, look at all the money they put into things like the 3D projection system, the “One Jersey” campaign, improved concessions in the arena and the like. While that is true, you know what, I, and most of the club’s hard core hockey fans, could not care less about that stuff.

And, message to Devils senior management. None of that stuff matters, not one iota, if the team is not winning.

Theme nights and ‘the experience” will not consistently fill the area.

Winning fills the arena. It’s good business to spend to the cap.

Please, I beg of Josh Harris, transform the Devils to be a club like Chicago, New York, Tampa and others who look to use every single available cent within the constraints of the salary cap to make the club better.

Players

I’m for even more accountability here. I hate to say it, but it’s pretty unlikely the Devils are going to fight their way back into a playoff position this year.

Amongst the forwards, gentleman like Mr. Quenneville and Mr. Pietila, players who are scoring every second or third third game in Albany with a positive plus/minus, need to make their way to Newark and get on a regular line at some point in the near future. I think we know what we have (or don’t have) with guys like DSP, Sergey Kalinin, Beau Bennett and Jacob Josefson. They are all bottom six guys who aren’t giving us what we need offensively and combine that lack of production with a relative lack of either defensive ability or compete levels. There really is no downside to plugging a few more possible high-potential players into the Devils roster this year to see what they can do.

On the blue line, while I understand Mr. Hynes and Shero see the league as one where speed rules and value this trait across the board, the Devils need more muscle in the position. They are getting killed this year on rebounds and goals scored on deflections/screens because of traffic around the net. Are players like Seth Helgeson or Vojtech Mozik the answer? I don’t know. Actually, to go out on a limb, I don’t think they are. But I don’t think Jon Merrill or Kyle Quincey are the answer either. I would strongly consider slotting a few new guys in to see what they can do.

Nothing can be done with the goaltenders. Let’s just hope Cory and Keith can step things up a bit. I don’t blame them for the team’s troubles, it’s tough when you are outshot and outplayed night after night, but at times it would have been nice of either of them could have stole a game or two for us. Let’s just hope they right the ship.

New Jersey is navigating some exceptionally rough waters now, but let’s hope they can right the ship and restore a bit more sanity and holiday cheer to all of this during the upcoming Festive Period.

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