The New Jersey Devils: A Season In One Play

NEWARK, NJ - JANUARY 31: Jesper Fast #17 of the New York Rangers falls on Kyle Palmieri #21 of the New Jersey Devils during the third period at the Prudential Center on January 31, 2019 in Newark, New Jersey. The Rangers defeated the Devils 4-3. (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
NEWARK, NJ - JANUARY 31: Jesper Fast #17 of the New York Rangers falls on Kyle Palmieri #21 of the New Jersey Devils during the third period at the Prudential Center on January 31, 2019 in Newark, New Jersey. The Rangers defeated the Devils 4-3. (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images) /
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While it would be shortsighted to say a single play defines a team’s season, it isn’t a stretch to say that a singular play from Thursday night’s game gives perspective and context to why the New Jersey Devils are where they are in the standings. Fans who look to pinpoint a singular cause for the disappointment that is the 2018-2019 season need look no further than Mika Zibanejad’s power play goal in the waning seconds of the first period.

The legitimacy of the interference penalty on Marcus Johansson (which gave way to the goal) is irrelevant. When the team goes down a man, it’s up to players on the PK unit to execute when their numbers are called. In this case in particular, the execution was non-existent.

When on the kill, most teams revert to the four-man box formation. Depending on what the attacking team does and where the puck goes, the box should adjust to cover accordingly. Once Pavel Zacha lost the draw, the only “adjustment” he and Andy Greene made was to run into each other in the faceoff circle, giving the Rangers a clear shooting lane to Keith Kinkaid.

To be fair, plays like this sometimes happen, and the PK has been one of the few bright spots to this point in the season. To Zacha’s credit, he has been reliable on the PK despite his lack of offensive production. But how many times have we watched this sort of thing happen to the Devils, and why?

Late period goals are demoralizing. Instead of going into the locker room feeling good about entering the middle period with (in this case) a two-goal cushion, late period goals usher doubt and frustration in the door.  In the case of the Devils, when you already don’t have faith in your team’s ability to lock down a game, the results can be disastrous. Sure enough, the two-goal lead evaporated into a regulation loss against a bitter rival.

The Devils lack confidence. Confidence comes from winning. Winning comes when a team has the right balance of skilled players who can make skilled plays. And quite simply, you can’t give up late period goals and expect to win games.

With respect, this lineup lacks the caliber and quantity of skilled players to ensure those big plays don’t happen for the other team on a consistent basis. Look at the lineup that dressed against the Rangers. Sure, there are some key injuries, but let’s stop kidding ourselves that the occasional win against a team like the Penguins is cause for hope that there’s something more here.

If the Zibanejad goal reveals anything about this team, it’s that we are who they thought we were. The analysts who predicted the Devils would take a step back, were right. As nice as it was to make last year’s playoffs, the reality is that this team was never ready to take the next step.

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Objectively, too many things had to go right. Miles Wood and Jesper Bratt would have to build on last season’s successes. Taylor Hall would have to repeat a nearly MVP caliber season. Cory Schneider would have to stay healthy AND find his form. Kinkaid would have to stand on his head when Schneider needed a rest. Our defense would need a miraculous boost from Will Butcher, Sami Vatanen (if he ever comes back), and Damon Severson. Our minor league system would have to provide secondary scoring when called upon. None of that has happened.

And all of that’s okay as long as the organization comes to terms with the fact that our second line is on par with a team like Boston’s third and Tampa’s fourth. Hall and Nico Hischier are great pieces to build around, but the other players being brought in need to bring more to the table than character and commitment to team philosophy.

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As soon as Johansson got called, I suspect most Devils fans already knew the outcome. When a fan base can reliably predict its team’s inability to not give up the big play, one can only hope that the front office is taking note and planning accordingly.

The path to being a consistent fixture in the playoffs will not be paved on the hopes that the coaches can squeeze more out of a bottom-end lineup. The Devils will be back in the playoffs when ownership spends the money to bring in players whose skill sets instill confidence in their teammates.