Coming off of the extended Christmas break, the Devils are heading into 2022 relying on the current staff and roster to turn the season around.
It is no secret that the 2021-2022 season has not gone how the Devils would have hoped back in September. In the last 16 games, the Devils have won only three times. As a result, New Jersey has fallen well behind the teams competing for a wild card spot. Despite this however, general manager Tom Fitzgerald has made it clear that no big changes are on the horizon. Fitzgerald believes that the team can get back to winning like they were early in the season. He believes that the Devils will come out of the break healthier and as the best version of themselves.
Through 12 games, the Devils were 7-3-2 and looked like a real contender, beating teams like the Panthers and Penguins along the way. Since then, the wheels have fallen off and the Devils have gone 3-12-3. Fitzgerald seems convinced that that the 7-3-2 Devils are who they really are the 3-12-3 Devils are an aberration. He believes in the coaching staff’s systems and the players abilities to right the ship and make the Devils competitive again.
One of the biggest issues the Devils have had this year has been sub par goaltending. The Devils have already used six goalies this year, which is more than they used in the entire 2021 and 2020 seasons. None of the six have played particularly well either. No Devil goalie has a goals against average under 3 or a save percentage above .902. Mackenzie Blackwood is relied upon to be the Devils starter but has not delivered so far this year. The Devils need Blackwood to return to the form he had in his first seasons where he had a save percentage above .915 and a goals against average under 2.80. Blackwood is yet to regain that form in either of the last two seasons. With Johnathan Bernier out for an extender period of time with injury, it will be on Blackwood to carry the load in net for the Devils for the majority of the remaining season.
The Devils also need to score more goals. With just 82 goals so far, the Devils are 22nd in the NHL in goal scoring. Not surprisingly for a team that struggles to score, but the Devils are one of just two teams, along with Montreal, to not have a player with 10 or more goals yet. While lacking an elite scorer, the Devils also don’t have much in the way of secondary scoring. Forwards in the bottom six are struggling to produce. Yegor Sharangovich had 16 goals last year but only four so far this year. Tomas Tatar has scored 20 or more goals in six seasons in his NHL career yet so far this year he only has six goals and 14 points. Janne Kuokkannen produced 25 points in 50 games last year but so far this year has only six points in 28 games. Those players not producing to levels they have in the past is really hurting the Devils offense. You can’t win games in the NHL relying only on Jesper Bratt and Andreas Johnsson to score goals. Despite Bratt having the best year of his career, he cannot and should not be expected to single handily win games in spite of bad goaltending and other guys failing to produce. Yet, Bratt has been one bright spot in a pretty unremarkable Devils offense through 30 games.
As much as people are frustrated with the teams performance so far and want to see someone held accountable, I am not sure that firing head coach Lindy Ruff would do much good. The last two coaches the Devils have fired were Pete Deboer and John Hynes. Both of whom were quickly hired elsewhere and have gone on to have more success in their new homes while the Devils continue to flounder at the bottom of the standings. As disorganized and lifeless as the Devils have looked in many of their recent games is being attributed to the growing pains a young team must go through to learn how to win. However, the NHL has several young teams who have been more successful than New Jersey has. For example, the average age of the Rangers roster is less than a year older than the average age of the Devils roster. Yet, they are having substantially more success than the Devils are this season. The same thing is true about the Blue Jackets. Both of those teams have also replaced their head coach within the last two years, just like the Devils. With that in mind, it is tough to see Lindy Ruff having much more time to fix the mess that is currently the Devils organization before he loses his job.
Every area of the team needs to improve and every player in the Devils locker room has room to grow and help be a part of the solution. The coaches need to find line combinations that help the players excel and put them in a system that the players can execute. There is still time in the season, 52 games to be exact, but the Devils have put themselves in an incredibly deep hole in the last few weeks that will be insanely difficult to climb out of.
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