The New Jersey Devils entered the 2019-20 season with heightened expectations and optimism.
After landing the first prize in the draft in phenom Jack Hughes, the Devils acquired veterans P.K. Subban and Wayne Simmonds last summer to complement its promising young core. The perception was a team on the rise capable of playoff contention.
The additions on paper indicated improvement, but the execution has not followed the script. The Devils closed the month of October with a 2-5-3 record and sat as the last-place team in the Eastern Conference.
“Right now, we are just going to have to keep working for some breaks. There’s no other choice, really,” Devils Forward Taylor Hall said. “It’s the way we will get the results that we want. We have to keep fighting to the end.”
A primary culprit for their recent shortcomings is a penchant for failing to protect leads late in games on home ice. During their first ten games, the Devils squandered late leads on several occasions.
“Any team wants to be able to close out those games,” Devils goaltender Cory Schneider said. “My teammates are doing their jobs, and they are good enough to win the game. I’m more concerned about my play right now.”
The most glaring instance came on October 30 against the Tampa Bay Lightning falling 7-6 in overtime despite holding a two-goal third-period lead and nearly outshooting the opposition by a 2-1 margin.
Schneider made his first start since October 14 and surrendered seven goals on 23 shots while attempting to neutralize the Lightning’s high-powered offensive attack. Schneider and fellow netminder Mackenzie Blackwood experienced difficulties in the season’s first month with limiting opposition scoring chances, each notching a Goals Against Average above the league norm.
“All week, I try to make sure I’m able to stay sharp when I’m in the net and in practices,” Schneider explains. “It’s tough right now. You use the practices to prepare for the games, and the puck is finding its way into the back of the net, regardless. I just have to make sure that doesn’t keep happening.”
Subban, a former Norris Trophy winner, was on the ice for five of Tampa Bay’s seven goals, including two in the third period by Mathieu Joseph and Ondrej Palat. Having played to high standards throughout his career, Subban expects better-rounded play and will look to make adjustments.
“The highest-paid player cannot be on the ice and be a minus-four in a game like that,” Subban said. “They put me on the ice in key situations, and I didn’t deliver. It’s as simple as that.”
“There were too many plays where I didn’t play within the game. When I have bad shifts, it costs us. I have to be better for my team and my teammates. I pride myself on being a premier player in the league.”
Despite their recent shortcomings in goal and in the defensive zone, the Devils maintain a positive effort and mindset, finding ways to overcome mistakes on the offensive end and record high percentage shots.
“We are playing well with the puck on offense and playing assertively,” Hall said. “We have all lines creating chances and dictated play for the most part. We pushed the pace on offense and played with the puck, which we have to keep doing.”
Their tendency for finding the net in late-game situations and the further growth of Kyle Palmieri on the first line provide optimism. Additionally, Hughes and Jesper Bratt continue their overall development as the Devils round out a core of talented youngsters.
“The battle level, the improvements, and the resolve are all positive,” Devils Head Coach John Hynes said. “There are guys that are playing really well and getting them the way we want them to play. It was nice to see Bratt respond the way that he did because that is the guy that we need, and that’s encouraging.”
Like most coaches, Hynes looks for signs of improvement during a trying period believes winning the smaller battles will eventually follow in victories. Building on positive play will enable the Devils to realize their promise and expectations. The early stage of the season is a time when teams discover themselves and address the challenges needed to compete at an optimum level.
“You get into these situations sometimes and you can’t pop out of it easily,” Hynes said. “Your game improves, and we took a step even though we didn’t get the results. You don’t just pop out of a rut. You have to build on things and have confidence in your game. Eventually you have to play well to get your game going to continue to win.”