A Coach’s Dilemma

With nine winless games in a row, the Devils are faced with complete elimination from the playoff race just one year after their run to the Stanley Cup Finals. With a lockout and half season, things looked promising at the start, but then everything fell apart.

While most would point to the nine game skid reflecting purely on the absence of Ilya Kovalchuk, for the Devils, their history and work ethic has said that the loss of one player in the lineup is no excuse for the rest of the team to falter. They have always been able to adapt when a key player is missing from the lineup. It’s the same way with every team. Key players go out of the lineup at some point. That doesn’t mean the team is done. They can find other ways to win.

So what is wrong this time? Where is the breakdown?

No one can truly fault the players. They are doing exactly what they are being asked to do by the coaching staff. That means you turn to the coaching staff themselves to figure out these answers.

“Not much,” Coach DeBoer responded of what more could he ask of his players. “The effort’s been there like that for most of the season. I think, for us, the frustrating part is just the execution and finding a way to score some goals. If there’s blame to go around, it should go to the coaches. We’ve got to find a way to get these guys some tools to find a way to win some games.

“We’ve got to find ways. We’ve got to get creative. They’re giving us what we’re asking of them. They’re doing what we’re asking of them. They’re not getting rewarded. We’ve got to find a creatively easier way to go about this a different way.”

In a way, this skid is very reminiscent to the Devils’ 2010-2011 season, when the Devils found a hard time winning under John MacLean. After he was relieved of his duties, Jacques Lemaire was brought back in and captain Jamie Langenbrunner was traded to the Dallas Stars. It was this change that got the Devils back on track again and back to winning games.

Lemaire has continued to give advice and consult with the Devils since his official retirement following the 2010-2011 season. He counseled Peter DeBoer from the first day he became the head coach for the Devils. But now, you can see that there is a loose variable going from a Stanley Cup Finalist to sitting in 10th place in the Eastern Conference with a very slim possibility of seeing a post-season run.

It is not necessarily the head coach that is the issue. It’s the choice in plays. You can see more and more of a need to move the Devils into a more evolved hockey team where other teams can’t predict what the Devils are going to do next. It’s changing the reason why they lost in that Stanley Cup Final Round to being able to develop a system that can beat anyone else’s system. In a way, they are losing some of the most important elements that made them a winning team, instead of building on them as a foundation.

Where’s Jacques Lemaire when you need him?

For those who watched the Friday night 2-0 loss to the Ottawa Senators, you could see that the things the Devils were doing were right. They generated many chances, having control of the puck throughout most of the game.

They out-shot the Senators 33-11. They could not tally a single goal out of those 33 shots. Two goals in 11 shots for the Senators? That was all Ottawa needed. All they had to do was defend their end of the ice during the Devils’ control of the puck.

Let’s go back to the two goals in 11 shots. If the Senators were able to defend their end against 33 shots, what happened on the Devils end that they could not defend all eleven shots?

This is where the problem lies…the breakdown of the defense. On many occasions, Martin Brodeur is left wide open, not a single defenseman is there to assist him with any shot that is sent to the net. Brodeur has been left wide open. This is not typical Devils’ defense. There is always one veteran by his side to assist. That is not 100% the case these days.

One of the two goals was a 2-on-1 thanks to a misstep by the blueline. That was a big mistake. A small mistake would have been if Brodeur was able to save them from this. He wasn’t…thus making this a big mistake by the defensemen.

An ongoing breakdown on the defense game in and game out is uncharacteristic of the New Jersey Devils. They are known for their defensive style of hockey.

All the opposing team really needs is that one breakdown. That’s all the Senators needed and they benefited off of it.

“Defensively, it was probably one of the most boring games I’ve played in in a long time. That means that we played pretty solid. One tip and one misplay at our blueline created a 2-on-1. But apart from that we’ve played some solid hockey. It’s harder to explain for the people that is just watching us. We deserve a lot better.”

Something echoed in the locker room surrounded the inability to score a goal on the 5-on-3. Because of that, the Devils know they need to be better on the power play. Steve Sullivan mentioned that if you can’t score on the 5-on-3, you’re very likely going to lose the game.

“It’s tough,” Sullivan said. “It’s really tough to explain. I think we’re doing all the right things. We’re giving them very few opportunities, very few Grade A chances. We’re not burying ours. They’re making the most of their opportunities. It seems like it’s the same story every single night. It’s tough to take.”

“I don’t think we have to change anything. We just have to keep going. We’re doing all the right things…I don’t think we have to change anything. We just have to keep grinding and hopefully the puck changes a little bit and confidence grows and we can get some wins here.”

With their disappointment on the power play, they headed into practice on Saturday to work on making their power play unit better. Even with Kovalchuk missing on that unit, it doesn’t mean that the power play unit is suffering because of that loss.

The power play unit generates 26% of the overall goals for the Devils. David Clarkson leads the team in power play goals with five tallies this season. That’s 21% of all power play goals coming from Clarkson.

Patrik Elias follows with three. Kovalchuk only has two power play goals this season.

Clarkson is also the goal scoring leader this season, registering 13 goals, followed, once again, by Patrik Elias (11). The loss of Kovalchuk isn’t the reason why the Devils are losing. They are given many chances, it’s just not going their way.

“It’s the same thing,” Elias said of the loss. “We come out, we play okay. We create chances.,,We try to change a little bit from last game.”

“I don’t have an explanation,” he said. “These last nine games, we were playing better than the other teams 90% of the time. We’re not winning. We’re not scoring. I can’t explain it more than that.”

“There’s nothing that we got to change.”

“You don’t want to blame it on bad luck. We’re working hard. We’re trying to create chances, trying to create our own luck. It’s just not happening.”

Henrik Tallinder said that he had never experienced a losing streak like this before. Not for this long of a time.

“I don’t know if it’s the hockey gods or not,” he said. “I think you’re earning. You’re supposed to earn the bounces and earn the goals and all that. It’s tough. It doesn’t seem to go in.”

“I’m really disappointed with the result,” Brodeur said. “What’s not disappointing was the effort with the way we’ve been playing.”

“We’re doing all the things we’re talking about. There’s no secret in hockey. We need to score goals. We can’t find a way.”

“It’s been tough because the guys…they care then they play hard. I see them in between periods, how tired they are and how much focused they are to get themselves ready. The coaching staff is getting the team ready. When you go out there and execute what you’re supposed to do and you come back with nothing…it’s just a tough way to play hockey.”

The Devils get another chance at halting this skid on Monday when they face off against the Maple Leafs in Toronto.

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