COLUMN: Devils Play of Late is Encouraging

by | Mar 2, 2022

COLUMN: Devils Play of Late is Encouraging

by | Mar 2, 2022

In some ways, Tuesday’s loss in Columbus might rank the highest in the Devils last month of games. It’s becoming hard to ignore the inevitability that this season will end without postseason. So, the name of the game, again, is building toward something, namely, the future. By that standard, Tuesday offered more than most regulation losses.

Twice the Devils cut the game to a one-goal margin and hung around with the Blue Jackets after they scored three goals in under 8 minutes between the end of the first and opening of the second period. When trailing by two in the third, they didn’t wilt, they made it 4-3. It wasn’t easy on Columbus, who has had the Devils number since coming over to the division.

Tuesday’s effort was absent noticeably poor goaltending. There wasn’t the catastrophic third period meltdowns as seen in Chicago last week and at home to Tampa two weeks ago. Jack Hughes, who tallied for the third-straight game, registered 5 shots on goal and kept his pace despite playing most of the game trailing.

It’s no secret the Devils have played better as of late. They’re 4-5-0 since the All-Star break after winning three games in their prior 12. They’re unleashing their offense, averaging 4.56 goals-per-game and of the 41 goals over the last 9 games, 31 have been scored at even-strength. Their power play percentage (33.3 percent) though is atop the NHL since Feb. 7. In goal, which has been a problem this season with the makeshift tandem of Jon Gillies and a rotation of Utica Devils, there’s been some bright spots amidst what is the organization’s biggest hole with the futures of Jonathan Bernier and Mackenzie Blackwood in the air.

Jon Gillies allowed 6 goals in a run-support 8-5 defeat in Chicago last week. He was pulled from his start on Feb. 15 against Tampa, a team defeat more than anything else, nonetheless one that saw 6 goals allowed on 30 shots. It’s prompted the organization to start making calls again on goaltending, this first reported by TSN’s Pierre LeBrun last week. Nico Daws, something of a revelation, entered Tuesday’s start, the second in as many days, having stopped 73 shots through six periods and allowing three goals. He’s 21 and two impressive showings in the same week aren’t going to make Tom Fitzgerald sleep easier. The organization needs to find clarity with its goaltending to succeed. It’s hampered some of the team’s ability to play in competitive third periods and only stands to wreak havoc on future endeavors.

But progress. That’s what Tuesday felt like. That’s what the class of playoff-bound, cup-contending NHL teams occasionally find in 60-minute efforts ending with a loss, typically one-goal defeats. And that much can distinguish itself from some of the others—and will have to among the ultra-young team that’s seen its share of frustrating losses as the byproduct of half-baked compete.

I don’t know whether Damon Severson, a right-shot defenseman with power play quarterback abilities, minute-eating confidence and another year left on a bargain $4.166 million AAV contract, will still be part of the team after the March 21 trade deadline. That’s a—maybe THE decision for Fitzgerald this March—keep a veteran presence and the longest-tenured Devil, or move him out for assets like last deadline when Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac (in UFA seasons) were traded to the Islanders. One reason to hang on to the 27-year-old? His ability to spot the difference in the pictures of defeat.

“You talk about the things after a first period and maybe the next game you say whether it’s a good period or bad period,” Severson said. “You just always remember this is what cost us a little bit of some hurt last game. We obviously have to correct those things. Every day and every game presents new challenges.

“You hate losing, it’s been going on for too long. But, the process, you can feel that our game is slowly getting better. So, that’s the biggest thing. We’re going to take these steps and finally—hopefully when we reach our end goal, we’re able to take the final steps. We still have a long way to go.”

Moving Severson at the deadline might indeed become something that gets discussed in the trade chatter that consumes the weeks prior to the deadline, but his age profile and the construction of the team presently, with P.K. Subban likely to depart in the offseason, presents an enormous conundrum. And unlike Palmieri and Zajac, there’s still time left on his contract and a longer wait for impact defense to come into the NHL—including Luke Hughes, who may return to Michigan for his sophomore season.

Though if Montreal can find a trading partner willing to part with assets including a first-round pick for pending UFA, Ben Chiarot (5 goals, 12 points in 49 games), the Devils would conceivably be asking for a first, a top-end prospect and established NHL player with term for the services of New Jersey’s 7-goal, 31-point blueliner.

*****

Monday’s All-Hughes Bowl was a lopsided affair. The 7-2 decision by the Devils, who chased Jaroslav Halak from the Vancouver net with 6 goals allowed on 14 shots, prompted Bruce Boudreau to publicly wonder about what’s the state of his backup goaltender’s confidence these days. Thatcher Demko was forced to enter on the second night of a back-to-back. New Jersey was among the many teams who checked in on the ex-Bruins goaltender in free agency this past summer. Instead, they went with Jonathan Bernier, three years younger. Bernier remains out for the season after hip surgery.

*****

There’s some reason to think the Devils trade deadline might be a quiet one. Jimmy Vesey is one piece teams could be eying. He’s on an expiring contract at $800,000 and has been productive in the bottom-six. Teams still have a book on him from his NCAA free agent pursuit. Hard to imagine there won’t be interest.

For all the reasons Vesey will attract suitors—most of which are salary cap poor, Subban likely won’t generate much interest. Even with retention and waiting til March 21, it’s hard to imagine a team can accommodate the kind of cap hit he’d carry—especially given most of the setup’s around the league’s playoff contenders. Does it make sense to have a $3 million cap hit on a 5-6 defenseman?

Perhaps the Devils find a trading partner that may want to shake up things with a hockey trade. And, if that’s the case, could Pavel Zacha get a change of scenery and try and prove himself with one more season left before he is eligible for UFA status?

*****

One area of trepidation in trading Zacha could be the players who become available in the summer. The Devils spent in free agency last July and could be eager to make a splash in the trade market this summer. So, hypothetically speaking: can you add Zacha to a trade along with a pick (or pair of picks) for a winger? Is that an enticing package if you’re a team that’s facing down cap complications in 2022-23? And, am I making it too obvious that I think the Devils may take a serious run at Kevin Fiala in the offseason?

*****

Scott Mellanby didn’t land the Chicago GM position and remains in NHL executive free agency. Not sure if the latest changes in Anaheim with Pat Verbeek at the top, opens something up there. Both have backgrounds in scouting and probably an appreciation in doing so. Played in the same era and upon searching for any connection between the two? A YouTube clip of a 1987 scrap between Verbeek, the Devil and Mellanby, the Flyer.

*****

Lastly, two things in order of importance:

  1. Please, no war. Horrifying scenes coming out of the Ukraine. I know my words from afar don’t do anything, but my thoughts are with the people in Ukraine and all those who came with ties to the nation including Alexei Ponikarovsky and Ruslan Fedotenko, who were unheralded forces in the 2012 playoff runs for the Devils and Rangers, respectively.
  2. I take no glee in the ongoing MLB/MLBPA labor negotiations and fans who were expecting Opening Day next month. A lot of people who know how much I focus on hockey and have for some time. As such, I’ve witnessed the 2004-05 lockout that cost an entire season to the NHL. I was in middle school and just starting to follow sports more regularly. I leaned on baseball and video games, but I missed it a lot. And I remember the constant news when the CBA was again negotiated in 2012-13 and cost the first half of the regular season. It’s never fun for fans and I emphasize with everyone there.
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