I had a completely different topic in mind for this post prior to the NHL’s Christmas break. Then the hammer came down on Devils coach Pete DeBoer the day after Christmas and everything changed. Not just for me and my ramblings here on this blog, but also for the Devils.
To say the first half of the Devils’ 2014-15 season has been a disappointment is an understatement. The team had a record of 12-17-7 with 31 points going into the break. At the time I am writing this, the team is roughly ten points out of a playoff spot (the Rangers would be the Metropolitan Division’s wildcard team with 46 points, the Devils have 35), so a playoff spot is not totally out of reach. It would just take a surge from the Devils and some luck in the form of a collapse from some teams in front of them to get there. When they axed DeBoer, General Manager Lou Lamoriello (who took over behind the bench along with former assistant coaches Scott Stevens – who will coach the defense and Adam Oates – who will coach the forwards) felt that the team needed to “get their identity back.” The team wants to get back to playing a more defense-first style and feels that that everything will fall into place from there. There have been some mixed results so far, but that is to be expected when you make a major change to the coaching staff.
The first game under the three coach system saw the team drop a 3-1 decision to the Rangers on December 27. While the score does not show it, due to the empty netter, the Devils were not really out of this game, which is a great sign early on under a new coaching regime against a team as strong as the Rangers. But with all due respect to our rivals in New York, the real test came that Monday, December 29 when the Devils took on Pittsburgh at Prudential Center. Though the Devils got behind early (1-0 after the first), they fought back to win 3-1. Jordin Tootoo had two fights against Robert Bortuzzo, who had given a late, high hit to Jaromir Jagr in a game at Consol Energy Center earlier in the month. To play as complete a game as they did against one of the NHL’s best (a team who, like the Devils and the Minnesota Wild, were hard hit by the recent NHL mumps epidemic) seemed to show that they were turning a corner and would finally get going. Then they met the Red Wings on New Year’s Eve and it had Devils fans everywhere shaking their heads again. After Joe Whitney scored his first NHL goal (with an assist from Tim Sestito, his first NHL point), it was downhill from there. The Red Wings scored three unanswered and won 3-1.
The Devils would face a fourth potential playoff team in a row on Friday, January 2 in their first game of 2015, in the Montreal Canadiens. The game was even through the first and the first 6:30 of the second until the Habs broke through for two. Down 2-0 in the third, the Devils gave up another one as Michael Bournival got his second of the game. The Devils would answer back with two goals in the third to make it 3-2 late, but Montreal added an empty netter to get the 4-2 win. P.K. Subban had three assists on the night.
After all of that, the Devils limped into the second half of the back-to-back for the weekend (and the second half of the season, with game number 41), facing the Flyers on Saturday, January 3. This was a breakout game in so many ways. Jaromir Jagr became the oldest player to record a hat trick in NHL history when he scored at 13:20 of the first (assist to Adam Henrique), 19:56 of the first (assists to Scott Gomez and Andy Greene) and 12:32 of the second (assists to Scott Gomez and Seth Helgeson). Patrik Elias added a powerplay goal in the first (assists to Martin Havlat and Travis Zajac) and Gomez (from Henrique and Adam Larsson) also added goals as the Devils won 5-2. The game saw four scraps, as Jordin Tootoo again got into it, this time with Zac Rinaldo. Tim Sestito fought Michael Raffl, while Mark Frazer fought Wayne Simmonds in the second and Sestito took on Brayden Schenn when Schenn took liberties with Andy Greene in the corner.
The last few games since the coaching change have been a tale of two teams: the Devils who showed up and fought against Pittsburgh and Philly, and the Devils who had a rough time against the Rangers, Wings and Habs. The team has shown it can compete with the big boys (the Penguins game) and that it can beat teams who are in a similar situation to what they are experiencing (the Flyers game). It is the games in between that they need to win in order to turn things around. They need to beat teams like the Rangers and the Capitals, who are on the playoff bubble behind the Penguins and Islanders. This will take time. The new coaching regime will need time to implement a system and revamp things, to mold things in their image.
Pete DeBoer coached the Devils for 253 games over three and a half years. He compiled a 116-96-41 record with the team (good for a .583 winning percentage). He took the team to the Stanley Cup finals in 2012, but did not make the playoffs in his other two full seasons. He was dealt a tough blow this season with so many players out with injury and the mumps outbreak. But in the end, management felt that he had not done enough. We will see if the new coaching staff can get things back on track and salvage this season or not. If the team plays more like they did against Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, things will be OK. If they play like they did against Detroit and Montreal, then it will certainly be back to the drawing board.