(photo: Scott Slingsby)
For 56 minutes last night, it didn’t look good for the New Jersey Devils against the Winnipeg Jets. They had their chances and were out shooting the Jets for a while, their play looked as it has during the 1-3-2 stretch since opening the season 3-0. It was choppy, full of turnovers and poor breakout passes and though Cory Schneider finally looked solid in net, the players in front of him were not doing him any favors.
Michael Ryder saved the game for the Devils with an incredible individual effort, while being hooked, after Jon Merrill made a nice play at the blue line to hold the zone. Even following the shootout win (yes, you read that correctly), the Devils can’t feel overly confident in their game right now. There are many issues to point to, but one overlooked hole on this team is one they haven’t had to deal with in over 20 years.
The term in soccer is “sweeper-keeper,” and for 21 seasons, the Devils had the best “sweeper-keeper” in the game. Martin Brodeur is regarded as one of the best puck handling goalies to ever play, and his ability to affect dump-ins, clear pucks out of the zone or begin breakout plays is a skill the Devils are really missing in 2014. The early warning signs were evident last year when the Devils struggled in front of Schneider while playing seemingly more organized in front of Brodeur. While Schneider made more saves and proved to be the more effective goalie – the quality and fluidity of play was higher with Brodeur in net.
Of the 28 goals Schneider has given up in the Devils’ first 10 games, 2 of them featured clear stick handling errors while a third showed his lack of awareness with a puck off the boards. Countless others were indirectly set-up by poor play out of the back, beginning either with a bad pass from Schneider or a defenseman put in a bad position due to him not being comfortable enough to leave the net. In Pittsburgh, with the Devils up 1-0 on an early goal and outplaying the home side, Schneider made a horrible gaffe behind the net leading to an open goal for Blake Comeau to put home – a precursor to seven straight goals scored by the Penguins. Against New York, with the Devils again up by 1, Schneider whiffed on a puck behind the net putting Marek Zidlicky in a vulnerable position with the puck, he inevitably turned it over leading directly to a Rick Nash score and another Devils loss. Yes, Zidlicky needs to do better with the puck in the corner, but if Schneider deals with the puck correctly, they are never put in a dangerous spot.
While Schneider is more than capable of being the #1 goalie – and showed vast improvement last night, not giving up any weak goals as he has in the previous 6 games – the Devils have to re-learn how to break out of their zone without the assistance of Brodeur. The Jets had numerous opportunities on turnovers and missed passes by Devils defenseman, but the chances were snuffed out by a very sound Schneider. It’s certainly nothing they cannot overcome – especially with good stick handling defensemen like Merrill, Zidlicky, Andy Greene and Damon Severson – but it’s time to accept that Schneider is better off staying in the crease, and the Devils blue line will have to make those clean breakout pass on their own.
It’s clear the Devils aren’t built on speed – relying on their skill and precise passing is going to be the most effective way for this team to possess the puck and control games. Until they correct the errors out of the back, it’s going to be a long season for Schneider and the Devils.
The shootout win mentioned earlier, was the Devils first in 18 tries – a dubious NHL record. Schneider made 2 saves and benefited from an off-target shot by Bryan Little to seal it – but the Devils goal scorer is the player to note. Jacob Josefson – who has constantly battled injuries and poor play since being selected by the Devils in the first round of the 2009 Entry Draft – made a great move with an even better finish to break the streak. In the post-game press conference, Devils coach Pete DeBoer was asked why he chose Josefson as a shooter. DeBoer answered by saying that Josefson has been one of the best shooters in practice, but it was Patrik Elias who threw Joe’s name into the ring when the Devils discussed their shooters going into the extra frame. Josefson proved Elias right by scoring a great goal – but it makes you wonder why it took PDB so long to give one of the self-described ‘best shooters in practice’ a go in the game. Josefson wasn’t chosen as a shooter in the shoot-out loss to Dallas and had only 4 attempts in his career before last night. Credit to Elias for speaking up, but in the midst of an 0-18 streak in shootouts with goals coming few and far between, I don’t see how a player with Josefson’s skill doesn’t get a shot until game 19. Yet another curious set of decisions made by Peter Deboer (don’t get me started on Bryce Salvador).