Ben Lovejoy and Andy Greene during the second period at Amalie Arena.

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Lichtenstein: No Defending The Devils’ Defense On West Coast Trip

Steve Lichtenstein
December 12, 2018 - 2:14 pm

Much has been written, including in this space, about the Devils’ goaltending situation, and with good reason.

Keith Kinkaid and Cory Schneider are both underperforming, to say the least.  After a career year in 2017-18, Kinkaid has seen his goals against average spike to over 3.00 and his save percentage dip to barely over .900.  Schneider, meanwhile, still hasn’t won a regular season game in calendar 2018, stretching 18 starts.  He sports a hideous 4.29 GAA and an .862 save percentage in his eight games this season.

However, while it doesn’t entirely excuse them, the mess that is going on in front of the Devils’ netminders has to be taken into account when evaluating their statistical regressions.

The Devils’ defense reached new lows during their three-game California trip, where they needed an equally-bumbling turn from the Kings in the opener to escape the left coast with a 1-1-1 record.

In Sunday’s 6-5 shootout loss to the Ducks, the Devils put three pucks into their own net.

You read that right.

>>MORE: Schwei's Devils Notes: Severson Shines On Road Trip, And Finally A Shootout

Stefan Noesen, Ben Lovejoy and Andy Greene each registered an own goal past a beleaguered Schneider, who might have had a chance on just the one that was knocked in the air about ten feet out by Lovejoy’s glove and then found its way over Schneider and down into the net.  

The defense failed again on Monday in a 5-2 defeat in San Jose.  Devils coach John Hynes ripped top-pair defenseman Sami Vatanen for “allowing (the Sharks) to get their game going” after Vatanen’s first-period turnover at the offensive blue line led to the game-tying goal by Timo Meier on a two-on-one counter.

At this stage last season, the Devils had scored 87 goals in going 16-9-4 in their first 29 games.  This season, the Devils have scored 88 goals in 29 games.  Yet they’re 10-13-6 and in last place in the Eastern Conference.

That's because they’re goals against has increased from 89 to 105, which ranks as the NHL’s fourth-most porous this season.

They’ve been especially atrocious on the road, where they’ve been outscored 80-44 in 16 games (3-11-2),

“It’s embarrassing,” Greene said of his club’s woes away from home after the loss in San Jose.

What the heck happened to the defense?  Only John Moore, a second-pair defenseman whose main worth was in the three-on-three overtimes, departed in the offseason.  Between Mirco Mueller, Steven Santini and Russian free agent Egor Yakovlev, the Devils were so sure that they had plenty of reinforcement options that they sat out last summer’s free agent swap meet.  

Mueller has played himself off the top pair to the point of being a healthy scratch in all three games on the trip.  Santini has yet to see the ice since he broke his jaw on October 20.  And communication issues with Yakovlev have too often created havoc in New Jersey’s end in his 11 games.

The others on the back line—Greene, Vatanen, Damon Severson, Will Butcher and Ben Lovejoy—have all been guilty of a wide variety of sins, most often a disturbing habit of failing to tie up opponents’ sticks in high-danger areas. 

Aside from the 34-year old Lovejoy, this group boasts very capable puck-movers.  However, the Devils have been too inconsistent executing their breakouts, according to Hynes.

“Lots of times with us it comes down to execution,” Hynes said.  “It comes down to moving the puck a little quicker, being able to accept the pass, handle the pass, and move it.  There’s times in the game where we do a really good job of it and there’s other times where it’s like a grenade.”

As Hynes intimated, the Devils’ forwards are complicit in this area as well.  They’re also responsible for their share of the blame for all the times the Devils get pinned in their own zone because they can’t end plays.

However, every analyst knew that the Devils’ d-men were most likely going to be the team’s weakest link.  I was most concerned with Damon Severson, who I’ve always thought management overrated, but he seemed to be playing some of the best two-way hockey of his career this season.

And then I noticed Severson is a team-worst minus-10.

New Jersey general manager Ray Shero, who signed Severson to a six-year, $25 million extension in 2017, spoke for the first time this season with reporter Mike Morreale on Tuesday but did not address specific shortfalls, other than to say that “if Cory wants the net back, he needs to be the best goalie in practice…Sometimes it comes down to the player and the player needs to make a difference.”

It’s hard to argue with Shero’s decision to bypass free agency after last season’s run to the franchise’s first playoff berth in six seasons.  He guards the Devils’ cap space (about $14 million, per like it’s a crown jewel, and there were no game-changers on the blue line available in the marketplace.

However, while Shero has replenished the once-barren prospect pool in his three-plus year tenure, his drafts, other than selecting center Nico Hischier with the first overall pick in 2017, haven’t generated a whole lot of upper echelon talent.  The defensive crop is ultra-thin, with the best prospects—Ty Smith and Reilly Walsh—years away from NHL readiness.

For now, my suggestion would be to reunite the Greene/Vatanen tandem and play them extraordinary minutes, hoping to find a way to get back in the hunt (they’re only six points out in the Metropolitan Division race for third) in the next two months.

If that doesn’t take, Shero will have his own defending to do as to why this club has taken such a huge step back this season.       

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