The New Jersey Devils are at a critical point in their 2016-17 season as they embark on the annual road trip through Western Canada with the final stop on the trip back in the States with a trip to the Twin Cities to skate against the Minnesota Wild on January 17th.
The trip through Western Canada is characteristically a seminal event for the Devils in recent years. New Jersey finds themselves at 16-18-8 at just past the mid-point of the season, and this team has certainly had their ups and downs after a very strong start in October, which feels like years ago with this club playing the slumbering way it has recently.
The Devils go into this important road trip in the worst way possible: after getting thrashed by the Florida Panthers in New Jersey. The lone bright spot in Devils news is that Taylor Hall was named to the NHL All Star team on Tuesday, which with the season he has had even with missing some time due to injury, is well deserved.
In fact, Hall spoke to the media and essentially stated that this road trip is the most pivotal one for the team, it is the turning point of the season for New Jersey. The Devils are 6-12-5 on the road this season, anything after more than 20 games provides a very clear sample of how a team can handle playing in opposing rinks in the NHL.
However, the counterpoint can be made that New Jersey has played in some very difficult road venues, and at points in adverse conditions, such as on back-to-back nights. They have by virtue of the schedule makers in the league office, played teams such as Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Washington who are all very difficult to defeat in their own rink.
The trip coming up to Western Canada plus Minnesota is no cake walk either: Edmonton is in third place in their division, they play well in their brand new arena, and it should be noted that they defeated the Devils in New Jersey recently. Taylor Hall will return for the first time as a visiting player to the city where he had played his entire career prior to this year, so that will be an emotional game for him. It would serve the team well to start the trip with a good result in that game.
The second stop on the trip is in Calgary, who are currently in 4th place, and historically play tough against New Jersey in the Saddle Dome. The key for the Devils in that game will be to control the puck in transition and cut down on penalties, which seem to undermine them in games up there in the past.
The third stop is Vancouver, the Canucks have had a really uncharacteristically bad year so far, in 6th place and hovering around .500 but they can ramp up their game for an opponent like the Devils on their home ice.
Then, finally, the Minnesota Wild cap off this difficult set of test for the Devils. The Wild are in second place, winners of 25 games, and they are very tough to handle on their home ice. New Jersey will need several players to turn in spectacular performances to be able to “stay the course” against Minnesota.
The media and the fan based social media sites and all of this other content produced about the Devils is centered on essentially trying to determine what is “wrong” with this team. I have read lengthy discourses and some other content, which at times has produced some salient points about the team and their unpredictable performance this season.
The Devils hit a stretch there after the Christmas break where they looked like they had improved their intensity and their work rate in games. That has slid back a bit in recent days, but they need to find that and tap into that grit when they head out on this road trip.
The problem, and the Achilles heel of this team is the defense. There were many Devils fans who were concerned in a variety of different fan forums online and in social media about the defensive corps and the lack of an enforcer type player. The roster also lacks some experience when looking at the New Jersey defense on paper, and sometimes getting ice time helps younger players to adjust and gain experience.
Conversely, the ice time can also expose some weaknesses in the playing level of younger units, and that has happened at points with the Devils. The club also without any doubt misses the contributions of their captain, Andy Greene, who is out with an injury.
The team needs to clear the zone better and spend more focused possession time in the offensive zone, it may seem obvious to some, but that change is easier stated than done. However, it would be the most important change the Devils could make in their approach during this tough upcoming road trip.
Another critical factor if the Devils are going to turn this ship around is improvements to the power play. The way that they approach having that advantage during these road games could be the difference between a winning and losing result. New Jersey is often passing too much and looking for that perfect shot instead of playing the puck more aggressively or looking to rebound a good first shot attempt.
The next four games will tell us as fans a lot more about this Devils hockey club. I agree with Taylor Hall, this road trip is crucial for their season. It remains to be seen if it will be a true turning point or if it continues to be just brief flashes of the potential that this team could have as the second half of the season commences.