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The Devils Fall From Grace: Who Can Be Blamed?

This isn’t the way the New Jersey Devils’ envisioned their season.

After last night’s 7-1 beating at the hands of the Atlanta Thrashers, the Devils are 9-21-2 on the season. They’re 20 points put them two ahead of the lowly Islanders – who lost 14 straight games – for last in the entire league. The team’s -40 goal differential ranks last in the league, putting them one ahead of the Islanders.

The Devils expectations entering the season were dreams of a Stanley Cup championship. On paper, the team looked stacked offensively and serviceable on the defensive end. But they’ve come to resemble the same Islanders they sit above. New Jersey is a miserable team that fails to put a winning effort on the ice night in and night out. And while the dumpster fire continues to blaze red hot, several people need to take the blame.

It was all smiles this offseason for Lamoriello, Vanderbeek and Kovalchuk. But since the season started, no one is smiling. Photo Credit: Mel Evans/AP

1. Jeff Vanderbeek and Lou Lamoriello

The first finger needs to point toward the team’s management. The Devils spent the entire summer chasing after Ilya Kovalchuk, a player they clearly didn’t need. The Kovalchuk Saga was a constant cycle of bad press for the Devils. Rejected contracts and league fines followed, and the Devils now lose several draft picks to sign one player. Granted, Kovalchuk brings the potential of 50+ goals. But the team didn’t build around the left-winger. Instead, they insisted on signing a player who doesn’t fit the system.

That wasn’t the only negative Kovalchuk brought. The move put the Devils’ several million dollars over the cap. Instead of looking to deal players, Lamoriello sat back and used long-term injured reserved. The inability to make moves hung like a black cloud over the locker room. To this day, players are expecting something to happen because of the cap. There’s no room for players to grow or mesh, because they need to worry about their own production.

For the first time in a long time, Lamoriello’s bad moves cost the team. But it hasn’t been the general manager’s fault. The blame flows further down the list, to the Devils coaching staff.

2. The Devils Coaching Staff

Every single coach on this team shares the blame for the team’s horrid play. When John MacLean was hired, he promised a more offensive, puck-possession system. Players like Zach Parise hoped he’d breath some life into the organization. Instead, MacLean looks lost behind the bench. He hasn’t made necessary adjustments in-game. He hasn’t hammered home a system that fits this team. There’s no puck possession, no creative play, and no chemistry. The only thing working is the Devils’ powerplay right now, and that credit belongs to Adam Oates.

Larry Robinson needs to shoulder blame as well. The Devils defense is atrocious. Defenders make blind passes, constantly turn the puck over and misses assignments. Injuries have been an issue, but aren’t causing the terrible play. What was once the Devils’ strength is now a glaring weakness.

The onus falls on the entire coaching staff. The players aren’t executing the game plan. They have no motivation. It might not be the entire fault of the staff, but the burden falls on their shoulder. They need to get the players ready to play, plain and simple.

Despite recording seven points in five games, Kovalchuk is on-pace for the worst offensive season of his career. Photo Credit: Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

3. The Players

Before the season started, the Devils roster looked stacked. There were almost three complete lines of proven veterans with leadership ability. Martin Brodeur looked strong, and the additions along the blueline seemed to solidify the position. But since then, it’s been a train wreck. Slumps, injuries and bad play submarined a talented team. Their play put them in this hole. The players should shoulder the brunt of the blame.

In an earlier post, I detailed the vast leadership experience on this team. In all, the Devils roster contains eight captains or alternative captains. That number doesn’t include veterans like Brodeur, who provided pivotal leadership. One could reason that leadership should have helped the Devils through the tough times. Leadership, however, has failed. When players like Patrik Elias spoke up, it seems their message fell on deaf ears. Clearly, there is no veteran capable of motivating his own teammates. With that much experience, it’s sad to see a group that can’t self-motivate.

The Devils players also bring a half-hearted and defeated effort to the ice. This weekend proves this true. After blanking the Phoenix Coyotes, the Devils played flat in their next two games. In two losses this weekend, the team allowed 10 goals. Opponents continue to beat the Devils into submission. One bad bounce and the Devils lose all confidence. New Jersey plays scared hockey. That never leads to winning hockey.

**********

Fans and players of the Devils have been spoiled. The team qualified for the postseason 13 years straight. They routinely won division crowns and Eastern Conference championships. Teams feared the Devils. There was always an air of confidence around the team. That’s all been shattered this season. We’re finally seeing what it means to lose. Suddenly, the feelings from those first-round playoff exits seem distant and insignificant.

What can be done? I have no idea. Lamoriello doesn’t seem willing to trade players or shake up the roster. Players haven’t taken accountability for their play. The coaching staff has zero answers. There will come an eventual breaking point, and something will happen. But until then, we’ll continue to watch an embarrassment on the ice. The Devils’ downfall has contributors from all directions. Time will tell if the current group of players can fix it.

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