4 Weaknesses Hurting the Devils' Chances of Making the Playoffs

Terence McGinleyContributor IIIApril 9, 2013

4 Weaknesses Hurting the Devils' Chances of Making the Playoffs

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    Ilya Kovalchuk went down with a shoulder injury March 23 in a game against the Florida Panthers. The New Jersey Devils have not won a game since. 

    Over the 0-3-4 span, the team has scored more than two goals just once. The Devils have fallen out of the playoffs and sit two points behind the Rangers and Islanders for the final spots. The season is slipping away from them. 

    This is a very flawed team. The Rangers really shook it up on the trade deadline and the team looks to be galvanized. The Islanders are young and hungry and have a blissful belief in themselves that should really scare New Jersey. The Devils, however, have enough to worry about in their own locker room.

    Here are five weaknesses that may cause this team to miss the playoffs for the second time in three years. 

The Offense

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    This unit has been a weakness the entire year. Zach Parise's 30-goal capabilities were not replaced by Bobby Butler. They were not replaced by Matt D'Agostini. They are not going to be replaced by Steve Sullivan.

    That's where the truth hurts. For so many years New Jersey and its fans have seen players walk away from the Devils in free agency. Every time the team seems to bounce back and compensate for the loss with player development and a team-wide approach to the game in general. It turns out Zach Parise has not been close to replaceable. Not just his sheer ability to tickle the twine, but his heart as well. There is clearly a void on this team that has not been filled. 

    Considering how weak the front lines are at full strength, the Devils were not in a position to sustain an injury to Ilya Kovalchuk. He is the one forward on this team who really scares opposing goaltenders. It's no coincidence they haven't won a game since Kovalchuk has been down.

    After a blazing start to the season, David Clarkson has been nearly non-existent, except for in the penalty box. Adam Henrique and Travis Zajac, players the Devils expected to provide huge contributions, have been disappointing.

    But the bottom line remains: this team lacks offensive talent. Only the Avalanche and Blue Jackets score less than the Devils. 

Special Teams

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    With talent up front that is obviously deficient, a weak power play is no surprise. The Devils are 22nd in the league with the man advantage. 

    But there has been a disturbing drop-off in penalty killing. Last season New Jersey killed off an outstanding 89.6 percent of opposing power plays. That figure set a modern day NHL record. Now the Devils are 19th in the league, killing just over 81 percent of the time. This one is hard to understand, because unlike the power play, the kill is not as much about personnel, but rather system, effort and aggression. 

    The best killer is always the goaltender, and the month without Brodeur hurt badly. Still, this mysterious drop-off is one of the many reasons New Jersey is just one game above .500.

Shootouts

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    The Devils are 2-7 in shootouts this year. Last season, they were 12-4 in the tiebreaker. 

    Again, Zach Parise's departure is a running theme in this article. He was 8-for-16 last season and is 3-for-5 in limited opportunities this year. The Devils have a reputation for keeping games close, and playing conservatively down the stretch in search of at least one point. Last year it worked well. But this year, the strategy has backfired and they lead the league in shootout losses. 

    If they could have managed  to win just four of the nine shootouts they have played in, then we would be talking about a different type of team right now. 

    (All shootout stats found on NHL website shootout portal.) 

Schedule

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    Another weakness is the strength of their schedule. Including tonight's tilt with Boston, seven of New Jersey's nine remaining games are against teams in playoff position. Two of the final four are against the New York Rangers; the others against Pittsburgh and Montreal. Twice they'll play at Madison Square Garden, games that could have enormous playoff implications.

    New Jersey is winless against the four Northeast Division teams they play down the stretch. Meanwhile, the Islanders' final four games are against non-playoff teams.

    At a time when they are trending downward, the Devils face some of their toughest matchups. 

The Outlook

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    It's not pretty. The most objective way to look at things: this team is 6-12-6 since mid-February. It's been almost two months of losing hockey in Newark. And it doesn't get any easier tonight against a Bruins team who shut them out last week.

    Looking for a silver lining? Despite going winless in their past seven games, the Devils have been out shot just once. That means they aren't getting outplayed the way their record might indicate. It's not like the ice is tilted towards Martin Brodeur.

    The forecheck is good. The possession numbers indicate they shouldn't be on a seven-game losing streak. This team simply isn't finishing. But is it bad luck, or just a roster that lacks finishing ability? I think it's probably a bit of both. Frankly, Martin Brodeur hasn't been razor-sharp, either. 

    The winning culture and last year's experience are still there. And they are just two points out of eighth place. However, a points tie with the Rangers or Islanders will probably not suffice, because the Devils are losing the tiebreaker of non-shootout wins with both teams. They will have to leapfrog. Again, the two games at the Garden will be huge. 

    Ilya Kovalchuk has returned to practice, as reported by Tom Gulitti. He could return in a week or two and that would be an obvious boost for the slumping club. But will he be enough to turn New Jersey back into a winning team down the gauntlet schedule that is the final stretch?

    If I'm forecasting the future, I don't think so. The Devils just don't have the mojo. The Islanders are going to beat lesser teams, and the Rangers, who are 12-6-2 at home, will get at least one of the games against New Jersey, and that may be enough. 

    It could be the crumbling of an empire that has been facing invasion for years now.