On Friday night, I caught up with sabermetrics-savvy John Fischer, Managing Editor of In Lou We Trust for the second time in a week, this time prior to New Jerseys 3-1 loss to Nashvillelast weekend it was a 4-1 loss to Detroit. It gave me a chance to quiz John about the confounding start to 2010-11 that Lou Lamoriello, John MacLean and company are enduring, to try to make sense of whats turned into a Devil of a season in New Jersey.
Timo Seppa: All right, John. Heres an easy one to start with. Whats wrong with the Devils?
John Fischer: You know, if I honestly had the answer to that question about the Devils, Id be making a nice salary with the team. Truthfully, Id like to break it down into problems that you can control and problems that you cant control. Some of itthe shooting percentages are absolutely God-awful, miserablewere talking about Kovalchuk shooting at just below 6%, Elias shooting at 4%, Clarkson shooting at about 4%. Most of the veteran forwards, except for Jason Arnott, are shooting below their career low for a season right now. So is there anything you can do about shooting percentages? Not really, other than get more shots and keep shooting. As far as the controllable problems are concerned, you have fundamental errors like: missing your man at times, constantly dumping the puck when youre playing defense too much so youre constantly in a cycle of having to play defense over and over again, lines that just do not work in terms of getting the puck forward and yet a continued insistence on using said combinationsfor example, double-shifting Ilya Kovalchuk with fourth liners or using Mattias Tedenby with a slow Brian Rolston and a not-very-good David Clarksonand holding onto defensive pairings such that you have to have Anton Volchenkov play less minutes than Mark Fayne in some gamesa rookie mind you. So they have controllable problems related to coaching tactics, combinations, and simple just-cover-your-man stuff, get-the-puck-to-your-own-team stuff, and then you have uncontrollable stuff, like a bad break here, or not getting the pucks in the net. And ultimately, when you put the two together, youre going to be 9-19-2.
TS: Is the team constructed in a way thats conducive to winning, or is there anything youd change if they made you GM for a day?
JF: Most Devils fans would like to go back in time and pretend that the Brian Rolston contract never happened, and maybe the David Clarkson extension doesnt happen for that much money. But truthfully, this is largely the same team that went out and won the division over the Pittsburgh Penguins last season. Most of the players have been on the team for many of the division titles in recent history and the only concern was: lets go to the playoffs and finally win a round. When you add Johan Hedberg as a backup, you add Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder and you add Ilya Kovalchuk, your first thought isnt Is this team going to be close to dead-last by Christmas? So truthfully, I dont think the problem is so much in the construction per se, but just a factor of a lot of things going wrong that you cant control and then you compound those problems with the coaching errors and with players having off nights at the worst times and just not thinking or staying focused out there, and that leads to the losses. So I dont think its an issue of team construction. If I were to do it over againlet me put it this wayI would only have signed one of the defensemanat least I would have the cap space, because I dont think that Tallinder and Volchenkov combined are doing much. One guys getting the minutes and the other guy has to cover for a rookie the whole season.
TS: As you and I have discussed many times, is New Jersey lacking an offensive defenseman? Is that a key weakness of theirs? And if so, who would you target for them to add?
JF: I do believe that the Devils could use an offensive defenseman. The blue line, as a whole, does not have much offense. Andy Greene has come back to earth after an amazing 2009-10, and anybody else with any offense in the lineup are rookies, or highly inexperienced, like Anssi Salmela, and youre just hoping that they give you a little somethingyou cant expect too much from them. In a perfect world, you would like a stud defender to help give you the Paul Martin-type defense but give you a little more offense, more puck movement up front. Everybody would love to have a Drew Doughty on the team, but Id be just as happy if the Devils were to get somebody on that lower level, even like a Cody Franson, even a third pairing guy who can put up some offense in situationsthat would be incredibly useful.
TS: How about Tomas Kaberle, then?
JF: Not for his salary, no. I think hes a little bit overrated.
TS: But what if you could flip one of your veteran forwards for him?
JF: If it were a Brian Rolston, then yeah, sure, that would actually be a savings in terms of money, and address that part of the need. But realistically, I dont see Toronto giving him up for anything short of a young talent like Travis Zajac. Thats assuming Kaberle even wants to waive his no trade clause. But would a guy like Kaberle be the ideal guy? Sure. Just not for his salary.
TS: Cutting to the chase, heres everyones big question: Is John MacLean in trouble? And what do you think is going to happen?
JF: I personally felt John MacLean was in trouble when he actually went to the media after a lossI want to say that it was the 5-1 loss to Montrealand he told the press I dont know why we werent prepared. At that point, for me, it was basically: This guys a dead man walking; this is just inexcusable. That said, I do get a sense that since he hasnt been fired after a five game losing streak, where the team went 8-18-2they just recently wonif you can survive that with Lou Lamoriello over your head, I think Lou is putting his trust in you. The season may be lost anyway. So unless you know exactly who you want out thereand I dont think Lou really knows thathe figures, the seasons lost, well just roll with MacLean for the year.
TS: So in the best and worst case scenarios, what do you think happens to the Devils this season?
JF: The best case scenario is that the Devils go on a rampage not seen since the 2005-06 season, where they just get incredibly hot, win an entire month of games, and somehow come out of nowhere to make the playoffsthats the best case scenario. The worst case scenario? Well, youre almost looking at it right now, except for the fact that theyre ahead of the Islanders. The worst case scenario would be finishing behind the Islanders, which is entirely realistic at this juncture.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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