On A Pork Roll: Fixing The Devils

Pork roll is the quintessential New Jersey food. More commonly known as Taylor Ham, it's the right combination of curing agents, nitrates, salts, pig parts, additives, meat fillers, and food coloring to start your day. Don't ask, just enjoy, particularly with eggs and a hard roll.

I've now stayed up past 1:00 AM three nights of the past four to watch the NJ Devils lose every game in the Golden State. There's nothing to enjoy here. Doesn't matter what the ingredients are, they aren't making anything too tasty. I posted the full-blown diatribe on fixing the Devils to my personal blog, but I'm cross-posting it here (slightly edited) because this is not the way I've wanted to start every day of the last week:

The season is a bit past the quarter post, and the Devils look like the leftovers on an Atlantic City buffet table. It's just not pretty. Seven goals in a five-game road trip, three points out of a possible ten, and they're looking at the Islanders' tail pipe in the standings. It's not a lack of talent or a lack of leadership. It's finding the right combinations. Like pork roll.

So here's my completely non-expert, biased fan's view of how to fix the Devils. I am not a coach, nor do I play one on television, and my hockey expertise is limited to beer league and running the clock at youth hockey games. But I've spent almost the equivalent of a new car on Devils tickets in the last decade, so I'm entitled to my shot at being Lou For A Day:

  • Fix the lines for at least three games. You don't learn anything by having guys rotate through lines. How do you know that Elias is more likely to pass than shoot if he's on the off-hand side of the slot (versus having the goal to his right from the left hash) unless you've been on the ice with him? So this means "fix" in both repairing and retaining senses. My personal line card would have Gomez centering the first line, Langenbrunner and Elias on the wings, because you have the most speed and two of the best finishers on the team. Yes, Gionta had more goals, but they were of the tip-in or deflection variety (more on that later). Second line: Parise at center, Zajac and Gionta on the wings. Sorry, Travis, but follow Brylin's lead and move to wing. The Zach-n-Zaj combination gives you great playmaking capability. Checking line is Madden at center, Pandolfo and Brylin on the wings. Brylin and Pandolfo are two of the most under-respected players in the league, and Brylin can score when it counts. Always has. Fourth line is a combination of Rupp, Dowd, Jansen, and Rasmussen, although I'd love to see Barry Tallackson come back from Lowell.
  • Shoot the puck. Sounds obvious, but it's not happening nearly enough. In the three California losses, the Devils had between 22-24 shots a game, with half of them coming in the third period. The Devils had a dozen shots total in Anaheim with over 35 minutes gone in the game. A short every three minutes means a shot every 3-5 shifts. The puck needs to move more (see above), and the shots need to get on goal. The latter is the bigger problem -- shooting from the point is great if you can get deflections in front (Gionta's signature) but if you can't park someone in the low slot you need more cutting below the hash marks. There's been a Bermuda Triangle of lost Devils from the center of the slot to the edges of the crease. Puck movement up and down the boards and along the blue line is pretty but pretty ineffective.
  • Give Marty a night off. Better yet, send Clemmenson up I-95 to Lowell and bring Frank Doyle down for some games (sorry, KK, but he is the heir apparent). If Clemmenson isn't solid enough to play against Phoenix or Los Angeles, two teams that aren't exactly smoking the league, then get help. Marty's performance in the shootout last night can be summarized in one word: tired. True, the schedule that had the team going from La-La-Land to Silicon Valley back to Hollyweird didn't help, and travelling in California is stressful at best, but three games in four nights over a holiday weekend is a bit much.
  • Get butts in seats. Think the Devils like playing in front of empty seats, in an arena that needs about 14,000 voices to get epsilon louder than the ventilation system? This is a positive feedback loop -- fans encourage the team, the team plays for the fans, the team plays better and more fans come to games. Give out vouchers for the upper level to every school, youth hockey program and youth group in the state. If the tickets aren't sold, what's the downside? Get some fans in the building and they'll buy concessions and add their noise to the mix. Encourage season ticket holders to resell or trade games they can't use. I'd gladly trade games I'm stuck with for 4 or 6 seats to other games, if the Devils make the trade. The San Francisco Giants "Double Play" system pretty much assures that season ticket holders get their full value out of their seats, by getting butts into them. Create demand, and the fans will come. If there's insufficient demand, start by giving things away. iTunes is free. WAPP-FM was free for one glorious summer. Solaris is free (sorry, had to put in the plug).
  • Tell Patrik Elias to have fun again. In seasons past, when Patty missed a shot or a pass went wide, you'd see Patty holler something funny (as evidenced by the smile on Gomez's unshaven face) or laugh himself. He's A-Rod serious now. We need the guy who used to pick up the trainer's scissors to give Gomez an impromptu haircut. Perhaps it's wearing the "C", or perhaps it's trying to figure out how to get the team to settle down, but Elias should lead the way he always has -- have fun, carry a big stick, and shoot the puck. He doesn't have to be Scott Stevens, because he's not Scott Stevens. He's Patty. He's a soccer playing, Euro cool, well spoken, dumpling-loving oenophile (how is that for statistically improbable phrasing?)
  • Everyone will relax, the goals will come, the game will open up, and the fans will return to watch grown men playing a simple sport that's incredibly fun. Want an example? Here's an open invitation for the big Devils to stay after practice this Saturday to watch the youth Devils play. Let the kids sign autographs for you, instead of the other way around, and sit on the bleachers that give you cold metal burns on your butt, and cheer for our goalie who wears #14 (because he worships Gionta), and our defenseman nicknamed Big Bird because he has the same look and disposition (but a much better slapshot) , and our third-line center who broke his foot but comes to every game to sit on the bench and cheer for his teammates. We share a rink, we share a jersey crest, so why not share in some fun?

    Comments:

    Ducks rule the pond!

    Posted by Richard Elling on November 28, 2006 at 04:56 AM EST #

    I say make one of the lines all Rupps.... Myself (of course), your Devil Rupp and Duane Rupp... http://www.legendsofhockey.net:8080/LegendsOfHockey/jsp/SearchPlayer.jsp?player=14201 With a sub off the bench (deep bench, he's dead) Pat Rupp http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pat_Rupp

    Posted by Fritz Rupp on November 28, 2006 at 06:20 AM EST #

    The last paragraph brought tears to my eyes. Those little Devils have played their hearts out, even when they were down, and proved that hockey is mental as well as physical. If anyone can fix something, you are the man for the job. Loved your suggestion.

    Posted by Bev Stern on November 28, 2006 at 10:59 AM EST #

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