The700Level's Interview With Puck Daddy Greg Wyshynski on the State of the Devils

The700Level's Interview With Puck Daddy Greg Wyshynski on the State of the Devils

Readers of this site will no doubt be familiar with Puck Daddy, Yahoo's outstanding hockey blog. Greg Wyshynski, Puck Daddy's editor, has put together a great site that highlights everything going on in the NHL, and we think he does it with just the right amount of objectivity and natural bias. That's saying something, too, considering that he's an unabashed New Jersey Devils fan, so his natural biases contrast our own. Coming out of the recent Flyers-Devils home-and-home, we asked Greg if he'd answer some questions on the state of the Devils, who have fallen from first in the Atlantic to last overall in the NHL in just one half season. Here's what he had to say.

At any point in the 2010 playoffs, which were obviously a disappointment for the Devils, or in the off-season, could you have imagined the team in dead last place halfway through the next season?

No, of course not. It’s one thing to be heartless, aged and overwhelmed in the playoffs. But if there was one consistent thing about the Devils in the last decade, it’s regular season dominance no matter how the playoffs turned out.

What the hell happened? I mean, it’s obviously a lot of things, but it’s not often you see a division winner go to the NHL cellar in just one off-season. What’s the short answer on what made the floor fall out beneath the Devils?

The best way I can describe it: Picture your wife telling you she’s moving out because she’s sleeping with your brother and she ran over your dog as she was taking your baseball cards to the dump. Oh, and she’s keeping the condo. In other words, it was a combination of devastating injuries, poor goaltending, worse coaching and players that couldn’t live up to the expectations of their contracts.

When the Devils landed Ilya Kovalchuk in a trade, you were understandably excited. But looking back, was he the wrong piece at the wrong time?

Not at all. Nothing they gave up for Kovalchuk would have made a difference in the playoffs, and he was a point-per-game player in the regular season for them. He freaked out and pressed in the postseason, but I’d have made that trade again. Lou was swinging for the fences.

To us, the move was incredibly out of character for a system-first franchise like the Devils, and the extension was that times ten. What do you think caused the philosophical change in the organization?

I was excited, but I was honestly in a “take it or leave it” place with him. Philosophically, nothing about the Kovalchuk signing made sense for the Devils, from his not fitting the system to his being the third all-star left wing on the roster.

The assumption is that ownership forced the signing, but that’s speculation.

Where people really miss the boat on the Devils is that the Kovalchuk signing was part of a larger, systemic problem with the team. As all-star defensemen kept leaving, little effort was made to replace them with equally talented D-men. Instead, millions were spent on retaining veteran forwards or bringing in new ones.

Lou Lamoriello has indicated that Martin Brodeur won't be among the cargo thrown off his sinking ship, and he also shuns any notion that the team is rebuilding. With the Devils in last place and looking likely to miss the playoffs, if not remain in last, would you prefer to see Brodeur end his legendary career in Jersey black and red, or that the team get as much future stock as they can in exchange for the guys looking likely to depart?

No, I’d rather he retire as a Devil. Sooner rather than later.

If you’re Lamoriello, what moves are you making? Are you willing to call the rest of this season a rebuilding period, even if he isn’t?

I don’t even know how to approach this team or this season. It’s still a shock. Part of you wonders if this is a good team that was simply crushed by an avalanche of different factors and didn’t have a chance to gel. Another part wants Lou to blow up the roster, get younger and rebuild around Kovalchuk and Parise.

The priority is re-signing Parise, longterm. If he’s up for it.

What is the future of the Devils goaltending situation? After years of domination by Brodeur, we’re enjoying some downtime in the Jersey crease.

Well, I’m happy to hear poor goaltending is such a source of enjoyment. You must have been in ecstasy when Kane scored that OT goal …

I imagine when Marty retires, there will be some veteran stop-gaps until they can develop another young goalie (which they don’t have in the system).

A lot of Fans in the northern parts of New Jersey support the Rangers (or in some odd cases the Islanders), and South Jersey is the domain of the Flyers, from the Delaware to the Atlantic. What’s it like to be caught in the middle of New Jersey’s hockey fan identity crisis?

That’s a really odd question. I never thought of it as an identity crisis at all. Jersey’s big enough for different fan bases, in different regions. And it’s an accepted part of Devils fandom that there are going to be NY and Philly fans in your school, in your neighborhood and your arena. 

This seems like a question you might have asked in 1991.

I’d get into the challenges for the Devils in drawing fans to the arena, and their own failings to that end, but I’m afraid my fingers might cramp up from the amount of typing it would take.

To an outsider who supports a team that has never won a Cup in his lifetime but is used to a mostly packed building, it seems the Devils will never have truly great fan support at home. Does it bother you to see so many empty seats in the home building of one of the most successful franchises in terms of relatively recent Stanley Cup championships?

Sure. You’d love to see the arena full every night, because it’s a better atmosphere.

But I stopped staring at the attendance figures in the box score a long time ago. It is what it is, and just like it’s been for the last 20 years, it’s up to the Devils to cultivate a broader fan base. Lou and management didn’t feel that was vital during the Cup years, and it’s a never-ending debate for Devils fans about whether a catalyst for that success was the Devils not over-marketing their players and product.

I think for a team that’s competing with roughly 12 other teams for entertainment dollars, they do OK, considering their allergy to marketing and their style of play.

What would it take to change that reality?

More Devils fans. And lower ticket prices during winning seasons, rather than giveaways when the team is ass.

Jordan Matthews eager to return after missing first-ever game

Jordan Matthews eager to return after missing first-ever game

Jordan Matthews experienced something new on Sunday. Something he hoped he’d never have to experience. 

He was relegated to spectator.  

After never missing a game dating back to little league – through high school, college, and into his third season in the NFL – a right ankle injury kept him out of Sunday’s 32-14 loss in Cincinnati. 

“It’s definitely not fun,” Matthews said. “But it’s one of those things where I try not to dwell on it or be like ‘woe is me.’ There’s people going through way worse things in America than me missing a football game.”

The Eagles certainly could have used Matthews on Sunday. But they should get him back this weekend when the Birds host Washington for a 1 p.m. kickoff at the Linc. Along with Ryan Mathews and Dorial Green-Beckham, Matthews is listed as questionable. 

But he seems confident he’ll be good to go. 

“I think one game is definitely going to be enough for me,” Matthews said. “I’m definitely going to try to get back out there Sunday.” 

On Friday, during his first media availability in two weeks, Matthews said he chose to find the positives in his absence from Sunday’s game. Namely that Paul Turner and Trey Burton got some extra reps. 

Burton had five catches for 53 yards and Turner, in just his second NFL game, had six catches for 80 yards. 

“I try to see the positives,” Matthews said. “I liked seeing what PT was able to go out there and do. I was happy for him and his first live-game action, being able to go out there and make plays. I was also proud of Trey. His role got to expand with me being out and I think he played extremely well. He got to show what he can do and show how he can help this team. We just have to continue to utilize him moving forward. There’s always a positive in it. 

“We might not see it now, in a loss, but just think, some of those guys are going to be weapons for us in the future. And we saw they can go out and perform well without me in there, so I think it’s going to end up being a positive. But I definitely can’t wait to get back out there.”

Earlier in the week, head coach Doug Pederson said that even with Matthews’ returning, the team would still try to get Turner involved. Since the team sees Turner primarily as a slot receiver, that means Matthews could see time outside this weekend. There’s an even better chance when taking Green-Beckham’s injury into account. 

Before the season, Pederson talked a lot about wanting to play Matthews both inside and outside, but this season, Matthews has been in the slot for 74 percent of his snaps. Forty-four of his 57 catches have come from the slot too. 

On the play where Matthews hurt his ankle against the Packers, he was actually lined up outside and caught a back-shoulder throw from Wentz. 

“I was actually joking with Carson,” Matthews said, “I was like ‘bro, the reason I got hurt was because our back shoulder was better than Jordy [Nelson] and Aaron [Rodgers’]. So it didn’t mesh well with the universe. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way on Monday night for everybody to see, so the football gods took my ankle. So it’s all good. … That’s a joke.”

Matthews, despite being in his third season, is clearly one of the Eagles’ leaders on offense, especially in a very young receivers room. He’s looking forward to playing Washington after he thinks they were the first team that “actually came out and beat” them earlier in the year. 

With four games left in the regular season, the Eagles’ playoff chances are extremely slim. But Matthews thinks it’s important for the team to finish strong, especially with rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. 

With Wentz, Matthews thinks the Eagles have already taken the first step toward building something special. 

“He’s the guy,” Matthews said. “He looks like the guy, he walks like the guy, he talks like it. And he goes out there and plays like it. It’s more we have to continue to ride around him and coach Pederson and be positive and go out there and produce.”

Eagles-Redskins scouting report: Secondary must stand up vs. Kirk Cousins

Eagles-Redskins scouting report: Secondary must stand up vs. Kirk Cousins

Eagles (5-7) vs. Redskins (6-5-1)
Sunday, 1 p.m. on Fox
Redskins favored by 2; over/under 47

When the Eagles went into FedEx Field in Week 6, they had an opportunity to leave 4-1 and in great position in the NFC East. Instead, what ensued was a stretch of three divisional losses in four weeks by a combined 18 points.

Two months later, the Eagles are out of the race at 5-7 while the 6-5-1 Redskins are still battling for an NFC wild-card spot. The 'Skins would be out of the playoffs if the season ended today — they currently hold the seventh spot in the NFC, behind the Bucs (7-5) but ahead of the Vikings and Packers (6-6).

This is obviously a crucial game for Washington, but the Eagles are just as desperate after losing by 11, 14 and 18 points the last three weeks. Don't underestimate the role desperation and a few weeks of embarrassment can have on a team's ability to bounce back. It was partly why I cautioned in these scouting reports the last two weeks not to count out either Green Bay or Cincinnati, teams that had more talent and stability than a few weeks of midseason losses indicated.

Cousins and Reed
The next time the Eagles limit Kirk Cousins will be the first time. In four games against them, he's completed 63 percent of his passes, averaged 336 yards, thrown 10 TDs and two interceptions and rushed for another score. Washington has averaged 31 points and won three of the four contests.

The Eagles' margin of error on defense is extremely small in this game. To win, they'll need a better effort against a Redskins' ground game that gashed them for 230 yards last time, they'll need to generate consistent pressure on Cousins and they'll need Jordan Reed to not be himself.

Reed, the NFC's most dangerous tight end, is questionable with a Grade 3 AC joint separation suffered on Thanksgiving. Reed was a warrior on Turkey Day, leaving the game in the second quarter, standing on the sideline in a sling, probably receiving a little (ahem) help at halftime, and then dominating in the second half in Dallas. Reed finished that game with 12 catches for 95 yards and two TDs, but was hurt badly enough to miss last week's game.

The Eagles were fortunate to avoid Reed in the season's earlier matchup. Fortunate because he destroyed them last December, catching nine passes for 129 yards and two TDs in a 14-point win. Washington uses its tight ends more than any offense in the league, and Reed is a mismatch even for an Eagles team that has allowed the fewest catches (31) and receiving yards (327) to tight ends. 

With Reed out in October, backup Vernon Davis burned the Eagles for two catches, 50 yards and a TD. But it sounds like Reed will play Sunday after telling reporters that his range of motion is back.

The issue in stopping Washington is the Eagles just don't have enough defensive backs to defend everything. It's why they need Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham to get consistent pressure and keep Cousins out of a rhythm. They haven't been able to do that. They had no sacks in Washington in Week 6 and have failed to sack Cousins in two of the last three meetings.

Without forcing Cousins to get off his spot and get the ball out quickly, the Eagles' secondary hasn't shown anything to inspire confidence they can stop DeSean Jackson, Jamison Crowder, Pierre Garcon, Reed and Davis at the same time.

To make matters worse, this is the first week Washington's All-Pro left tackle, Trent Williams, is back from a four-game substance abuse suspension. According to Pro Football Focus, Williams has allowed just three sacks in his last eight games against the Eagles.

Which Wentz will show?
Last week was Carson Wentz's worst game as an NFL quarterback. He missed wide-open throws, threw three interceptions and could have thrown more and barely exceeded 300 yards despite throwing the ball 60 times. 

He didn't look like the guy we saw the first four games of the season, and quite frankly he hasn't looked like a top-20 QB since October. 

The lack of weapons and occasionally poor protection are major reasons why, but Wentz isn't void of blame — he's simply missed some makeable throws.

Against Washington back on Oct. 16, Wentz was just 11 of 22 for 179 yards as the Eagles lost the time of possession battle. The best days belonged to Ryan Mathews (9 carries, 60 yards) and Jordan Matthews (three catches, 75 yards). Both are questionable heading into this one. 

Wentz didn't throw a single pass at Josh Norman in the first meeting. At times, Norman has followed the opposing team's top receiver, but don't expect him to do so this Sunday. Norman has lined up on the left side 64 percent of the time this season and in the slot just nine percent. 

Slot matchup
Matthews has run 73 percent of his routes from the slot and should draw third-round pick Kendall Fuller. As long as Matthews is sufficiently recovered from his ankle injury, this should be a good matchup for the Eagles. 

Fuller has been beaten repeatedly this season, allowing 42 catches (on 53 targets) for 542 yards and two touchdowns. Quarterbacks have a 123.9 rating against him, third-worst among all slot corners. (Malcolm Jenkins is actually worst in this category with a 137.9 QB rating allowed in the slot.)

Fuller has also struggled to wrap receivers up after the catch, allowing an NFL-high 213 yards after the catch. Picking up yards after a reception is something the Eagles have struggled to do all year.

Run game
The Eagles were shutting running backs down until they played the Redskins in October. Since-demoted RB Matt Jones rushed for 135 yards, current starter Rob Kelley rushed for 59, and both had a run of 45-plus yards.

Cox, Barwin and LB Nigel Bradham had awful games that afternoon against the run. It also didn't help that the Eagles were credited with 12 missed tackles. 

Run-stuffer Bennie Logan left that game early with a groin injury and missed the next three weeks. Since returning, however, Logan hasn't been himself, struggling to rush the passer and stop the run.

The Kerrigan factor
The Eagles always have trouble containing Redskins pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan, who had three sacks in the first meeting. 

Kerrigan has been a force in 2016 with 44 QB hurries, which is three more than Kahlil Mack and second-most among outside linebackers to Von Miller.

Kerrigan has nine sacks in 11 career games against the Eagles, and Washington is 5-1 when he has at least one against them.

Prediction
Close game, better performance from Wentz and an awakening in the run game, but not enough defensive talent to shut down what Washington will try to do deep with Jackson and Crowder, over the middle with Reed and short with Garcon.

Redskins 31, Eagles 27