The Devils have a case of the yips. Not your garden variety, as with a golfer losing his putting touch. This one runs through the whole team and has been going on all season.
The Devils have lost all 11 shootouts they had been in this season and an N.H.L.-record 15 consecutive over all since March 15, 2013.
“Never have I seen anything like this,” said Paul Dennis, a professor of sports psychology at York University in Toronto and formerly the Maple Leafs’ mental skills coach for 20 years. He called the Devils’ futility a debilitating “emotional contagion.”
Saul L. Miller, a sports psychologist in Vancouver, British Columbia, who has worked with N.H.L. players and teams for about 25 years, called it bizarre.
“And the New Jersey Devils are not a bad team — they have some skill guys,” he said.
If the Devils had won four of their 11 shootouts this season, they would have entered this next-to-last weekend of the regular season in a wild-card playoff spot. Instead, they are a point back. If they miss the playoffs, their shootout shakiness will be largely to blame.
The Devils’ yips reached a sort of nadir Tuesday in Buffalo, after they went to a shootout against the last-place Sabres.
A shootout is not like actual hockey; it is a penalty-shot contest. But the Devils were clearly apprehensive as it got underway, having previously scored on only one of 30 shootout attempts.
At one point, every player on the bench turned his back to the proceedings to conjure good luck, and throughout much of the shootout, Jaromir Jagr simply could not look. He scored on his attempt, but in the end, it was the same dreary result.
How can an entire team lose its mojo at one specific task?
“During the game itself, the skills you use are automatic, because everything happens so fast,” Miller said. “But in a shootout, as in golf, you have time before the shot. You start running some thoughts that will either facilitate or inhibit you. When things are going poorly, you go out there thinking, ‘Don’t blow this’ instead of ‘Score.’ ”
Devils forward Adam Henrique was not told about Miller’s theory, but he pretty much corroborated it at practice Thursday.
“There’s too much time to think between starting the shootout and actually going,” said Henrique, who was 0 for 5 in shootouts this season. “Maybe if we could get someone out there to chase us.”
When the most highly skilled players miss again and again, Dennis said, the rest of the players can lose confidence.
“When players see that the elite players like Elias” — 0 for 8 this season — “or Jagr are really struggling, it filters through the rest of the team,” Dennis said. “They lack the confidence because these leaders lack the confidence.”
Jagr, not told of Dennis’s theory, pretty much corroborated it as well.
“It wasn’t about watching; it was about changing the luck,” Jagr said of what happened on the bench in Buffalo. “It didn’t work — got to figure out something else.”
Was it just a matter of luck? Jagr was asked.
“It’s more about confidence,” he said.
“It could be random happenstance, a statistical anomaly,” Miller said of the Devils’ problems, pointing out that you can flip a coin 11 times and have it come up tails each time. “But,” he said, “there’s something else going on — and what’s going on is almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy, where you get more of what you think about.”
Coach Peter DeBoer has had the Devils practice the shootout several times this season.
“How you gain confidence in that situation is the same way a goal scorer gains confidence,” he said Thursday. “You have to get one to go in and feel good about it and build on it.”
Dennis has counseled slumping N.H.L. players to put a small red dot on their sticks, like the dot the golfer Louis Oosthuizen had on his glove when he won the British Open in 2010.
“It was there to remind him that nothing is more important than staying in the moment,” Dennis said. “So I tell hockey players to use that red dot. I want them to be incredibly absorbed in the moment, with no thoughts of past performance. I think that’s what might be happening with the Devils.”
Intriguing advice — but it probably comes a little too late for them.
Cloudy in Vancouver
Something is about to blow up with the Vancouver Canucks after one dismal season under Coach John Tortorella.
Speaking on local sports radio Thursday, General Manager Mike Gillis declined to answer directly when asked twice whether Tortorella would be back next year.
“I’m not sure I’ll be back next season,” Gillis said.
Gillis hired the fiery Tortorella largely at the urging of the Canucks’ owner, Francesco Aquilini, to turn a finesse team into a gritty one. Instead, Tortorella alienated Canucks players and earned an embarrassing 15-day suspension for trying to charge into the Calgary dressing room to confront the Flames’ coach.
“I really feel over the last couple of seasons we’ve chased goal posts that have been moving and got away from our core principles,” Gillis said, in what sounded like a Torts-or-me ultimatum. “We’re going to get back to the style of play we started six years ago.”
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