Nine games ago, the New Jersey Devils got waxed by the Islanders 5-1. It was an ugly loss due in large part to giving up three in the final five minutes of the second period and the Isles just tacking two more on in an similarly ugly third period. At the time, it was just that: an ugly loss. What soon followed wasn't a return to winning ways. Sure, they picked up a point on President's Day and got a comeback win over Washington. But the team was struggling to score, the opposition found ways to put the Devils in a hole, and the bottom has continued to fall out after that win with six straight winless games. In retrospect, that loss to the Isles was the beginning of a 1-6-2 slump that currently engulfs the team over two-and-a-half weeks later.
The slump has been rather frustrating and it's going to feel that way until it actually ends. I'm hoping that begins tomorrow night against Buffalo, but who's to say during this current run of futility? In the meantime, it's worth examining the team's last nine games from a bigger picture in a possibly vain attempt to identify what has gone wrong.
A good first place to start would be the game-by-game stats at NHL.com. Here's what I was able to pull from the last nine games:
Immediately we can see where the issues lie. The Devils have been out-scored at a 2:1 ratio over these nine games. Their power play has went 3-for-33 with a goalless streak for eighteen opportunities before Patrik Elias slammed in a rebound last night. The Devils have scored three shorthanded goals in the same run of games, incidentally. The opposition has found more success on their power play with nine goals scored, though the team has improved in that regard in recent games. Most interestingly among these basic numbers are the shots. The Devils have out-shot their competition collectively. As you can see game-by-game, the Devils have out-shot their opponents in six of these games and they were close in the other three. There haven't been any games where the Devils couldn't get anything on net.
Considering the amount of pucks they've put on net, the Devils have an overall shooting percentage of 6.2% over these nine games. That's a very low percentage and it suggests to me the team's been rather unfortunate. Gabe Desjardens made it pretty clear in the past that a significant portion of shooting percentage is driven by luck. The shot totals indicate the Devils are most definitely trying to score; but it hasn't happened. One game could be the result of a hot goalie, but with 16 goals scored in 9 games, it all just can't be hot goaltending. The team is snakebit to a degree and it's killing them.
Similarly, they're giving up a lot of goals. Martin Brodeur has only played in two of these games and has allowed three goals out of 49 total shots. That gives him a save percentage of 93.7%. Brodeur's been hurt since he pulled himself out of warm-ups on February 24. While such a high save percentage isn't likely to hold up for anyone, the team has clearly missed him based on the play of Johan Hedberg. Before being pulled in last night's game against Tampa Bay, Moose started the other seven games of this slump and it has't been pretty. Out of 164 shots against, Hedberg has been beaten 27 times. That's an atrociously low save percentage of 83.5%. As much as I like to look at goals instead of assuming they've been the goaltender's fault, Moose has been a major contributor to his miserable numbers recently. So has the play of the skaters in front of him on several, but there have been more than a couple where Hedberg just faltered and paid the price. With that in mind, I'm a little more sympathetic to the "Play the AHL Callup" argument of recent games.
In the big picture, the Devils aren't scoring like an average NHL team and they're giving up many more goals than an average NHL team. Let's not stop there. The shot totals led me to dig in a little deeper and pull out the even strength data for each of these nine games. I've put together Corsi charts for each and I've posted most of them with team data. After going through those, the shot summaries of each game, and the play by play data to remove empty-net situations, here's what I've discovered at even strength:
At even strength, the Devils don't look as dire in terms of goal differential. Opposing teams have scored 19 to the Devils' ten. I will note that I did include 4-on-4 play, so if you want to be strictly in 5-on-5 play then it's 18. Regardless, the Devils have only managed to fend off their opposition from scoring at even strength once in this run of nine games. It was, possibly coincidentally, the one game they've won. In the other eight, the Devils have been shutout at evens twice, tied twice, and out-scored the other four times. The two ties yielded post-regulation play, the other six were regulation losses. This all tells me that as much as we understandably and correctly gripe about special teams, the real damage is being done here. An average of just over two goals against per game isn't too terrible in general. Though I'm not a fan of a collective save percentage of 89.5% - which, again, has been driven down by the Moose. Yet, giving up over two goals per game is lethal when the team's averaging just over one per game at evens. The Devils have been shooting at an astonishingly low 5.1% rate. That has held the team back at evens.
Adding to that frustration is that the Devils have out-attempted their opponents significantly. I've counted Corsi only for even strength, non-empty net situations, and the Devils have out-attempted their opposition in all but two games and one of those was a tie. In their last four games of their current six-game slide, it hasn't even been close; the Devils have had more possession and did more with the puck than their opposition.
However, the shot counts at even strength has been far from dominant. The Devils have been out-shot at evens in five of their last nine games. A large chunk of their collective 12 shot lead is driven by that one awesome even-strength game against the Caps that yielded their lone win in this slump. This caused me to make the last two columns: % SF and % SA. What they represent is shots on net for/against over Corsi (or all shooting attempts) for/against. The opposition may not have been winning the attempts battle, but they have put a larger percentage of their attempts actually on (or in) net than the Devils in each of the eight non-wins in the slump. I understand misses and blocks happen, and that different arenas count them differently. However, over nine wins, it makes me just hope the team can just be more efficient. It's great that they have volume in attempts but they're not going to see that 5.1% shooting percentage increase (and, in turn, get more goals) unless they either A) get a lot luckier soon and B) make more of those attempts goal-possible.
Now, in this slump, the Devils have been able to have one or even two good periods in most of these games before otherwise losing them. The most dire period has been the third. So here's a breakdown of those numbers:
I highlighted four games in a red shade. Those were games that the Devils lost a lead, which led directly to losing the game or giving the other team a point. The one game in green is the one game where the Devils out-scored their competition and won. The Devils did out-score Tampa Bay in the third, but it was all for consolation given their 3-0 lead going into the period. The rest were either games where the third period just confirmed a losing result or ended up even after going into it even. Those four games, though, really stand out to me as the game was tied or the Devils led after two. When we believe the third period to be a bad one for New Jersey as of late, it's because of those games. We are not wrong in that sense.
In general, I'm seeing a lot of the same instances from whole games in the third. The Devils have been out-scored a collective 7-16. The Devils have collectively out-attempted their opposition by a significant margin and out-shot them, but not as significantly. The even strength shots have been closer to even and the opposition has been more effective at getting their attempts on net than the Devils. It hasn't been a slaughter in every game, but it certainly hasn't been a good one for the Devils.
I do find a little comfort in that special teams haven't been so slanted. They've been more consistent in giving the other team a power play, but they haven't been so bad at killing the penalty. The 2-for-2 by Washington in that 5-1 loss makes it look less successful than it has been. The Devils' power play, well, it is what it is. Incidentally, they've scored their only power play goals in this slump in the third period. I'd suggest that they could to work harder to draw calls, but that's dependent on the ref and it presumes the power play being competent. I know the PP just snapped their streak but they still have plenty of room for improvement.
As a final point, here's a list of notable Devils and their production over the last nine games:
Provided I didn't make a mistake, it's a good thing Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias each got a point on Elias' power play goal last night. Otherwise, the team leader in scoring in this slump would be the formerly-hot Andrei Loktionov, who racked up his five points over five straight games. Even with Elias and Kovalchuk topping the list at five points, every one not named Loktionov and Ryan Carter hasn't been a consistent producer. You'll have one guy, say, Marek Zidlicky getting two goals in one game, and then very little in the other eight in this selection of games. You'll notice this list includes the team's six best forwards, the two defensemen who regularly play on the power play, and CBGB just for kicks. There's not a lot of streaks here and many of these players have ended up with zeroes on the boxscore over the nine games. I know it's not a big revelation that when a team only scores 16 goals in nine games the top players aren't producing. It's still worth noting.
Some of the shot counts tell us who's putting in the effort: unsurprisingly Kovalchuk and Clarkson save for recent games for Clarkson, somewhat surprisingly Travis Zajac and Patrik Elias, and quite surprisingly Steve Bernier. But, again, the pucks aren't going in when they're even on net. Travis Zajac, David Clarkson (Pro-tip for Clarkson, don't fight, you're supposed to be a scorer now), and Adam Henrique appear particularly snake-bitten in their production. And until one of those guys or one of the other top guys like Kovalchuk or Elias get hot for the benefit of their teammates, that lack of production is going to continue holding the team back. As much as we correctly complain about Krys Barch and raise an eyebrow at the team picking up Tom Kostopoulos off waivers, those guys aren't going to fix the problem because they aren't going to add much when times are good. The solution has to come from the guys playing significant minutes in significant roles.
How do they do that? Going back to the team level, a good place to start would be to put more attempts on net. I respect and appreciate leading in shot attempts for a period or a game. It suggests that they're doing better in possession. But I would be more than happy with a couple less if it means a few more of those attempts are on target. That could yield the great bounce they've been missing or the goal(s) that has been eluding the team for several games within this slump. I still want them to do more with the puck on offense than their opposition at even strength. Good teams do that regularly and it's evidence that the Devils aren't as bad as the record of their last nine games would show. That said, bringing a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing but bruises for opposing skaters and strikes against the boards or glass hasn't worked so far. The 5.1% shooting percentage at even strength says it all. I think it's time for the offense to be little more judicious. Not a lot, but a little.
A functional power play would be a big help, too. No one's asking the Devils to score on every other power play; but going 3-for-33 isn't good enough. On many of those power plays, the Devils didn't generate more than one shot on net. Despite racking up the attempts at even strength, they need to be less judicious there. and go back to what sort-of worked last season: set up a one-timer from the right side by you-know-who and scramble for the puck, if it's not held by the goalie or blasted into the net.
The Devils have to be concerned about the other end as well. The defense needs to continuously work on their errors in coverage and playing against the puck carrier to make life easier for their goaltender. The goaltending absolutely has to be better. Until Martin Brodeur comes back, Johan Hedberg just has to be sharper in net. The 83.5% save percentage in all situations demands it. Even with an AHL Call Up behind him and some recently poor performances, Moose is going to be involved in future games given the team's busy schedule. So he's going to play and he just needs to make some more stops. That means, among other thoughts, needs to not over-commit, keep an eye on the play, and keep a cool head. At a minimum, this should cut down on the goals he really shouldn't allow but has anyway. I know it's not actually simple but I don't know what else there is to say about that. Make stops, Moose.
The good news is that it's incredibly difficult to sustain a really low percentage for a rather long time. The Devils will score goals again, they'll get better goaltending, and the good feelings that come from a win will return. The bad news is that there's no way of knowing when this current slump will be over. Even a win tomorrow would just end a losing streak; it could be a grind-it-out affair where the shooting percentage drops despite getting the result. In the short term, the team needs one by any means necessary. We are not in a position to complain about the quality of any win right now. But to end this slump, it's going to take more than just winning the possession battle for most of a game and getting ahead in shots for a couple of games.