A brand new era has begun for the New Jersey Devils starting with the summer of 2015. A brand new general manager in Ray Shero. A brand new head coach in John Hynes. Brand new assistants like Alain Naserddine and Geoff Ward. New development coaches, new trainers, and many other changes in the organization. Of course, there were several players added to the roster and many others let go. Predictions of how the Devils would do in 2015-16 were not kind. Not even the ones here. Yet, most fans knew that this is a re-building season, there are plenty of needs that cannot be answered in a month, and so expectations were low. Therefore, a 6-4-1 October - the first month of real hockey under this new era of the franchise - is a big reason why October 2015 should be seen as a success by many.
The Month That Was
After disposing the Philadelphia Flyers in consecutive preseason games, the 2015-16 regular season began on October 9 for the team. It didn't go very well. They opened the season at home to Winnipeg, a team with the sort of young core at forward the Devils may hope to obtain one day. The Jets outplayed the Devils. They scored the first two goals, tacked on an insurance goal, and Jacob Trouba inadvertently scored the first goal for the Devils in between (it was credited to Jiri Tlusty). The Rock was far from a sellout; those who were there saw a 1-3 loss to open the season. The game set the tone for the next week or so.
On the very next night, the Devils went into Washington D.C. to play the Capitals. The Devils started off much better. While they conceded the first two goals, they answered back with two of their own in the first period. Adam Henrique scored the first intentional goal of the season and Eric Gelinas hit the nation's capital with the Truth. The Devils held their own for a period. Alas, it all went awry in the third period with Alex Ovechkin posterizing John Moore, Ovechkin creating a power play goal, and pulling the goalie early during a penalty kill. The Devils got one of those back, so it was a 3-5 final score. Better than opening night, at least. Empty nets reared their ugly head again when the Devils hosted Nashville. In an ugly, difficult to watch game Roman Josi scored one goal prior to the final few minutes. With a late power play, Hynes pulled the goalie again. Josi launched a long clearance that became an ENG. Kyle Palmieri tipped in a goal to make it 1-2. Then Nashville got another ENG to make it a 1-3 loss. With three losses in a row, the Devils would host the Peter DeBoer-coached San Jose Sharks. The Sharks swarmed early, got a goal, and put a lot of rubber on Cory Schneider. The Devils eventually woke up to the task and got a fairly late equalizer; Henrique tipped in a shot by Damon Severson. The teams survived the overtime and went into the shootout. The Devils didn't win it; they had to settle for their first standings point of the season in a 1-2 shootout loss.
At this point, most fans were either realizing that this team wasn't going to be good either in shock or stoic acceptance. Four games, no wins, and one point says a lot. Especially with Our Hated Rivals coming up for a Sunday afternoon affair. It looked grim early on with plenty of turnovers and a goal conceded. Henrique jammed in his own rebound to tie it up and Schneider played superbly to keep it a 1-1 game. In overtime, the signed try-out forward Lee Stempniak became the hero of the day. He finished a feed from Henrique to beat Henrik Lundqvist. Yes, the Devils got their first win of the season in the house of their most hated rivals, 2-1. It's almost poetic in retrospect. And it would set the tone for the rest of the month: close games and close wins.
Two nights later, the Devils hosted Arizona. This was a real offensively challenged game for the most part, but it did open up for the second period. Travis Zajac scored the team's first shorthanded goal of the season and gave the team their first lead all season just before the third period. That lead lasted less than two minutes. But the Devils got it back. Then with 50.7 seconds left, a familiar sight returned: the dramatic, late equalizer against. A bad bounce off the leg of David Schlemko. In recent seasons, this would follow with a loss. But Adam Larsson made a brilliant play and finished the game in overtime to make it a 3-2 win. Two nights later, the Devils went into Ottawa. It was a higher tempo affair, with plenty of shots and attempts. The Devils stuck with it, got some early power play goals and made some costly mistakes. Yet, the Devils fought back hard to pull within one in the third period and Stempniak put home a last minute equalizer of his own. In the shootout, Stempniak provided the final blow that completed the comeback that stunned the team of Canada's capital city. The Devils had their first winning streak with the 5-4 decision. Lastly, on that Saturday, the Devils visited Buffalo. Henrique and Cammalleri had big games as either were involved in all four goals the Devils scored. A late power play goal by Jack Eichel spoiled what could have been the first non-one-goal win of the season. Still, the Devils would win their first in regulation 4-3 against the Sabres - their fourth straight win.
After going winless in four, the Devils won four in a row. At this point, plenty of those negative feelings got flipped around. Perhaps this team won't be doormats. Perhaps this team can do more than we think. Perhaps they can keep on rolling. The streak ended on the following Tuesday to a one-win Columbus team. The Devils dominated the play in the first period but they didn't make as many opportunities as they could and they never punished Columbus for their issues. As the game went on, Columbus still had a chance and then they shocked the Devils with a flurry of three goals in the third period. The Devils would take one back late on a power play with the goalie pulled, but it would end as a 1-3 loss. It was a reminder that the Devils aren't all that just yet.
Fortunately, the last two games of the month was better than that loss and far sweeter than their first week or so. The Devils visited the Second Rate Rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, on Thursday. The Devils arguably had their best game yet in this short season. They tore apart the Flyers' defense, they kept attacking, and they never backed down even when a shift or a special teams situation wouldn't go their way. The Devils were rewarded in the third period with two goals and tacked on an empty netter to make it a 4-1 victory. It would be the team's first regulation win by more than one goal and they fully earned it. The Devils hosted the Islanders on Halloween for an afternoon game to close out October. The first five minutes were great and the Devils took an early lead. Then they got out-played for the rest of regulation. The Devils still found away to get a second goal in the first period, only for both to be answered by a power play and a shorthanded goal in the second period. Fortunately, the Devils escaped a two-shot third period and survived overtime. In the shootout, the Devils would prevail to steal a 'W' from a superior Isles squad. It was a better ending than what could (or should) have happened.
The Month by the Numbers
Thanks to War on Ice allowing bracketing their stats by date, I'm going to make a point of it to provide the team's stats month-by-month.
What we saw for the first month of the season was a lot of low-event, low-offense hockey by the Devils. Despite the top-to-bottom changes of the organization and new players, the Devils performed quite like Devils teams in recent memory. There was plenty of dump-and-chase hockey (especially for the bottom six), plenty of allowing little while generating little, great goaltending, and dubiously successful special teams.
At 5-on-5 Even Strength: The Devils have scored ten goals and allowed thirteen, a differential of -3. They have a CF% of 50.1% and a score-adjusted CF% of 49.6%. Not great, but not bad either. Their Corsi for per sixty minute rate is dead last in the league at 43. Their Corsi against per sixty minute rate is the league's lowest at 42.9. The Devils are indeed about low-event hockey. The team's shooting percentage is in the bottom five of the league at 4.8%. That could get better in time. The team's save percentage is 93.2%. That's quite high, even if it is around the league median. In time, that could go down without much change in the goalie's performance.
At Power Play Situations: The Devils have scored seven non-empty net power play goals and conceded four goals for a goal differential of +4. If we include empty netters, thanks to NHL.com which does, then it's nine (nine PPGs out of thirty nine opportunities) and four respectively for a differential of +5. The Devils' Corsi for per sixty minute rate on power play situations is also dead last in the league at 69. Similarly, their shots for per sixty minute rate is only 41. Only Tampa Bay has a lower rate. Contributing partially to those low shot rates is the fact that they've yielded some goals. The Devils' shooting percentage on power plays is currently at 18.4%, right outside of the top-five in the league. Keep in mind that going shotless on a power play - which New Jersey has done quite a few times this month - doesn't hinder that percentage.
At Shorthanded Situations: The Devils have conceded seven non-empty net power play goals and scored two shorthanded goals for a goal differential of -5. Again, if we include empty netters, the Devils have allowed nine power play goals (nine PPGAs out of thirty six shorthanded situations) for a goal differential of -7. The team's Corsi for per sixty minute rate was expectedly low at 10.2%. More meaningful is their shots against rate. Their shots against per sixty minute rate was 58, which is one of the highest in the league. Even though the goaltenders are above the league median with a pretty good save percentage of 87.5%, the high volume of shots allowed has helped results in goals against.
Additions & Subtractions
There have been a few subtractions, or omissions, from the roster within this month. Patrik Elias missed all of preseason and ended up not playing at all. While he's certainly not the Elias of old, his absence thins the forward depth. Tuomo Ruutu may not be anything more than a bottom six forward. Yet, his foot fracture will keep him out for four to six weeks. That also thins the depth. Reid Boucher was sent down to Albany. He made three appearances this season, but never did anything to justify additional minutes or games. Rather than keep him in the press box, he was demoted to the AHL so he could play. Stefan Matteau has become a constant on the scratch list in recent days too, but since he'd have to clear waivers to go down, he's not (yet) demoted. Defensively, the team has had some minor injuries (John Moore for a game, if I recall correctly) and illnesses (Jon Merrill), but they've been set with their group. No one on defense has been called up or sent down. In fact, they closed the month with all seven defensemen used in their last three games.
The New Jersey Devils did make one addition to their lineup during the month of October. They picked up forward Bobby Farnham off waivers. Farnham is another player that Shero and Hynes would be familiar with as he got his start in pro hockey in Pittsburgh's system. Farnham is all about energy and not much else. That said, he had a fantastic first period on Halloween. He helped create the Devils' first goal, which was his first NHL point. In a first period that had six shots within the first five minutes and one in the following fifteen, Farnham had the shot. And it resulted in his first NHL goal, a high shortside shot off a carom from the endboards. Farnham is the sort of player that only gets six to ten minutes, gets simple instructions, and you hope he doesn't provide too many negatives when he's out there. It's been only one game, but so far, he's a net positive.
Devil of the Month
For the unaware, I highlight who I think was the best player of the month on the Devils. I emphasize consistently good play over peaks of excellence amid ho-hum valleys. While his production has not been consistent, he has been a standout forward throughout most of the month. The Devils' offense is still not very strong, but he's been a reliable provider of shots without getting killed in possession. I am talking about the team's current leading scorer, Mike Cammalleri.
In eleven games, Cammalleri has produced three goals and eight assists. A point per game rate is always solid to see. Technically, a Capital scored one of those goals, but the 33-year old left winger made it happen with his shot. Cammalleri has not been shy about using it. He leads the Devils with thirty four shots in all situations and 134 shot attempts at even strength per War on Ice. He's got thirty attempts on the power play, for what it's worth. He could have had more, but he's been trusting of his linemates Adam Henrique and Lee Stempniak, so he hasn't been shy about passing the puck either. While you wouldn't think that combination would work on paper, it has been. Their possession is above 50% at even strength, with Cammalleri posting a 53.8% - right in between #14 and #20. That's far better than what he had with Zajac last season. This strongly suggests this is a line that works for him as well as for Henrique and Stempniak. That unit drove most of the offense during the team's winning streak. While pointless in his last three games, he's been firing away (eight shots over those three games) and he did score the shootout winning goal against the Islanders. Cammalleri has been the forward the Devils have needed this month, and so I am pleased to name him the AATJ October 2015 Devil of the Month.
The Devils have made me pleased with their results overall. How can they not? They have a winning record, they beat their local rivals, and they haven't been blown out of any games. Out played, sure, but not crushed by a goal margin of four or more. Likewise, they haven't been so awful in their performance. They've stolen some points and had some really rough periods, but those rough periods were often with the opponents also playing poorly as well. I can agree with those that think this team has some improvements over last season.
I am still hesitant on thinking this team is better than what I expected, which is to say a team that will finish last in the division. The Devils had a good October 2014, they were in a good spot in the standings to start November, and yet the team crashed hard and finished with the league's sixth worst record. I know over an eighth of the season has been played, but there's a majority of a season to go where a lot can happen. If nothing else, what we learned about this team is that they are like last season's (and season's prior) squad in that they are still a low-event, low-scoring team. They're going to be in a lot of close games, they were in October, and in this past month, they were on the right side of them more often than not. They won two games in OT, they won two shootouts, and they hung in there regardless of how the play went.
Yes, the team will eventually shoot better than 4-5%. At the same time, the save percentage may still dip to counteract that. While the team will get more used to how Hynes wants the team to play and even strength is around breakeven in terms of possession, it's still about allowing little and coming up with about the same. Special teams, which could be a difference maker, hasn't been all that good; I don't expect the Devils to keep shooting at 18% on power plays and the penalty kill needs to be more stingy. If the Devils had more of their wins like that 4-1 victory in Philly, then I'd be more believing that this team is better than I thought. For now, based on the past and what I've seen about this team, I'd wait and see before proclaiming that this season will be that much better than last season's team, much less surprise others in the NHL.