Consider a hill in the middle of the field. Surrounding the peak is just a lot of low-lying land. That would be the best metaphor for the New Jersey Devils’ performance in November 2016. They went 6-5-3 in the month, which is a bit worse than the hopeful 4-2-2 record in October. Yes, the Devils were on the road. Yes, they had a mighty five-game winning streak. That was the hill in the middle and it drove the winning portion of that record. The rest: well, not much in the way of results. Let’s go review it ahead of the Devils beginning a new month.
The Games in November - A Summary
The Devils began November on the road, where they would be for most of the month. New Jersey only had four home games out of the fourteen scheduled in the second month of the season. It started in the same place the regular season started: Sunrise, Florida. The Devils visited the Panthers and hoped for a better result. They made a comeback effort to force overtime, which was capped by Pavel Zacha scoring his first NHL goal as the equalizer. However, the Panthers prevailed in OT for a 3-4 final score. At least the Devils got a point out of that one. Two nights later on November 5, the Devils went into Tampa Bay and suffered a straight-up loss. The Lightning decisively defeated the Devils, 1-4. Their three-game road trip to start the month had one last stop for the Devils to get something out of it and it was in Carolina. Who would lead the Devils to some kind of result?
Michael Cammalleri. Cammalleri was very quiet for most of the season until November 6 when the Devils visited the Hurricanes. Cammalleri racked up three straight goals for a natural hat trick and more than enough cushion for the Devils to take the game. An empty netter made it a 4-1 win - the team’s first road win of the season. As it turned out, it would be the start of the Devils’ best run of the month. The Devils returned home on November 8 to host Carolina. This one was much closer; it required a shootout. In their first shootout of the season, the Devils managed to win it for a 3-2 final score. The Devils then had a back-to-back, home-and-home with Buffalo. The first game in Buffalo was tight and was decided by one of the rarest plays in hockey. In overtime, defenseman Andy Greene drew a penalty shot - and scored on it to win the game. Yes, a penalty shot game winner in OT by a defenseman. That made it a 2-1 final score. The very next night, the Devils hosted the Sabres and this game was not as close. The Devils won their fourth straight game comfortably, 4-2. With four wins in a row, the Devils had every reason to feel good heading into a four-game road trip into Texas and California. The first game in Dallas was tight, but the Devils pulled together for a very fine performance. It ended with a dramatic play in overtime that saw Kyle Palmieri set up Adam Henrique for a overtime winner. The 2-1 win made it five in a row for the Devils.
Unfortunately, it would be the highlight of the road trip. And it would be the best of a less-than-full strength squad. Prior to the Buffalo home-and-home, Michael Cammalleri was out of the lineup for personal reasons. More specifically, his daughter was fighting pneumonia and required surgery for it. Prior to the Dallas game, Taylor Hall was ruled out for what would be a torn meniscus that required surgery. He was announced to be out for 3-4 weeks. After the Dallas game, Yohann Auvitu was banged up. The Devils pulled together in Dallas, but they lost a lead to Anaheim. The Devils saw their winning streak end against the Ducks, 2-3, on Thursday, November 17. On Saturday afternoon, November 19, the Devils would be out-done more decisively by Los Angeles in a 2-4 loss. Monday, November 21, saw the road trip end in San Jose. And the Sharks just swarmed it up on the Devils to the tune of a 0-4 loss; the first shutout loss of the season for New Jersey. The trip brought the Devils back down to an uglier reality after flying high with five straight wins.
Home couldn’t have come at a better time, but it didn’t look that way at first. On the night before Thanksgiving, Toronto put the Devils down three goals early in the game. But then a hero emerged on November 23. The same hero from November 8: Michael Cammalleri. He returned and put in a magnificent performance with a goal and three assists to force extra time against Toronto. While he did not score in the shootout to win it, Cammalleri drove the Devils to a 5-4 victory to end the losing streak and preserve the strong home record. After Thanksgiving, the Devils hosted Detroit and it came with another ugly start. The game itself looked bleak at times, but the Devils found a way to force overtime again. They lost the game in OT for a 3-4 final score. But it was only their second post-regulation loss at home this season and they at least got a point, albeit a very ugly one. On Saturday, November 26, the Devils began another four-game road trip in Pittsburgh. The Devils built up a lead as the Pens shelled Keith Kinkaid. Kinkaid did what he could, but Pittsburgh forced overtime and edged the Devils in a shootout. The run of play was not necessarily as close as the 3-4 final score. Again, another ugly point earned. Lastly, the Devils finished the month in Winnipeg. While the Devils tried to mount a comeback, they could not make up the deficit against the Jets. They lost in regulation, 2-3, to close the month with the whimper of a three game winless streak.
Again, think of a hill in the middle of a field. There was a peak in the middle it all, but surrounded by not much. That’s how the Devils obtained a 6-5-3 record in November. At least they finished the month barely in the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
By the Numbers
At 5-on-5: In the month of November, the Devils did make some improvements in terms of possession. Using Corsica’s custom query tool, the Devils finished November with a 49.66% Corsi. Their CF/60 was 54.41, which finished just outside of the bottom third of the NHL in November. While that’s good, their CA/60 was 55.17, which is around league median. It’s another sign that while the Devils have attempted more shots compared to previous seasons, so have their opponents. In terms of shots themselves, the Devils’ SF% was on the lower end of the league at 48.33%. Again, a not-terrible SF/60 of 29.04 was out-done by a not-so-hot SA/60 of 30.92. So opponents were ultimately out-shooting the Devils as well as out-attempting them in 5-on-5 play. They were also out-chancing them, although at a much worse rate. The Devils scoring chance for percentage was the second-lowest in the NHL in November at 42.86%. They have had one of the lowest scoring chance per sixty minute rates at 6.48 and one of the higher scoring chance against per sixty minute rates at 8.65. As loathe as I am to say it, it appears that quality was a lot worse than quantity.
In terms of actual production, it did not look good. The Devils were out-scored 24 to 31 in 5-on-5 play. Their shooting percentage rose from a meager 5.24% in October to a more respectable 7.77% in November. However, the save percentage really fell out. They dropped from 94.59% in October to 90.58% in November. Cory Schneider really fell back to Earth in November. The big scoring chance differential surely played a role in that. What’s worse is that the Devils weren’t too far from expectations. Their expect goals per sixty minute rate was 44.86% with 2.22 expected goals for per sixty minutes and 2.78 expected goals against per sixty minutes. Their actual goals for percentage was 43.64%; their actual goals for and against per sixty minute rates were 2.26 and 2.91, respectively. From a 5-on-5 perspective, while the Devils were closer to even in Corsi, it was not a good month.
In Power Play Situations: The Devils power play in November was notoriously awful. They had a futility streak lasting nine games where they went scoreless in 29 opportunities. While that streak would be broken, the Devils finished the month with the lowest success rate in the NHL in November according to NHL.com: 8.5%. In total, they converted four times out of 47 attempts. The power play kept getting opportunities to succeed and they were often not taken. According to Corsica’s custom query tool for teams, their 5-on-4 shots for per sixty minute rate was 46.86. That was around league median, so it was not as if the Devils were also struggling to get off a lot of shots. It just seemed that way on several situations because, well, they were, and that they couldn’t buy a PPG to save their lives for a big part of the month. This kind of power play futility helps nobody and it did not help the Devils cause in November.
In Penalty Kill Situations: According to NHL.com, the Devils had forty-one shorthanded situations and allowed seven goals. That’s a success rate of 82.9%, which finished seventeenth prior to the games played on November 30. That’s not too bad. The Devils even put up two shorthanded goals; one empty netter and one that put the Devils back into the game in Pittsburgh for a bit. However, that still meant that special teams were a net negative overall given how little the power play scored. According to Corsica’s custom query tool, their 4-on-5 SA/60 rate ballooned to 52.59. The Devils went from having the third lowest rate in the NHL at the end of October to the seventh highest rate by the end of their games in November. That’s very concerning. Last month, I brought up whether their strong PK performance in October would last. This month is clear: it did not. At least the goalies did their best; their 4-on-5 save percentage of 90% was the ninth highest in the NHL in November.
Additions & Subtractions
Absences started to mount in November. The big one was Hall suffering a torn meniscus. While Hall was goalless, he still managed to put up five assists and 29 shots on goal in six games. He was very much driving offense. He was missed throughout the second half of the month. The amazing news is that his recovery was well ahead of schedule and he could be back in the lineup as early as tonight. However, the Devils had others suffer bumps and bruises along the way. Yoahnn Auvitu missed a few games from a banged up finger. Kyle Palmieri missed a few games with an upper-body injury. Beau Bennett missed the last game against Winnipeg due to a leg laceration; he’s now on injured reserve, retroactive to Monday. While not an injury, Cammalleri had a family issue that understandably kept him away from hockey for six games.
As a result, the Devils made a few moves within the organization to keep a full lineup. At the end of October, the Devils brought up Nick Lappin. In November, Lappin would go on to secured a spot on the fourth line in November and received additional ice time in a few games as a reward for his hard work. The Devils did call up Blake Pietila for the California road trip. He made two appearances and did not do much before going back. In response to Bennett’s injury, the Devils brought back Miles Wood, who really put on a show in Winnipeg. He was flying all over the ice; he took full advantage of his opportunity to play. It remains to be seen whether he’ll get more ice time that he surely earned at the end of the month. The Devils did not call up a defenseman because they did not have to: Jon Merrill was re-activated and made his season debut against Anaheim. He would go on to make four more appearances in the month. While his underlying numbers look real good; Merrill really did not add much to the team. At least Auvitu provided an offensive skill set. It remains to be seen how much or how little Merrill will see in the coming months. In terms of a subtraction, other than Pietila getting demoted, the only other one would be Luke Gazdic. He was re-activated from injured reserve, placed on waivers, and then sent to Albany. It does not look like he will return - especially since the Devils’ last move in November was to call up John Quenneville after Bennett was placed on IR.
Devil of the Month
Michael Cammalleri had the most impressive performances in November. His hat trick on November 8 carried the Devils to their first (and one of three) road win of the season. His four-point night against Toronto was down right magisterial, especially knowing that it was his first game back after being there for his sick daughter. Cammalleri would put up three more goals and one more assist in the following two games against Detroit and Pittsburgh to earn him the Second Star of the Week by the NHL. At the end of all of this, Cammalleri led the Devils in scoring in November with seven goals and four assists.
However, the point of this award is to highlight who has been good throughout the month. The problem with Cammalleri is not that he missed six games, it’s that he provided very little when he wasn’t scoring. That hat trick in November 8 featured his first three goals of the season and he followed that up with a mere two shots on net in 13 or so minutes of ice-time. Cammalleri was on fire from November 23, 25, and 26 - and then proceeded to put up one mere shot in a listless game in Winnipeg. When Cammalleri was scoring, it was great. Otherwise, not so much. If he was firing lots of pucks and driving the play in those eight games and produced as many points as he did, then he would be the runaway winner of Devil of the Month. He did not. A 46.67 CF% isn’t driving play. Neither is a SCF% of 41.37% per Corsica’s custom query for November. If nothing else, he deserves an honorable mention because, like the team, his peaks stood out even if the surrounding performances were so flat.
So who was good throughout the month? Easy. Travis Zajac. Zajac began the month centering a line that featured Taylor Hall. Zajac ended the month centering a line that included the then-hot Cammalleri and the rather cold Kyle Palmieri. In those 14 games, Zajac had some different wingers but he found ways to make it work. Zajac finished the month second only to Cammalleri in points with two goals and eight assists. While a full month from Cammalleri or Hall would have likely surpassed him, Zajac also finished the month with 36 shots on net, more than any other Devil in November. In the run of play, Zajac was a standout. His CF% of 53.12% came while facing tough competition in 5-on-5 play. His CF/60 of 61.14 was second only to Hall; while it dipped without Hall, that it didn’t crater speaks to how much Zajac was contributing. Keep in mind, Zajac performed in all situations whether it’s on the PK or on the power play. Even though the power play was terrible, Zajac did score one of the four goals that came on man advantage situations. For a player that was derided last season for not living up his contract (and with good reason to a degree), Zajac has really quieted a lot of those critics in 2016-17. They continue to be quiet because Zajac has largely kept up the good work throughout November. To that end, I have to give the honor to the guy who helped Hall do what he did at the beginning half of the month and the guy who helped Cammalleri do what he did near the end of the month. I give Travis Zajac the November 2016 All About the Jersey Devil of the Month.
Looking back, November was a rough month. The Devils played it mostly on the road and the last fourteen games showed that they’re not much of a road team. The scoring chance differential, the lackluster power play, and a not-so-lights-out penalty kill all makes for a bad combination. Cory Schneider cannot put the team on his back every night and, despite the effort, he did not. Combined with missing the team’s best forward for a couple of weeks, the defense really showing itself to be worse off than the last few seasons, and other players not performing to a level of expectations (e.g. Adam Henrique, Kyle Palmieri), and getting results is a challenge. I can point to a few positives about how the Devils kept games close, they still do not have a regulation loss at home, they won two out of three shootouts, and they were only shutout once. However, I look back at November and I am not exactly surprised that they put up a 6-5-3 record. It could have been worse and with a few bounces, it could have (it also could have been much better with a few bounces too).
Unfortunately, it looks like it is going to get worse before it gets any better. Even with Hall coming back, December looks nasty on paper. Sure, the Devils will play some more home games than they did in November. However, they’ll finish up a four-game road trip to start the month and have another one right in the middle of it. More important than that are the opponents themselves. As of this writing (11 PM on November 30), the Devils will only play two non-playoff teams in December. The Devils will get to “enjoy” St. Louis, Our Hated Rivals, Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Washington twice in December. Home or away, that’s a tough road ahead. Even if the Devils do pick up their play, they’re going to have a hard time getting points in the standings to maintain their currently-thin hold on a wild card spot. One could say that this is still fine; the Devils are playing better than expected. I can agree with that, but that doesn’t make a potential fall any easier to witness. Of course, they play the games on ice and not on paper. The new month - a new chance for improvement - begins tonight.
In the meantime, let me know what you thought of how the Devils performed in November. Were you pleased with how they did? What would you like to see the team improve in their performance in November? Would you have preferred Cammalleri as the Devil of the Month over Zajac? Or perhaps someone else entirely? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils’ performances and results in November 2016 in the comments. Thank you for reading.