It was going to be tough for the New Jersey Devils on paper. December featured fifteen games, only four home games, and only two opponents that were not in a playoff position when the Devils played them. The paper was right. The Devils went 4-9-2, which included a seven-game losing streak and many of those non-wins were not close, competitive losses. Combined with most of the Metropolitan Division getting hot, the Devils fell well behind everyone else to a point where just after Christmas, the team was in dead last in the East. They finished just ahead of the Islanders, but whatever good that came from their 9-3-3 start was erased in December. In short, it was a bad month. A very, very, very bad month.
The Games in December - A Summary
The month began with the Devils entering Chicago as the third game on a four game road trip and carrying a three-game losing streak. The Devils needed someone to be great to get them out of peril. They got that in Travis Zajac, who dropped a hat trick on the Blackhawks. He was great. Alas, the Devils got in their own way - literally on two goals against - and the Devils lost 3-4 in overtime to Chicago. Two nights later, the Devils entered Nashville and it looked like they were going to be creamed again. They were down 1-4 to the Predators entering the third period. They would need an improbable and inexplicable comeback. Amazingly, they did as the Devils took five shots on net for the rest of the game. Four of them were goals and the one that didn’t created a goal. The Devils stunned the Predators with a 5-4 overtime win. The losing streak was over! And there would be a win as the Devils returned to Newark on December 6. They hosted Vancouver and despite some notable acts of violence, the Devils’ performance was very solid. They beat the Canucks 3-2 in regulation.
It seemed that the Devils would get back on track in short order. Reality had other ideas. After December 6, the Devils would begin a losing streak that lasted seven games. Here’s the list of the losing, with opponents, scores, and links to their recaps.
- December 8: Devils lose 2-5 in Montreal.
- December 9: Devils lose at home (first time this season) 1-4 to St. Louis.
- December 11: Devils lose 0-5 to Our Hated Rivals in their house.
- December 15: Devils lose 2-5 in St. Louis.
- December 17: Devils lose 1-3 in Ottawa.
- December 18: Devils lose 2-3 through a shootout to Our Hated Rivals in their house.
- December 20: Devils lose at home 1-5 to Nashville.
With the exceptions of the loss to Ottawa and the shootout loss to the Rangers, the Devils were decisively and clearly inferior to their opponents in their losses. The opponents did not just beat them, they out-classed the Devils. The Devils’ issues at controlling the puck, moving the puck, breaking out, entering the zone (especially on the power play) were frequent and often on display. Yes, most of the opposing teams in this streak were and are very good teams. But the Devils were mostly non-competitive with them for anything more than perhaps a period, if that. It wasn’t just that they lost seven games in a row, it was that most of them were just terrible losses.
The streak would end at seven games on December 22. General manager Ray Shero wanted the team to play (bleeping) harder and whatever other message he sent privately was heard. The Devils took on the Philadelphia Flyers, took a lead on them, and never looked back as the Flyers tried to get nasty instead of, you know, playing the game of hockey. The Devils won 4-0 at home over the Second Rate Rivals. While the streak sent the Devils down a hole too deep to seriously think about the postseason, there was respite from the losing. Woo.
That respite lasted less than 24 hours. The Pittsburgh Penguins beat on the Devils like they were a drum in a 1-4 loss. After Christmas, the Penguins did it again to the Devils in Newark as the Devils lost 2-5. The win over the Flyers was only but an oasis amid a December desert of bad hockey and bad losses. There would be another oasis on December 29. The Devils visited the Washington Capitals and Keith Kinkaid was simply amazing. He had to be as he stopped 43 out of 44 shots, effectively dragging the Devils into a shootout with the Caps. In the shootout, the Devils prevailed to deny another losing streak to end 2016. On the final day of the calendar year, the Devils hosted the Capitals for an afternoon game. It was not a delight. It was a disaster where the Devils lost 2-6, Tom Wilson took out John Moore with a hit from behind, and the Rock was made as quiet as most actual rocks. It was a crummy way to end a crummy month.
By the Numbers
In 5-on-5 Situations: In a word: barf. I used Corsica’s Custom Query tool for this entire second, and it was woeful. Let’s get into it.
The Devils finished December with the second lowest Corsi For percentage in the NHL at 44.46%. Only Colorado had a worse CF% and that’s not good company to be in. That percentage breaks down to a CF/60 of 45.98 (second lowest in the NHL in December) and a CA/60 of 57.43 (eleventh highest in the NHL in the same month). Opponents controlled the run of play against the Devils, who failed to generate many attempts at shots. If we look at just shots, then the picture remains ugly. Their shots for percentage was 42.86% in December, again the second lowest percentage in the league and ahead of only the Avs. The Devils’ 24.69 SF/60 rate was the lowest in the NHL last month and their SA/60 rate of 32.92, which was the fourth highest in the NHL in December. Again, opponents fired away at the Devils, who struggled to fire many pucks at all. Chances were against the Devils in December too, but by not nearly as large of a margin. In the month, the Devils’ had a rate of 7.3 chances for per sixty minutes and allowed a rate of 7.64 chances per sixty minutes. Neither were high, so at least there was that. Still, these numbers point to how terrible the Devils were in 5-on-5 play.
The team’s production in 5-on-5 would speak even more. In raw numbers, the Devils scored only 19 goals in 5-on-5 play; only Colorado scored fewer goals. The team’s 5-on-5 shooting percentage fell to 6.53%, which is one of the lowest in the league. Were they unfortunate? To a degree, yes. The Devils’ expected goals for per sixty minutes was 2.04 and their actual goals for per sixty minutes was 1.61. Not that the Devils were unfortunate to score loads of goals, but more could have been had with better luck. With their low shot and attempt volume, the scoring was going to be limited anyway. In contrast, the Devils allowed 38 goals - again, only Colorado allowed more goals. The team’s save percentage in December dipped a little bit to 90.21%, which was the third lowest in the NHL last month. Yes, I say dipped because they were at 90.58% last month. Was it Cory Schneider’s fault or Keith Kinkaid’s fault? The answer is both. (I would say Schneider was worse, but Kinkaid certainly wasn’t good). Could there have been fewer goals? Based on the expected goals model, absolutely. The Devils’ expected goals against per sixty minutes rate was 2.58; their actual goals against per sixty minutes rate was 3.22. Those blowout losses pumped up that actual rate and, unfortunately, there were plenty of those in December.
All told, from both a production and shooting rate perspective, the Devils were abysmal in 5-on-5 play in December. Yes, they played several opponents who have been strong in 5-on-5 situations this season. They still played like scrubs. John Hynes, his staff, and the players needs to sort this out A.S.A.P. if they want to be competitive anytime soon.
In Power Play Situations: Believe it or not, the power play improved over last month. November featured a long power play drought. This month began with a four game power play goal scoring streak. It was enough to secure an improved success rate of 14.5% per NHL.com. That was the fifth lowest success rate in the NHL in December. The breakdown of that percentage: eight goals out of fifty-five attempts. That four-game streak was responsible for half of those goals, so the Devils started off hot and became mostly cold again on the man advantage. While a number of those attempts were abbreviated due to evened up calls and what not, that’s over 89 minutes of a man advantage in fifteen games that often was not taken advantage enough. While more successful than November, that isn’t all that good. From the eye test, it looked like the Devils were not generating a lot of shots on most nights last month. That would be correct. Using Corsica’s Custom Query tool for team 5-on-4 stats in the last month, the Devils had a shots for per sixty minutes rate of 37.63 - the fourth lowest in the NHL. While a low shooting rate is forgivable if it yielded power play goals, that clearly didn’t happen last month for New Jersey with only eight goals. The sad thing was that the team’s 5-on-4 shooting percentage wasn’t too bad at 13.3%; the shots were just not there. Sadder than that was that the team also gave up three shorthanded goals. Yes, the Devils’ power play did improve over November’s mostly pointless exercise. It’s still not where one would call it good - especially since four games provided most of the success out of all fifteen.
In Penalty Kill Situations: The Devils’ penalty kill dipped in December. Overall, NHL.com had their success rate at 81.4%. That breaks down to eight shorthanded goals allowed out of 43 situations. Relative to the rest of the NHL, that is not a bad success rate. It ranked sixteenth out of all thirty teams in December. The Devils scored one shorthanded goal, which also isn’t too shabby. The Devils’ PK units can be proud of a relatively low shots against per sixty minutes rate. According to Corsica’s Custom Query tool for 4-on-5 stats, the Devils had the third lowest rate in the NHL at 38.24. That speaks to how well the penalty killers have been at keeping teams from firing away. If there was an issue with the penalty kill in December, then it was with Cory Schneider. Schneider was lit up in shorthanded situations with a ghastly 78.1% save percentage. Kinkaid, on the other hand, posted a much more glorious 94.1%. While surely not all of those PPGAs were either goalies fault, I can understand that driving some of the thinking of Kinkaid being better than Schneider over this past month. It’s just that it was on the PK, which was largely OK from a team perspective. Given how little the power play made and how atrocious the Devils were in 5-on-5 situations, OK on the PK in this past month is OK by me.
Additions & Subtractions
The New Jersey Devils would see three season debuts in December. They also lost a player in Reid Boucher. The winger did not make the most of his opportunities in this season and ended up on waivers. Nashville picked him up. He has since played three games for the Predators, played less than ten minutes in each of them, took three shots, and scored one goal.
As for the debuts, John Quenneville was the first one. He made his NHL debut against Chicago on December 1. He did not do much and played even less. After one additional game in Nashville, he was sent back to Albany, where he remains. The Devils called up Luke Gazdic ahead of their road game in St. Louis. Gazdic has been known for being an “enforcer” who brings “grit,” “energy,” and some other cliched word. True to his reputation, he has played five games for the Devils and has done nothing of consequence in limited minutes for the team. He hasn’t gone around and done anything stupid like take a penalty or start a fight for no reason, so there’s that. Gazdic remained on the active roster by the end of the month. Defenseman Seth Helgeson has appeared for New Jersey in call ups in past seasons. He made his 2016-17 debut in the December 22 game against Philly, where he was actually fine. He was less fine on December 23 against Pittsburgh. He has since been returned back to Albany.
There were a number of injuries throughout the month. Beau Bennett and Pavel Zacha each missed a few games due to lacerations. Bennett began the month out with a right leg laceration from practice. Zacha had a facial laceration from a game. Both have since returned. Jacob Josefson was a healthy scratch throughout most of the month, but he was able to draw back into the lineup on December 17 against Ottawa. Unfortunately, he suffered a concussion in that game, which held him out for another eleven days. He returned to practice after the second Pittsburgh game and played on December 29 in Washington, where he sealed the win with a shootout goal. His timing could not have been any better as the Devils suffered two injuries from that second game against the Pens. Taylor Hall, who returned to the Devils after suffering a knee injury in November on December 1, was held out of the Capitals game with a different kind of lower body injury. Hall was day-to-day. Vernon Fiddler had suffered a more significant lower body injury. He will be out for three to four weeks. Lastly, in the final game of the month, Tom Wilson hit John Moore into the boards from behind. Moore was stretchered off and while he was released from the hospital later that day, he was placed on injured reserve with a concussion. It is indefinite at this point when he will return. In their first move of 2017, the Devils called up defenseman Steve Santini. Should he play, he’ll be the first “addition” of the new year by making his season debut.
Devil of the Month & Concluding Thoughts
I normally give out this accolade to a Devil who has been very good throughout the month. The problem is that with how the Devils performed in December, no one has been consistently good. The leading scorers of the month were Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri. Hall (three goals, eight assists), had plenty of nights where he’d get a point and that would be that as the opposition kept him quiet. Palmieri (four goals, seven assists) was similarly limited where in he’ll get something here and there, but often not do much consistently well - especially on defense. The best play driver in the month who has played more than three games has been Beau Bennett, who has had a 56% Corsi For percentage per Corsica’s custom query tool. But with one goal (a deflection) and only eighteen shots on net in eleven games, it’s clear that Bennett has not really contributed much more than that. I surely can’t pick any of the Devils defensemen. I definitely can’t pick Cory Schneider. Not with a 90.1% save percentage at even strength. Not with 35 goals allowed in ten games. What about Keith Kinkaid? Sure, he was largely responsible for the Devils stealing a ‘W’ on December 29 in Washington. But he ended up at 90% even at evens and 17 goals in five games. That’s not all that good from a monthly perspective - seriously check the numbers - even if his PK save percentage was fantastic as Schneider’s terrible. So if it can’t be the goalies, it can’t be the forwards, and none of the forwards really stood out, then who?
Nobody. I’ve witnessed quite a bit of bad hockey by the New Jersey Devils. Even in those months (and seasons) that was lean on wins, someone has been notably good enough to stand out. Someone got hot and/or just played rather well throughout multiple weeks. I have to make an exception for this month because, well, nobody really did. If you feel differently, then that’s fine. Just explain why so I may understand.
That I struggle so much to identify someone who’s been consistently good for the New Jersey Devils in the past fifteen games is a kind of an indictment of how poor the Devils were in December. After all, they won only four games, two were in regulation, and only one of those was won by more than one goal. Glorious as it was to shut out the Second Rate Rivals, it was a peak in a month full of chasms, gaps, pits, and valleys. And that peak was just that: a single peak. To that end, no, I don’t think there’s a Devil of the month that’s positive. Interesting as it would be to do the opposite (name the worst Devil of the month), I don’t want to do that if only because that saddens me.
I understand that the Devils are a rebuilding team. I understand that their 9-3-3 start was not going to last and, boy, did it not. I fully understand that there will be games and even losing streaks where the team looks like a bunch of minor leaguers. I know that a rebuild will take a time and there will be a lot of “lean” times which requires all involved, including the fans, to be patient. I get all of that. But it’s hard to support what I’ve seen in December. It was a whole month of mostly terrible losses. It was a whole month where if the opposition wasn’t worse (Vancouver, Philadelphia) or very unfortunate (Washington, Nashville), then the Devils were likely going to lose and lose big. It was a whole month where it became increasingly difficult to pinpoint what John Hynes and his staff are doing right (or doing at all on some nights) from a coaching standpoint, especially since his boss, Ray Shero, had to call out the team’s effort in public prior to their win over Philly. And if this is a case of just needing “the right players,” I’m less sure who those could be after this month. It was a tough month on paper for the Devils and the paper was right. It was tough to watch and I’m sure it was tougher to play.
Ultimately, my hope is that this past month was rock bottom and the Devils can move onwards and upwards in January. What would be improvement? Playing competitively. Not getting wrecked in even strength. Not leaving goalies out to dry consistently. Finishing the next month with not only a more respectable record but evidence that the team is moving in the right direction. Will that be met? We’ll see. I don’t want to find out how it can get worse.
In the meantime, let me know what you thought of how the Devils performed in December. I thought it was awful; how about you? What was the lowest point of the month in your view? What specially would you like to see the team improve in the next month? Would you have named a Devil of the Month, and if so, who would it be and why? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils’ performances and results in December 2016 in the comments. Thank you for reading.