October still has another day to go, but the month of games for the New Jersey Devils was completed on the 28th. The month of games for the Devils went very well. The Devils went 8-2-0. They are legitimately one of the hottest teams in the NHL to start this season. After winning their eighth game, the Devils were in first place in the Metropolitan Division for that night. Even if other teams pass them in the last three days, the Devils have clearly exceeded any expectations and predictions that they would end up last in the division - ours and others. What’s more is that the Devils did it with plenty of high-energy, fast, and high-scoring hockey. Let’s look back on a month filled with goals, wins, and dramatic moments.
The Games in October 2017 - A Summary
Again, the Devils finished the month with an 8-2-0 record. The winning started with a home opener on October 7. The Devils beat on the Colorado Avalanche, 4-1. The performance was legitimately fast, attacking, and supportive as the team swarmed the hapless Avs. The fans were electric and the performance seemingly fed off of that. It was good of an opener as one could hope for. The good times kept rolling on Columbus Day, where the Devils visited Buffalo for an matinee game. The Devils preyed upon the Sabres’ sloppiness in an enjoyable 6-2 win. Colorado and Buffalo were bad last season and figure to be bad this season. It was still nice to see the Devils prevail with big results. The month would get tougher from that point on.
The Devils’ following game against Toronto would be a real test. It was a big one as the Maple Leafs dropped fifty shots on net. But Cory Schneider survived the onslaught and the Devils hit back twice as hard in a 6-3 win. The game was notable for the Devils’ defense being shot up, the Devils taking too many calls, Brian Gibbons scoring the rare 3-on-5 shorthanded goal, and just running away with the game on the scoreboard. They passed the test that night. Unfortunately, the following night was another test against the Washington Capitals in Newark - and the Devils received a reality check. The Caps decisively beat the Devils 5-2 as they jumped on the Devils for their errors in discipline and defense. That Saturday, the Devils had a rivalry game in the World’s Most Overrated Arena to play Our Hated Rivals, the New York Rangers. The game had three big swings of which team took control; the Devils would edge the Rangers, 3-2. The latest win in the rivalry put the Devils at 4-1-0 in the month and the fans, myself included, were pleased. Perhaps this team would be better.
The following week began with the Devils’ lone appearance on NBC SN: a Tuesday night game against Tampa Bay, who entered the game with four straight wins. The national audience got everything one would want in a hockey game: plenty of action, plenty of goals, and plenty of drama. The game needed a shootout and the Devils would win that to make it a 5-4 win. On Thursday night, the Devils went up to Ottawa for what would be another high-scoring affair. In this one, the Senators went up early and ended up leading 4-2 by the end of the third period. The Devils were pelting Ottawa with rubber all game and they struck big with two third period goals to tie it up. In overtime, the Devils were dominant and John Moore became an overtime hero again with a game-winner; the Devils won 5-4 in OT. The following night, the Devils received another reality check from a well-disciplined, talented team. On that night, it was the San Jose Sharks, who kept the Devils from doing a whole lot. As such, the Devils suffered their first shutout loss of the season, 3-0.
Strangely, the schedule had the Devils off for the next week. It was not their bye week; the team could and did practice. They would resume activity on Friday, October 27 as they hosted Ottawa. This game did not feature nearly as many shots on net or offensive play, but it was a tight one that became dramatic at the end. While the Devils went up 4-2 in the third period, the Senators scored two goals with the extra skater in the game’s final two minutes. The Devils saw a regulation win go up in smoke. However, they survived overtime and Drew Stafford kept the team alive in a shootout. Rookie sensation Jesper Bratt scored a beauty in the fourth round and Keith Kinkaid made a save for the Devils to win the shootout and salvage a 5-4 victory in the end. The next night would be the last game of the month as the Devils hosted Arizona. The Devils’ even strength play in that one was poor and frustrating. Their special teams were largely on point, though. That carried the team to a 4-3 regulation win. That last win gave the Devils an 8-2-0 record with six regulation/overtime wins. For a team many expected to be in the basement of the division, who cannot be pleased about that?
By the Numbers
The numbers provide evidence to how the team has performed in various situations. These numbers were pulled from the linked sites as of October 29, 2017, before any games were played. As such, some rankings may shift by the time you read this.
5 on 5 Play (All Numbers are from Natural Stat Trick): The Devils did score a lot of goals and made plenty of saves. They also gave up a lot of opportunities and gave up more than they generated. The Devils’ CF% sits 26th in the NHL at 47.3%. While the Devils have led in a number of games, score and venue adjustments bumps it up to a mere 47.8%. The point is clear, the Devils have not been winning the run of play.
Let’s go into the rates a little more closely. The Devils’ CF/60 was 55.54, the ninth lowest in the NHL but still a far cry better than the rates of the last two seasons. However, the Devils’ CA/60 was 61.66, the ninth highest in the NHL in their October month. That is a bad combination. In terms of actual shots on net, the Devils’ SF/60 rate was 30.19. That is better than what they have done in recent memory, although it ranked as the seventh lowest rate as of the morning of October 29. Their SA/60 rate was 35.32, which was the second highest rate in the NHL. These rates speak to the Devils’ defensive issues and how several teams have taken advantage. Scoring chances provide a silver lining; the Devils scoring chance rate was 29.6 and their scoring chance against rate was 31.9. While that is still negative, it is a closer gap than shots and attempts. Then again, that scoring chance against rate is the second highest in the NHL. Again: this team has defensive woes.
So far, these rates have not buried the Devils in their games. For starters, the Devils played less 5-on-5 hockey compared to most of the league. Their TOI/GP of 42:08 was the fourth lowest value in the NHL. More importantly, the percentages have been in New Jersey’s favor. Schneider and Kinkaid have combined for a 92.74% save percentage in 5-on-5 play. That is the ninth highest save percentage in the league. New Jersey’s sticks were hot to start and have remained hot. The Devils have a 5-on-5 shooting percentage of 10.38%, which was the third highest in the NHL. As a result, despite being out-attempted and out-shot overall, the Devils have outscored opponents in 5-on-5 play. Seriously, the Devils averaged over three goals per game in 5-on-5 play in October. When was the last time the Devils did that? Their PDO is on the high end and their sticks will eventually cool off. Still, it made up for their issues on defense and in possession to go ahead and out-score opponents in 5-on-5 at 22 to 18. If the Devils can sort those issues before the percentages really drop, then the Devils will avoid a serious crash after a hot 8-2-0 October.
Power Play Situations: Despite a lull in the middle of the month, the power play has been big for the Devils in October. The Devils ended their month with a power play success rate of 27.5%, which was the fourth highest in the NHL at the time of this writing per NHL.com. That success rate breaks down to 11 goals scored out of 40 opportunities. The 40 opportunities puts them in a tie for 17th in the NHL and their power play ice time of 68:20 ranked thirteenth highest in the NHL. The Devils have not conceded a shorthanded goal yet and they registered a PPG in seven of their ten games in October per Hockey-Reference. In terms of stand out players, Will Butcher has been involved in seven of those eleven goals with assists. The goal scoring has been spread out among seven players, with four having two power play goals each (Taylor Hall, Drew Stafford, Adam Henrique, Jesper Bratt).
A closer look at the numbers at Natural Stat Trick shows that the Devils have remained hot on the power play. The team has the highest power play shooting percentage in the NHL at 18.03%. Since the Devils have been scoring so many goals, some of their power plays have been truncated and so their rate of shots and attempts were lessened. After all, you cannot keep shooting after converting most power plays. Yet, in power play situations, the Devils boast the third lowest CF/60 rate (85.67) and the eleventh lowest SF/60 rate (51.24) in the NHL. Those are pretty low rates; it suggests something like a feast-or-famine kind of power play. Their rate of scoring chances is also rather low too (47.88); but, again, the Devils have converted them at a high rate (17.54%). This may extend some questions about the process and execution of their power plays; but the team has obtained plenty of results. What’s more is that the power play drove some wins such as that 3-2 win over the Rangers and the 4-3 win over Arizona. Power plays been very, very good for the Devils. Let’s see if it can continue into November.
Penalty Kill Situations: The penalty kill has been a big source of excitement for the Devils in October. The team has put up four shorthanded goals in this past month. The Devils scored six in all of last season. It seems like one or a combination of Brian Gibbons, Blake Coleman, and Bratt creates some kind of scoring chance every night. It’s fun to see. Yet, the penalty kill has not been terribly successful. The team ended their month with a 79.6% success rate per NHL.com, which ranked 20th in the league. That success rate is a result of the Devils killing 39 out of 49 shorthanded situations; the team has conceded ten power play goals. At least the goal differential is -6 instead of -10 for the PK.
If 49 shorthanded situations seems like a high amount, then that is because it is. The team was tied for the fourth most shorthanded situations in the league in October. The team is first in shorthanded ice time with 84:16. The Devils have taken a lot of penalties in their first ten games and they paid the price for ten of them. The most common culprits for minor penalties in October were Pavel Zacha with six minors followed by Miles Wood, Kyle Palmieri, and Blake Coleman with five each. If the Devils can do one thing to help out their penalty kill, then it is cut back on fouls so they are not utilizing it so much.
The good news is that the numbers at Natural Stat Trick show that the PK units have done more of a decent enough job at defending. According to their penalty killing stats, the Devils’ CA/60 rate of 91.28 was the fourth lowest in the NHL. Their SA/60 rate of 52.57 is the eighth lowest in the NHL. Their scoring chance against per-60 minute rate of 50.31 is the seventh lowest in the NHL. Yes, penalty killing units will face plenty of attempts and shots. Relative to the rest of the league, the Devils have looked good. These numbers do not suggest they are doing anything really wrong or have the wrong players out on the ice. Throw in some high scoring chance for rates and a 15% shooting percentage and it’s a threatening penalty kill. If there is one number that is not so encouraging, then it is the save percentage. Schneider has posted an 86.3% save percentage (Kinkaid has been perfect on the PK). That’s not too bad, but it is the thirteenth lowest in the NHL. Some improvement or better puck luck could strengthen the penalty kill. That said, the biggest thing that the Devils can do to help themselves on the penalty kill is to stop getting into so many penalty killing situations.
Additions and Subtractions
It was a quiet month for transactions involving the Devils. The Devils have carried a full roster from opening day and onward throughout the month. The team has dealt with a number of injuries to Drew Stafford, Kyle Palmieri (twice), and Marcus Johansson (late scratch in the Arizona game). Brian Boyle, Travis Zajac, and Michael McLeod remained on injured reserve. They did start skating by the end of the month. They also had two players absent for games - Cory Schneider and Andy Greene - as they were witnessing the birth of their child. Despite the absences of various players here and there, the Devils did not call up any skaters from Binghamton. The coaches went with eleven forwards and seven defensemen as needed.
It is unknown when the players on IR will return. Boyle appears to be the closest but as he missed all of preseason, it will take plenty of time before he is ready to get back into games. Kyle Palmieri’s second injury came in a practice last Sunday; it remains to be seen when he can return. Hopefully it will be in early November.
The only call up made was for goaltender Scott Wedgewood. Schneider left the first Ottawa game with a lower body injury after the second period. Wedgewood was recalled to backup Keith Kinkaid for the following two games. Schneider returned to action against Arizona. Wedgewood was not returned to Binghamton. Instead, he was traded to Arizona on that very day for a fifth rounder. He suited up as Arizona’s backup goaltender. The hope is that Wedgewood will get an opportunity to play with the Coyotes. Since he is waiver eligible and a third-string goalie, a fifth round selection is a fine return. The Devils’ goaltending logjam in the minors is now sorted out. I see it as a win-win for all parties involved.
While not really an addition or a subtraction, the Devils did play rookies Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier in ten games. This means their entry level contracts have begun. For Hischier, it all but guarantees he’ll be in New Jersey. Bratt may be able to go to the AHL, but with the way he has been playing, he will likely be in NJ all season too. The next number to watch for is 40; surpassing that game total will mean they will be one year closer to unrestricted free agency. Congratulations to both rookies for establishing themselves on the roster.
Devil of the Month
There are so many players worthy of praise from how they performed in October. Consider these to be notables before going into the honorable mention and the actual Devil of the Month. Cory Schneider currently has a 93.2% even strength save percentage and arguably only one bad game. Will Butcher has been piling up assists with seven on the power play and eleven in total. Butcher is the rookie leader in the league for the former and second in the NHL in the latter. Kyle Palmieri had his month cut short due to injury but still managed seven points (3 goals, 4 assists, 17 shots) in seven games. Brian Gibbons has went from “Who’s this keeping Joseph Blandisi in the AHL?” to “Where was this kind of player for the last few years?” Gibbons is your team leader in scoring with five goals, which speaks to how everyone has been involved in the scoring. Only Dalton Prout has no points and he has been used sparingly in three games. You can name most any Devil and point to a very good game or something good that they have displayed at some point in this past month. In a way, that is what is most impressive about the team’s 8-2-0 start. This is not just the goaltending putting the team on their backs or just one unit dominating. Everyone has chipped in someway. That said, two players stood out in my eyes above the rest.
The honorable mention has to go to 19-year old rookie sensation Jesper Bratt. Back in August, it was thought he would go to London. After the Prospect Challenge in Buffalo, he turned some heads prior to preseason. After preseason, it was clear that Bratt earned some NHL games. After a few of those games, it was clear that Bratt was here to stay. London was not going to get this young man. The usage alone dictated that. Per NHL.com, the coaches have given him an average of over two minutes per game on the penalty kill and the power play. In time, he will average more than ten minutes of even strength ice time. But players who play in all situations are not likely to be sent back to juniors or placed in the A. What’s more is that Bratt has done well. He has been a relentless forechecker. He has read offensive plays well enough to belong on a power play - even in Palmieri’s spot when he was out in the last two games of the month. Bratt has even demonstrated some absolutely slick puck skills in the shootout (he still has Mike Condon’s jock) and in the run of play for four goals and six assists in ten games. I’d like to see him shoot the puck more as he has only ten shots in ten games. That his CF% is just under 45% in 5-on-5 play is an issue. But Bratt has been astounding. He went from long shot prospect to a player who has a ready-made jersey in the Devils Den in just a few months. For the leap he made on top of what he has contributed, he is the honorable mention for the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month.
Who did more? Only the team’s most talented forward: Taylor Hall. Mike wrote about him on this past Friday. I agree with much of it; I cannot really argue who has contributed more than Hall. Hall is the team’s leader in shots by far with 31 with two shots on net in nine out of ten games this month. Hall has been a delight in creating zone entries with speed and just keeping attacks going to set up his teammates. Hall was held pointless in just three out of ten games in this month. In the seven games he found the scoresheet, Hall has put up three goals and ten assists to lead the team in points. (Until that Arizona game, Hall’s shooting percentage was uncharacteristically low. Now it’s at 9.6%.) Hall has gone hard at defenders and has not taken a penalty in his first ten games. Hall was absolutely massive in the comeback efforts in the first Ottawa game with four assists and he was involved in three of the four goals (two goals, one primary assist) against Arizona in the month-closing win. Hall has done this while facing tough match-ups and a less than 50% offensive zone start ratio (just under 47% per Natural Stat Trick). It is a concern that he has a 47.2% CF%, but he was around 50% earlier in the month so we could see some improvement in future games. Still, the man put up thirteen points in ten games while playing his way with two new players to him in Hischier and Stafford in addition to some nights/shifts with others. That is laudable. That is worth highlighting. As such, Taylor Hall is the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month for October 2017.
Hall had a very good quote after the 4-3 win over Arizona that looks ahead to a road trip that begins the month of November for New Jersey:
Taylor Hall on upcoming W. Canada swing: "This is where a team decides is it a playoff team or just a medicore team?"— Andrew Gross (@AGrossRecord) October 29, 2017
I’d say where the team is by November 15 would be a better gauge, but I hope Hall is right either way. Last season’s team had a strong start to their season and then proved to be a really bad hockey team. If this season’s squad is mediocre, then that would be a huge improvement over the last two seasons of Devils hockey. If they’re in a playoff hunt, then let’s start the celebration. Sure, there is a lot of hockey left to play and there is a lot that can change. But that this is what the team’s top forward is saying in public fills me with confidence that 2017-18 will be better than last season.
There is a real feeling of excitement among the Devils fans. The wins help but so do how they have done it. Yes, there will be nights where they lose that overtime or shootout situation or that they do not get that equalizer. But the Devils have done it so far, they’ve been scoring loads of goals instead of the stinginess of most Devils seasons, and the future is on the ice and it is looking good. It’s exciting. It’s fun. It’s enjoyable. I sort of get why some fans may not be happy to read that this may not last. We cannot avoid the reality of the situation if we’re serious about what this team really is in the NHL. There is a lot that they need to improve upon if they are “for real.”
If nothing else, the Devils’ play in October has given the fans, hardcore and casual alike, reasons to really feel good about being a Devils fan. They beat the Rangers. They beat Toronto in their own building. They beat Tampa Bay on national television. They edged Ottawa twice. They beat teams that will likely finish below the Devils in the standings. This is all quite good. Let’s hope the good times can keep on rolling somewhat into November.
Now that you’ve read what I thought about the team’s performances in this past month, I want to know what you think of how the team performed in October. How much of a concern is the run of play? What, if anything, can the team do about their defensive woes? Can the special teams tweak things to improve their rate of shots (power play) and not get on the PK so much (penalty kill)? Who do you think was the best Devil in the month? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this past month of games for the Devils in the comments. Thank you for reading.