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Game Preview #16: New Jersey Devils vs. Florida Panthers

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Facing off against another very strong top line, the New Jersey Devils look to break out of their streak with a win versus the struggling Florida Panthers.

NHL: Florida Panthers at Tampa Bay Lightning
Aleksander Barkov, two-way stud and rising star.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: New Jersey Devils (9-4-2) versus the Florida Panthers (5-8-2). SBN Blog: Litter Box Cats.

The Time: 7:00 PM EST

The Broadcast: TV - MSG+; Radio - WFAN-101.9/660AM

Stay the Course: Those were the words that coach John Hynes used to respond to whether he thinks the young Devils roster can break from its slump. And given last game, against the Oilers, that may be all the Devils need to do in mental terms to get a win versus the Florida Panthers. The game, which was recapped by John, showed what I viewed as an improvement in the run of play in comparison to the previous losses. Not only did they hang around with the Edmonton possession monster, they actually had a CF% over 50 on the entire game at five on five (dead even including the overtime even strength). And while they were out-attempted for the second and third periods, they got a lot of time on the power play. So, when accounting for all situations, the Devils out-attempted the Oilers for the first two periods. Unfortunately, they were victim to an overtime goal brought to you by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. If they keep up their good work on the ice, they could have a great chance to break their losing streak at home versus a Florida Panthers team on the second game of a back to back.

Their First Line Center is Pretty Good, too: Aleksander Barkov, through 15 games, is averaging 22:24 of ice time per game. This leads all forwards, and he’s just one of three forwards to average over 22 minutes per game (Anze Kopitar, Connor McDavid). He also ranks third among forwards in shifts per game (behind Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin), though still ranks in the top 30 among centers in average time on ice per shift, indicating that he’s able to hold up on longer shifts, and recover quickly to get back onto the ice. This is important, because he’s involved in the play all over the ice. He’s certainly not sheltered - as most of his zone starts are in the defensive zone, though his possession numbers are extremely strong (boasting a +11.2 relative CF%). He’s a dangerous man on offense too, with five goals and 12 assists through the team’s first 15 games.

He is, for all intents and purposes, a true two-way player. Perhaps he's a bit of a throwback: someone who will get lost in the shuffle of the offensive magic worked by today’s stars - one of whom we just played Thursday night. That's not to say Barkov lacks in offensive skill, as he can make defensemen and goaltenders look foolish, but even if he does not score against the Devils, his impact will be felt. And as Devils fans, we all know what it's like to listen to people talk about great hockey players, and fail to mention some of our stars who were dominant on both ends of the ice, so I think we can appreciate a player like Barkov. Remove him from his team’s small market and put him in a place like Detroit, and the people at NHL Network or TSN would never get enough of him.

Just as McDavid could be seen as a test for how someone like Hischier would hold up against a generational offensive force, I think Barkov is a test for how Hischier will hold up against someone who might end up being a generational all-situations forward. We can just thank the Panthers front office for making it so we don’t have to deal with Barkov having Jonathan Huberdeau and Jaromir Jagr

Depth - A Devils Advantage Tonight: The Florida Panthers let go of Jonathan Marchessault, Jaromir Jagr, Jussi Jokinen, and Tomas Vanek during the offseason. Some of their replacements have been passable. Others...not so much. The team has brought Evgeni Dadonov, who has done well next to Barkov (though, not many wouldn’t), to the team. However, Radim Vrbata and Jared McCann (who is currently injured) have had tougher times doing their part to replace the departures.

Vincent Trochek, who used to have Jussi Jokinen on his wing (and sported a 54.1 CF% in 2016-17), now has Radim Vrbata on his wing. This season, their line has a 43.51 CF%, and has been a sieve in terms of scoring chances (86 SCA; 39.86 SCF%). They’ve only allowed 7 goals while on the ice, but if their poor defensive play has been any indication, that will not last.

For the Devils to succeed, they ought to take advantage of the defense of lines such as those - as they will find it hard to make inroads against the likes of the first line and first pairing. When the Panthers have Huberdeau, Barkov, and Dadanov with the top pairing of Keith Yandle and Aaron Ekblad, they have a 61.41 CF%.

But after their top line and after their top defensive pairing, possession becomes quite the issue for the Panthers. As a team, they have a 48.57 CF%. With such gaudy numbers for the top talent, there can only be one conclusion - there is not much, if any, depth on the Panthers’ team. This is why I am one to lambaste the Panthers front office for pushing away Jaromir Jagr in favor of chasing mortals such as Radim Vrbata, in the name of speed. Or not protecting Jon Marchessault in the expansion draft, perhaps out of some bizarre notion that his thirty-goal scoring, plus-possession ways was some sort of fluke. Or their buying out Jussi Jokinen, only to end up with over seven million dollars of cap space. As a result of their loss, their team’s depth has suffered, and there’s no way around that. With a save percentage just over .900, and a goals against average ranging in the upper-threes, I don’t think the blame for the team’s struggles can be pinned on goaltending. It can be pinned on the apparent issue of over-reliance on the top six forwards and top defensive pairing to carry the team to compete every night, or else risk being hemmed in their own zone the entire night. I once thought of the Panthers as a rising force, but their management seems to be confused about the direction of their franchise - which they can largely blame themselves for.

As Dave Tallon said early in free agency, “We talked about getting faster, smarter, getting more sandpaper and getting younger. We checked all those boxes.”

I mention this because I see the Florida Panthers as a warning to what the Devils are trying to do. You know: become a fast, attacking, and supportive team. We can have a franchise center all we want, or have a great young defenseman. If the team does not build defensive depth as the Panthers have struggled to, and forgets the value of size and/or possession players as the Panthers have, we might sooner rather than later see the offensive depth brought in by Ray Shero’s rebuilding efforts drafted by some expansion team, bought out, or allowed to walk. Then, we might be left with the drafted core, and nothing to back it up. Before you call someone like Adam Henrique “expendable”, or diminish the value of Travis Zajac’s two-way prowess, consider that the reason the Devils look decent at this point of the season is the support those players bring to stars like Taylor Hall and rising ones like Nico Hischier and Jesper Bratt. And before the Devils sign a Jimmy Hayes to play the third line, maybe taking flyers on those old, slow possession dinosaurs like Jaromir Jagr wouldn’t be such a bad idea. He did, after all, play productively with quite fast linemates in Huberdeau and Barkov (when they were healthy to play with him). For all the rave about the fast players of today’s game, puck control is still absolutely key to sustaining an attacking and supportive team.

A Hope: I do not think that Steven Santini is ready to handle the top pairing role. I think it’s time to reunite Andy Green with Damon Severson. The two variants of the top pairing have fared quite differently in the run of play. According to Natural Stat Trick, in just over 70 minutes at even strength with Damon Severson, Andy Greene has a 48.91 CF%, is even at five goals for and against, and most importantly has been best at preventing high danger chances. As a pairing, they had 15 high danger chances for, and just eight against. John Hynes may have broken them up as result of poor goaltending - as just two of the goals allowed while they were on the ice were considered from high danger chances, and the Devils’ save percentage with them on the ice was .865.

On the other hand, the run of play stats tell a different tale for the Greene-Santini variant. With a measly 40.76 CF% in just over 104 minutes, I wonder how sustainable their ability limit goals against (currently two for, three against) is. They are also much worse off in terms of high danger chances, with 15 for and 22 against. I’ll give them that they have been tasked with a much less favorable zone start ratio - but it’s still been an undoubtedly worse top pairing. In Greene’s total 118 minutes without Santini at even strength, his high danger chances ratio is 30 to 13. Therefore, I think that the success of that pairing in preventing goals has not been in lessening the severity of chances, but great goaltending from Schneider and Kinkaid (.948 save percentage with that pairing).

To get away from those pesky “advanced” statistics, I think the eye test more than agrees with the sentiment that Andy Greene looked better with Damon Severson than he has with Steven Santini. At his age, he’s better off with a more offensive partner that he can supplement than a defensive partner who makes mistakes that results in Greene staying more at home: because nobody is moving the puck up the ice. Damon Severson can be counted on to move the puck the other way against elite competition. Steven Santini (and, of course, Ben Lovejoy) cannot be counted on to perform the same task at this point of time. I hope John Hynes comes to see that sooner rather than later, lest he waste what’s left of Greene’s ability to contribute offensively.

Your Take: What are you watching for in tonight’s game? What Devils player do you have your eyes on? Do you think that the Panthers can salvage a contending season out of their slow start? What do you think of their future hopes? How would you compare their effort to be a faster team to ours? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.