After a very hot October, November was much cooler for the state of New Jersey and the New Jersey Devils. The performances were not as strong. The goal scoring dipped. The games were seemingly tighter, night-in, night-out. Fortunately, the results were in New Jersey’s favor. It was not always easy. It was not usually ideal. It was quite tense at times. But the Devils finished November with an ultimately positive 6-4-4 record. What’s more is that they remained in a playoff position in the Metropolitan Division standings. For those hoping the Devils could make a run in 2017-18, that fact should not be lost on you. However, I would advise all Devils fans to heed the signs shown in the fourteen games the Devils played in November.
The Games of November
The Devils would go through two road trips in this past month. November began with the team’s annual trip through Western Canada. On November 1, the Devils visited the Vancouver Canucks. Cory Schneider showed up and he was amazing. The rest of the team was far less amazing as the Canucks often sliced through the Devils like a hot knife through butter. But Schneider was unbeatable on all 37 shots on net, Jimmy Hayes put home a surprisingly long rebound shot, and Drew Stafford scored a rare-for-this-team empty net goal in a 2-0 victory. While Schneider was the man in Vancouver, he was far from unbeatable in Edmonton. On November 3, the Oilers scored six goals on 41 shots as the Devils’ defense was shredded again. The Devils lost this high-scoring affair 6-3, which ended a three-game winning streak. The trip wrapped up on November 5 in Calgary. This game was filled with goals and chances. It needed a shootout to decide it - and the Flames won that to make it a 4-5 shootout loss for the Devils. The first trip went 1-1-1 and so it went.
That calendar week had three straight home games before their next trip. On alternating days, the Devils hosted St. Louis, Edmonton, and Florida. The game against St. Louis featured two good periods of play before faltering in the third period for a final result of a 1-3 loss. The re-match against Edmonton featured a better effort and fewer goals allowed. However, the visitors won in overtime with 17 seconds left on the clock to make it a 2-3 overtime loss. Winless in their previous four games, the Devils really could have used a win against Florida. They were able to get that win and hold onto a one-goal lead despite a lacking third-period performance. The Devils prevailed 2-1. Then they went off on another four-game road trip.
November 12 against Chicago will go down as one of the more notorious games of this season. The Devils went down 1-4 to Chicago in the first period with the only goal scored by Miles Wood. Then Miles Wood made it 2-4 before the end of the first period. Then the Devils rallied to go up 6-5 by the end of the second period. Early in the third, Wood completed his hat trick to make it 7-5 - which held up as the final score. If you loved goals and sloppy hockey, that was the win for you. The Devils went to Toronto and played an entirely different game. Both sides were more conservative and both team’s goaltenders were amazing as they put up shutout efforts in regulation. While the Devils were close to breaking through overtime, a shot that deflected off Kyle Palmieri’s inner leg with seconds left in overtime eluded Cory Schneider and resulted in a 0-1 overtime loss. It was a heartbreaking loss. The next visit was to Winnipeg. This game was not a heartbreaker. The Jets decisively beat on the Devils in a 2-5 regulation loss due to a second period meltdown. The trip would end in Minnesota. No, the Devils did not see Zach Parise. They did see a lot of beef and a two-goal lead get erased in the third period. But the Devils would end up winning in overtime with another OT score from John Moore in a 4-3 decision. This trip ended at 2-1-1.
The final stretch of the month would have the Devils return home and play four games in six nights. Before Thanksgiving, the Devils took on Boston. The start of the game was bad but the Devils played much better as time went on. They went up a hot goalie, but they still forced overtime. Overtime was not enough and neither was a standard shootout. It took eleven rounds before Boston won in the shootout; the Devils lost 1-2. After Thanksgiving, the Devils hosted Vancouver. In a play right out of a movie, leukemia-battler Brian Boyle scored a big goal on Hockey Fights Cancer night. The Devils held onto this lead in the third period to beat Vancouver again this month, 3-2. Right after that game, the Devils went to Detroit to play the Red Wings. This game saw another 3-1 lead get blown up in the third period like in the Minnesota game earlier this month, although it did not happen within the final minute. Like that same game in Minnesota, the Devils salvaged a win when Brian Gibbons intercepted a pass after losing his edge, skated to the net, and put it home to make it a 4-3 win. The final game of the month was on November 27, a home game against Florida. Florida came to play; the Devils arguably did not. Cory Schneider did his best to re-do what he did in the Vancouver game; although that lasted for two periods and the Panthers did score. The Devils skaters played better in the third, but the Panthers increased their lead. The Devils lost 2-3 in a stinker to end the month with a 6-4-4 record.
You may have noticed with all of those results that a lot of them were close games. The Devils went beyond regulation six times in November. Only two of those games - the 7-5 win in Chicago and the 2-5 loss in Winnipeg - were decided by more than one goal that did not include an empty netter. Even with an empty netter, you could only add two more games: the 2-0 win in Vancouver and the 1-3 loss to St. Louis. While the Devils lost some leads in these games, they also made some up. Even so, there was a lot ice time where the Devils were effectively on a knife’s edge in the standings. A couple of shots and chances going the right or the wrong way could have seriously flipped the script on this month.
From the perspective of the Metropolitan Division standings, the Devils received no help. Per NHL.com, four teams that earned more sixteen points - how many the Devils earned in November - are in the same division. The Devils did not play anyone in the Metropolitan Division in November. That is probably for the best as with all of the post-regulation points handed out, they did not go to those teams. It does not matter so much to give, say, Edmonton an extra point regardless of result. This could be an issue in coming months when those games do appear on the schedule. That said, I’ll take post-regulation hockey over losing outright. That concern of a drop-off is still there; especially when one looks at the Devils’ underlying numbers.
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 December 2, 2017, so it is inclusive of all thirty days in November.
5 on 5 Play (All Numbers are from Natural Stat Trick): The sticks have cooled off and the run of play has been worse somehow. The Devils finished November with the second-lowest Corsi For percentage in the NHL at 45.6%. That is even worse than last month’s 47.8%. Adjusting for score and venue does not make the picture that much better for the Devils. Their CF% moves up to 45.96%, which is the fourth lowest in the NHL. The Devils have simply been picked apart in 5-on-5 play.
While it is not as bad as last season’s squad, the Devils’ CF/60 (attempts) and SF/60 (shots) are still near the bottom of the NHL at 53.6 and 29.8, respectively. You may have noticed that the Devils have had all kinds of defensive issues. You would be right. The Devils’ CA/60 is a flat 64, the second highest in the NHL. Their SA/60 is 33.72, the fourth highest in the NHL. In other words, the Devils have been very porous and they are not responding as much in kind. As you may expect from those values, scoring chances are similarly slanted against them. Their scoring chance for rate of 26.45 is below the league median and their scoring chance against rate of 30.09 is one of the highest in the NHL. This points to all of those issues with zone exits, puck possession, and utilization being real ones for the Devils.
With all of these bad numbers, then how is it that the Devils actually out-scored their competition in 5-on-5 play, 28-26? For starters, the Devils have played a lot in 5-on-5 hockey. Natural Stat Trick has the Devils with 660 minutes in that situation, the seventh most in November. More relevant to the goals, the percentages remained in New Jersey’s favor. While they are no longer shooting above 10%, the Devils collectively scored with a shooting percentage of 8.54%. That was the sixth highest percentage in November. The goaltenders - both Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid, this time - has also been excellent. The team’s 5-on-5 save percentage was just under 93%. It is not as high as it was in October, but the Devils’ positive PDO run continued. All of these close games in November show that the Devils have been able to compete. These numbers show that plenty more has to be done to reduce the impact of any big drop-off. Being one of the worst CF% teams in the NHL tends to get hit hard when the sticks aren’t as hot and the goaltending is not as great. See last season’s team as an example.
Power Play Situations: The power play cooled off in a big way in November. According to NHL.com, the first five games of the month featured zero goals out of eleven opportunities. There were even no power plays in their first game against Edmonton. The Devils broke that streak in the first game against Florida and showed up big-time (2-for-3) in their wild 7-5 win in Chicago. There was a three-game streak of power play goals towards the end of the month before going for 0-for-2 against Florida ended it. Overall, the Devils converted six out of thirty-four opportunities in November; their 17.6% conversion rate ranked twentieth in the NHL according to the league site.
One of the issues was just getting to the power play at all. Their 34 opportunities was tied for the fourth-lowest in the league in November. Their total power play time of 59:59 was the seventh lowest in the league in November. When the Devils did get those opportunities, there were some nights where setting up and generating shots was an issue. As such, Natural Stat Trick has their SF/60 rate at just 52.16, which was the ninth lowest in the league. Their shooting percentage of 14.08% ranked decently in the league; it was often just getting on a man advantage and getting to shoot that was an issue. The puck movement issues did yield fifteen shots against with opponents scoring two shorthanded goals. When the breakout functioned and the Devils were able to get in their 1-3-1 set-up, things did look good. Again, getting to that point was a struggle and, as a result, the power play made less of an impact in November.
Penalty Kill Situations: In a more positive twist, the Devils’ penalty kill improved in November. Their success rate improved from 79.8% in October to 82.8% in November. That success rate ranked tenth best in the NHL per NHL.com in this past month. That rate breaks down to the team killing 33 situations out of 40. While it sometimes felt like the Devils were penalty-machines, the Devils’ 40 shorthanded situations actually was around the league median at sixteenth place. Some of the calls the Devils did take would warrant demands for smarter discipline on the ice. But they were not excessively bad at it; they even went one whole game without going to PK (the 2-5 loss to Winnipeg).
According to Natural Stat Trick, it was not like the Devils were exceptional on defense during the penalty kill. Their SA/60 rate on the PK was 57.99, the eleventh highest in the league last month. Despite Blake Coleman seemingly going for one on every kill and forechecking like a mad man, the shots for dropped to a rate of 11.6 per sixty minutes. And the Devils did not even score a shorthanded goal, although they had thirteen shots at it. Who was the stand out that led to an increase in PK success rate? The goaltenders. Schneider and Kinkaid combined for an 89.23% save percentage. That is a top-ten (seventh in November) save percentage in shorthanded situations. Schneider was exceptional with a 91.2% save percentage on the PK in November, per NHL.com. With more saves against more shots, the Devils were able to survive more kills. Therefore, this aspect of special teams was better for New Jersey in November.
Additions and Subtractions
This month featured plenty of action with the roster despite a lack of call-ups from Binghamton. Let’s start with the “subtractions,” or players ruled out due to injury.
First, Marcus Johansson was injured very early in the first game of the month. Just 28 seconds into the Vancouver game, Johansson went hard into the boards and left the game. He was diagnosed with a concussion, which kept him out of the lineup for the rest of the month. Johansson returned to playing on December 1 in Colorado.
Second, defenseman Mirco Mueller was slowly but surely securing his spot on the blueline. However, that ended eighteen seconds into the November 12 game in Chicago. A collision resulted in an early exit from the game. The injury turned out to be something worse: a fractured clavicle. As reported in this article by Andrew Gross at NorthJersey.com, Mueller had surgery on November 16 and is expected to be out for ten to twelve weeks.
Third, Kyle Palmieri crashed into the boards in practice and hurt his foot in October. He returned to the team on November 9 against Edmonton. It was not long before Palmieri was re-united with Taylor Hall with Nico Hischier centering the two. This line did well - until Palmieri got hurt again. In the November 20 game against Minnesota, Palmieri blocked a shot by Matthew Dumba with his skate. The shot turned out to break his foot. Palmieri played through the rest of the game; even in overtime, he was on the ice for Moore’s goal. He has been ruled out for four to six weeks.
These were not small injuries nor were they to smaller players. Johansson and Palmieri were top six forwards, who played quite a bit in both special teams and even strength situations. While Mueller was kept to the third pairing, he was also utilized on the PK and was playing well enough to keep Ben Lovejoy out of the lineup. The Devils did not need a call-up, though, due to some returning players from injury.
First, Brian Boyle made his Devils debut in that 2-0 win against Vancouver. Boyle has been utilized mostly in the bottom six with some power play shifts as a big body in front of the net. It took quite some time for him to get going, which is understandable between the leukemia he has been battling and not having a training camp or preseason to get ready. Boyle did make some moments with five points in fourteen games this month, including an emotional power play goal on Hockey Fights Cancer night, a 3-2 win against Vancouver.
Second, Travis Zajac returned to action about a month earlier than anticipated. He was ruled out with a torn pectoral muscle in the summer. He was working out well, he was on the ice, and he felt good enough to come back. Zajac returned to the team on November 16 against Toronto and has played in the six games after then. The good news is that he has been used as he has been; an average of about sixteen minutes per night and used in all situations. The bad news is that Zajac had only seven shots in seven games and no points. Like Boyle, they have not done so well in 5-on-5. But both have provided help at the dot and deepened their center position.
There were some other movements within the month. There were some odd, “take a game off and get your head right” scratches for Damon Severson and Steve Santini. There was more of a rotation between Stefan Noesen, Jimmy Hayes, and Pavel Zacha. The latter was notable as the young forward was sat specifically because of his play. Since returning to the lineup, he has shown more aggressive play - which is what the coaches presumably want from him. But with all of the players on the active roster plus the timing of these injuries, the Devils have had bodies available such that they did not need to call anyone up. Lovejoy went right in for Mueller. Johansson’s and Palmieri’s injuries led to more minutes for Jesper Bratt (who was moved up to Hischier and Hall after Palmieri’s injury), Drew Stafford, Hayes, and Noesen. If anything, the Devils had a glut of forwards. This helped drive the biggest transaction of the month and could be the biggest Devils trade for 2017-18.
On November 30, the Devils announced that they traded Adam Henrique, Joseph Blandisi, and a 2018 third round pick to Anaheim for defenseman Sami Vatanen and a conditional third-rounder. This was a huge deal. Henrique was a fan-favorite in New Jersey, especially for those who have become deeper fans from the 2012 playoff run. He was a solid hand who played in all situations up front. Vatanen has been a solid power play producer and an OK defender on the Ducks. It was an even swap. Blandisi was a swift, skilled bottom-six forward. He was passed up by Brian Gibbons, Blake Coleman, and others at forward. He needed a change of scenery and he got it. The picks, we’ll find out what they become in time. I liked (but did not love) the trade when it happened. We’ll find out in December how it really goes as all three players started December with their new teams.
Devil of the Month
In this past month, there were not too many Devils who were consistently good and notable throughout. There were plenty of standout performances in games. Miles Wood’s hat trick in Chicago was his best game - and featured the only three goals he scored in November. Brian Gibbons continued to amaze with six goals in fourteen games (and a 37.5% shooting percentage); but when he was not producing, he was playing more like the fourth liner that he is. Will Butcher scored his first NHL goal and a far prettier second NHL goal while also adding five assists. Defensively, he was fine on the third pairing - but that’s just it, on the third pairing. I could go on, but I’ll get to the point. To me, there were three Devils players who shined throughout November. Naming the Devil of the Month was easy. The runner-up was harder.
In most cases, I would give an edge to Cory Schneider. And it would be a fine selection. In November, Schneider posted a 92.7% save percentage at even strength and an even more impressive 91.2% on the penalty kill. Schneider dragged the Devils to some results - namely, the win in Vancouver - that they would not get without exceptional goaltending. As the Devils’ 5-on-5 play and penalty killing success both featured strong goaltender play, Schneider deserves plenty of credit for that. However, I would give the honorable mention to Nico Hischier. The rookie really came into his own in November. A full month next to Taylor Hall has resulted in three goals, eight assists, and 37 shots on net. Hischier has been utilized more and more as he began to receive some tertiary shifts on the PK. Despite getting hammered when the line was Hall-Hischier-Stafford, Hischier is one of the few Devils to have posted a CF% above 50% in 5-on-5 play in November. In a month where the Devils did not draw many power plays, Hischier stood out with drawing at least four. In a month where scoring chances were relatively low with respect to the league, Hischier was third on the team with 27 chances for himself. Most of all, his emergence to center a line with Hall helped drive Ray Shero to make that Henrique trade. For those reasons, I will give the honorable mention to Hischier in November.
Of course, the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month for November 2017 has to be Taylor Hall. It has to be. It is an easy decision. Hall has been an outstanding forward for the Devils. He is arguably one of the best left wingers in the world right now. Like Hischier, Hall had a November CF% above 50% which is amazing given that the team has been so poor in 5-on-5 play and that Hall is seeing the other team’s best players night-in and night-out. In November, Hall has scored five goals and contributed eight assists for thirteen points. Only 21 players in the whole league put up more points in November than Hall. In November, Hall was far and away New Jersey’s most prolific shooter with 52 shots on net. Only 5 players in the NHL had more shots on net than Hall on November. Scoring chances? Natural Stat Trick credited him with 46 in 5-on-5 play. And Hall was the league leader in that category in November.
What’s most impressive is not the points or even the shots and chances alone. He was not just bombing away when he had the puck, he often kept attacks going and sought to set up others for shots. Hall is a big reason why Hischier finished second to him in shots with 37. It is not just with Hischier; while it is with a limited sample size, Hall is one of the best in NHL in shot contributors per CJ’s tableau of Corey Sznajder’s tracking. In that same tableau, Hall is also second only to Connor McDavid in total zone entries and zone entries with possession. In other words, Hall has been a real generator of offense in He gains the zone, he’s using his teammates, and he’s been more than willing to take initiative when the opportunity presents itself. All that and the Devils was not getting wrecked in the run of play when he was out there in this past month. Hall is the star offensive forward the Devils have not had since 2012 and he proved it again in November. Who else could be considered the Devil of the Month than a player playing like Hall? No one.
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 November. What should the Devils do to turn around their 5-on-5 woes before there’s any big drop in shooting or save percentage? Once again, what, if anything, can the team do about their defensive woes? Can there be additional, consistent scoring behind Hall and Hischier other than Gibbons continuing his torrid shooting percentage? Can the Devils get onto more power plays and keep up their penalty killing success? 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.