Happy New Year’s! The New Jersey Devils enter 2018 in an unexpected position: a playoff spot. They sit second in the Metropolitan Division with 38 games played, 22 wins, 10 regulation losses, 6 post-regulation losses, and 19 regular/overtime wins. They’re just one point behind first place and they have two games in hand. Yes, the New Jersey Devils thought to be in the basement of the division are in a guaranteed playoff spot as the first half of the second nears its end. There is no question it is a cause to be happy about the team’s season so far.
December kept the good times rolling with a 8-4-2 record in the month. That winning record was largely driven by a six-game home stand where the team won five in a row and picked up eleven out of a possible twelve points. Per NHL.com, the eighteen points earned was tied for the fourth most in the league. There is definitely a sense that this is like a great party. In the midst of it, you hope it never ends. But at the same time, one wonders how it will. Those answers will come after New Year’s Day. As this day is celebrated, let us look back at the month that was for the New Jersey Devils.
The Games of December
December began on the road as the Devils played three straight away from the Rock. The first two were a back-to-back set in Colorado and Arizona. The Colorado game was tight. Tightly checked, tightly played, and both goaltenders were on form to deny nearly everything. A jam play by Brian Boyle made the difference in a 2-1 win. The following night in Glendale, Arizona was less than acceptable. They downright stunk up the joint. New Jersey was out-played and ran off the rink in a 0-5 loss to the “lowly” Coyotes. Arizona won all of three games in December - and that was an emphatic one. No team in the National Hockey League is a true doormat and the Devils learned that lesson the hard way.
Fortunately, the Devils picked up a winning result in the final game of their trip: a visit to the difficult Columbus Blue Jackets. The eight teams in the Metropolitan Division has been - and still is - very close to each other in the standings. Those games began to show up on the schedule and they are big ones. For those that liked offense, the game on December 5 provided it as both teams combined for 97 shots on net. For those that liked the Devils winning games by good-looking margins, that date had it as the Devils cashed on rebounds and Cory Schneider was amazing in a 4-1 win. A three-goal win over a tough divisional opponent in their building was big. At least, it was until Columbus came to the Rock on December 8 and left with two points in revenge. The Devils blew leads and opportunities in what finished up as a 3-5 loss to Columbus. Making matters worse was that the Devils were to play on the next night at the home of Our Hated Rivals, another important game within the division. On that night, the team gave away pucks, plays, and points in a 2-5 loss to the Rangers. After those two back-to-back losses and with a big ‘L’ in Arizona a week earlier, December did not look promising for the Devils.
Winning days were ahead and it all started on December 12 against Los Angeles. The Kings were the hottest team in hockey at the start of the game. Between that and their level of talent, it was a daunting task on paper. On the ice, the Devils put out one of their best performances of the season. They held the visitors to only 17 shots on net and lit them up in a 5-1 victory. The only downside to the game was the loss of Taylor Hall to injury from a knee-on-knee hit. Thankfully, he would be out for only a few days. Yet, the Devils had another back-to-back coming up: a trip to Montreal followed by a home game against Dallas. The trip to Montreal was good for the first forty minutes and the Devils survived until overtime. In OT, a total mess of a play led to a game winner for Montreal; but a 1-2 OT loss while missing Hall, Kyle Palmieri, and Marcus Johansson is not the worst result. The following night against Dallas was not a pretty affair as the game was sloppy and choppy with respect to puck movement. But the Devils received the bounces and cashed in multiple times to pull away from Dallas. They even picked up an empty net goal in a 5-2 win. After that not-so-good start to the month, the Devils entered the last two weeks with five out of six potential points.
That game against Dallas was also notable for being the first of six straight home games. For a Devils team trying to keep playoff dreams alive in a division where last place was not even ten points away from first place at points during this month, these games would be crucial. For a Devils team that did not have such a great home record, this was an opportunity to shape that up. For a Devils team looking to play in front of good crowds around the holiday season, this was a chance to give those in the stands what they wanted while enticing others to want to join them for future games. The Devils made the most of it and were nearly perfect from a results perspective in these six home games.
After the Dallas game, the Devils hosted Anaheim on December 18. This would be Adam Henrique’s first game at the Rock since he was traded for Sami Vatanen. He received a video tribute and a lot of love from the Devils fans. Henrique was a fan-favorite in Newark. He also styled on Vatanen for a near-shorthanded goal that put the Devils in deep trouble down 1-3 in the second period. But the Devils were only bruised, not beaten. A soft goal by Ryan Miller pulled the Devils within one goal near the end of the second; Jesper Bratt rifled in an equalizer; and former Duck Stefan Noesen put home his own rebound to make it 4-3 late in the third. Noesen sealed the win to send the Ducks packing 5-3. The New York Rangers were the next home opponents on December 21. Like the Anaheim game, the Devils had to come back to tie up this one. Unlike that game, the Devils drilled Our Hated Rivals with an astounding 48 shots on net. But they managed to drag the game beyond regulation and take it to a shootout. In the fourth round, Brian Boyle provided the winner as the Devils won the rivalry game 4-3. On December 23, the Devils’ final game before Christmas was a difficult one as they were to host Chicago. The Devils were hot to start as they scored three goals on their first seven shots to send Corey Crawford packing. The Blackhawks threw everything and the kitchen sink in a 22-shot second period effort at Cory Schneider. Schneider would only give up one goal in that deluge of shots - and that would be the only one he would allow. The Devils won 4-1 to put them 2-0 over Chicago for this season and make it four wins in a row. Merry Christmas to the Devils, indeed.
After Christmas and Boxing Day ended, the Devils went back to work on December 27 when they hosted Detroit. Nico Hischier put up a brace - two goals - in the first period. While Detroit pulled one back in the second period, the Devils would hold onto the lead for the rest of the game. Vatanen sealed the win with an empty netter to make it a 3-1 victory. The home stand would end on December 29 with a home game against Buffalo. Buffalo, like Arizona, does not have a good record. Buffalo, like Arizona, put up a tougher fight than perhaps expected. Unlike the Arizona game, the Devils did come to play. Alas, it was a close affair that did not need to be as the Devils lost a 3-1 lead. The game also featured a potential Hall game-winning goal wiped away late in the game due to offside being called on the video review. In overtime, Buffalo made it quick; New Jersey’s winning streak ended at five with a 3-4 OT loss. Still, eleven out of twelve potential points earned with only three points given away (SO loss for New York, OT win for Buffalo) is an excellent result. On December 30, the Devils played their final game of 2017 in Washington DC. Like the game against Washington earlier this season, the Devils were decisively beaten by the Caps. Six-men on the ice for a goal notwithstanding, the Devils lost 2-5 to finish 2017 just behind Washington for the division lead. While losing at the end of the month is certainly not ending it on a high note, it was only the team’s fourth regulation loss of the month, the first since December 9, and the tenth of the entire season so far. Who knows what 2018 will yield, but the results were largely positive for New Jersey in December.
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 the night of December 31, 2017, so it is inclusive of all thirty-one days in December. No ball is being dropped here.
5 on 5 Play (All Numbers in this sub-section are from Natural Stat Trick): The Devils weren’t hideously awful in CF% in December! Now that’s something I did not expect to see when I saw the numbers. Sure, for the season, the Devils are near the bottom of the league at 47.4% (and somehow the Rangers are worse at 46.6%). But in December, the Devils’ CF% was 49.28%! That’s close to 50%! That ranked 17th in the NHL, which was close to the league median! I’m excited about this - and you should be too - because this means the Devils could somewhat decent in this category. It means when the Devils aren’t so hot by the percentages, then they can still be competitive in games. One of their biggest sore spots in the first two months of the season was less of one in December. If they can maintain this, then the Devils may be able to be more than just a team riding high percentages for success. That’s encouraging for those who want the playoffs and for those who want the team to actually be good on the ice in the run of play. Could it be better? Sure. But I’m a lot more confident in a Devils team being competitive that’s within a percentile of break-even in shooting attempts instead of being two to four percentiles below it. At the least, December was a step forward.
Let’s break down that roughly 49.3% CF% mark. Their CF/60 (attempts for per sixty minutes) was 55.89. That’s just inside the bottom third of the league, so that’s not so hot. Not incredibly bad and world’s better than last season’s marks, but not a huge number. Their CA/60 has improved dramatically. From a flat 64 last month to a 57.52 in December. That value better than league median and it is evidence that the Devils have made improvements on defense.
If you want to get more excited, then look at the shots for percentages. The Devils were actually above 50% in SF% at 50.36%. That value ranked 12th in the month according to Natural Stat Trick. Their SF/60 was 31.2 and their SA/60 improved to 30.75 from 33.72 last month. Again, the gain in the shots against rate is more notable. While we may not see the 2017-18 Devils pull off stingy rates like the teams under Peter DeBoer, a 30.75 SA/60 is a decent mark. It was the 13th lowest in the NHL. That’s considered decent. That’s additional evidence that the Devils have made some strides in their own end of the rink.
With better CF% and SF% values in December, were they better in scoring chances? For all scoring chances, no. Their SCF% was 47.68% with a SCF/60 of 26.05 and a SCA/60 of 28.58. Those are not values to get excited about as they show that there is still work to be done at both ends of the rink. The good news (?) is that a 47.6% SCF% was the 19th lowest in the NHL so perhaps it is not an underlying number that predicts future doom for New Jersey. Going back to the original question: the Devils remain as one of the league’s best in high-danger scoring chance differentials, the Devils were incredibly high in the league with a HDCF% of 57.26% in December - the fifth best in the NHL. The breakdowns for those were 12.12 for NJ and 9.04 against NJ; both ranking well in the league in this past month. Your guess is as good as mine as how reliable the scoring chance and high-danger scoring chance counts are; but that’s how the Devils performed. Still, the encouraging numbers for the run of play in 5-on-5 are in the CF% and SF% values and their associated for and against rates.
Adding further to the encouragement is the team’s PDO in December. Their combined shooting percentage and save percentage was 99.6%. Yes, the Devils were not riding a high PDO in December. It ranked 16th in December. And the Devils went 8-4-2 in the month with this. The team’s shooting percentage in December was a milder than in the previous two months but still above league median at 8.41%. The team’s 5-on-5 save percentage was also lower at 91.18%. The result was that the Devils were out-scored 29-30 in 5-on-5 play in the month. While being outscored is not good, it is only a goal differential of just minus one. Throw away a really bad night (e.g. that 0-5 loss to Arizona) and the picture is more reflective of their play. And the 29 goals was tied for the ninth most in the NHL in December too.
While it is not all sunshine and lollipops in 5-on-5 play, the Devils’ performances in December give me hope that there could be some real strides being made. The percentages weren’t so massively in favor in New Jersey in this past month. They still put up a great record with some decent shot and attempt differential values. Therefore, I would see these as steps forward and I hope they continue for the rest of the season.
Power Play Situations: The power play was not exactly a source of strength in December for the Devils. According to NHL.com, the Devils finished December a little bit above the league median (14th) with a 17.5% success rate. This rate came from 7 goals scored out of 40 opportunities. There were some positives. Most of the goals were fairly significant when they were scored. The Devils did not concede a shorthanded goal (although Henrique was close on December 18). There was even a four-game PPG streak during that six-game home stand. The Devils were around league median in both power play opportunities (40) and power play ice time (64:17). Both of those were improvements over last month.
The shooting rates at Natural Stat Trick are not positive. The Devils’ rate of shots (SF/60) was 49.21, which was the seventh lowest in the league in December. Their rate of attempts (CF/60) was 88.96, which was the fifth lowest in the league. It would be one thing if the Devils had these really low rates because they were scoring plenty of goals. But with seven out of forty situations, that was not the case. In terms of raw counts, the Devils took 94 attempts, 52 shots, and conceded 11 shots against. At least all 11 were stopped. The only good number in that list for New Jersey was their team power play shooting percentage of 13.46%. But generating shots and even attempts for shots remained as an issue for the Devils’ power play in December.
While there were a few games without Hall, Palmieri, and/or Johansson and the team is still figuring out how to best use Sami Vatanen, there remain issues with how the team performs. I really do think the coaches have to make some serious adjustments because they were offensive opportunities that the Devils were not taking full advantage of. So while it’s good that they did not give up a goal and they were decent relative to the league in terms of the production of their power play, there is a lot to improve here - and I do not think it is a talent issue as Hall, Palmieri, and Johansson all returned to full duty in December.
Penalty Kill Situations: Last week, CJ heaped a lot of praise on the Devils’ penalty kill. He broke down the numbers before and after the Henrique trade to show how improved it has been. As you may expect from what he found, the Devils’ penalty kill was excellent in December. According to NHL.com, the Devils had the sixth best success rate in the month at 88.6%. That rate was a result of killing 39 out of 44 shorthanded situations, or giving up five power play goals out of 44 kills. The 44 kills was tied for the tenth most in December and the team’s 72:50 on the PK was the eleventh most in the NHL. Only allowing five power play goals in fourteen games is impressive enough, but also consider the Devils scored two shorthanded goals as well. A goal differential of -3 for a month on the PK is worthy of praise.
There is more to praise when one looks a bit deeper at the PK numbers at Natural Stat Trick. The Devils’ units combined for a CA/60 rate of 88.97 in December, the fifth lowest in the NHL in the month. They also combined for a SA/60 rate of 46.13, which was the fourth lowest in the NHL in the month. Both numbers show that the team has done relatively well - at least, much better than most of the league - at getting out of shorthanded situations without much damage. Even when the opponent did get their shooting opportunities, the goaltenders have done well to stop them. Per NHL.com, Schneider himself finished the month with a great 89.1% save percentage on the PK and Keith Kinkaid was perfect in shorthanded situations in his two appearances in December. Throw in the two shorthanded goals along with some spurts of offense and the Devils had one of the top penalty kills in the NHL within December. The only area of potential improvement would be to take fewer calls, but in the bigger picture, this has not been a huge issue.
Additions and Subtractions
It took quite some time but the Devils actually called up a skater from Binghamton to actually play in a couple of games. This was due to some injuries at forward during the month. On December 9 against the Rangers, Marcus Johansson bruised his ankle on a shot block. This caused him to miss four games. On December 12, Hall missed two games after a knee-on-knee hit in the third period of that game. With Palmieri still out with a broken foot, the Devils needed an extra forward. So on December 14, Nick Lappin returned to New Jersey. He was kept to just ten-minute performances against Montreal and Dallas. Against Dallas, he did take a puck away from Jason Spezza (!) and scored so Lappin did make his mark. After that game, Palmieri was expected to return and did so against Anaheim on December 18. Lappin was returned to the B-Devils. Hall and Johansson would return for the second game against the Rangers in December. Those that wanted to see a fully healthy lineup would get that for the last few games of the month.
Those returns came during the holiday roster freeze so the Devils were allowed to carry 24 skaters for a few nights. However, once the freeze ended, a roster move needed to be made. The decision was made to waive defenseman Dalton Prout. The Devils’ blueline has been rather healthy this season and Prout was even more of an extra body after the Vatanen trade. After Prout cleared waivers, he was traded to Calgary for goaltender Eddie Lack. Lack has lost his way a bit. But with a return to an organization that has his former goalie coach and the fact that both MacKenzie Blackwood and Ken Appleby has been struggling a lot in the AHL this season, the deal makes sense. At the least, Lack should be able to help out the Binghamton squad.
There have been some other notable shifts in the lineup throughout this month. Drew Stafford and Jimmy Hayes have no longer been guaranteed spots in the lineup. Stefan Noesen was hot for a bit plus the continued work of Blake Coleman and Brian Gibbons have only further secured their spots. After Vatanen’s arrival, Ben Lovejoy has been limited to just three appearances in the month. He’s definitely the #7 man now as the coaches have tried to mix and match pairings with Vatanen (they’ve seemingly settled on him with John Moore - for now). With Keith Kinkaid giving up five goals in each of his two appearances in December, Schneider has been leaned on with twelve appearances and nine straight heading into the new year. While it’s good that the Devils have not suffered a major injury in December and only Mirco Mueller remains on the shelf, we can only hope for that good fortune to last in 2018.
Devil of the Month
In December, the Devils witnessed some other shifts in fortune. Brian Gibbons did not shoot above 20%; in fact, he had only one goal in twenty-one shots in December. He still contributed with five assists, though. While Hall was still the shot leader with 39 despite missing two games, Nico Hischier was the only other Devil to put up more than 30 shots in December with 31. And the two have been good together in the run of play. Brian Boyle was a huge dude on the ice (well, he still is at 6’6”) with seven goals, four assists, and a four-game run where he put up eight of those eleven points - with two back-to-back three point nights. Jesper Bratt was reacquainted with the scoresheet with three goals and six assists. There were plenty of individual positives, including nine players being above 50% CF% in the month. That said, two stood out in the month.
First, the honorable mention. It’s a very neat trick to produce as much as Taylor Hall in a month. To do so while receiving only even strength shifts in regulation is an even neater trick. Stefan Noesen was hot with a five-game point streak near the middle of the month. But it was more than that. Noesen was one of those players with CF% above 50% and, more impressively, a SF% above 53%. Noesen only took one minor penalty in another month where the Devils were on the wrong side of the league median in shorthanded situations. Noesen put up 28 shots on net, which is quite a lot for someone who averaged 12:50 per night in December. Noesen put in two big goals - the game-winner and the game-sealer - in that comeback win against his former team, Anaheim. Others in the bottom six serve multiple roles, such as Boyle getting power play time and Blake Coleman and Gibbons being penalty killing machines. A guy like Noesen needs to contribute whenever he does get a shift because a couple of bad nights could easily send him to the press box. There isn’t another role he serves that could secure his roster spot; it is all about how he does at evens. And Noesen thrived in December. In a way, he typified how the Devils performed in the month. The underlying numbers, while could be better, were at least decent. The production was there and he made shots happen. He over-achieved in December kind of like how the Devils have been doing all season.
Now, the Devil of the Month. It’s Cory Schneider. Alex stumped for him to be a NHL star of the month, which makes this a somewhat easy case to make. In several games (such as, but not limited to: the first Columbus game, the Colorado game, the second Rangers game, the Chicago game) he was the most important Devil in this past December. There were periods and games where the Devils were shot-up and #35 was the main reason why the Devils were still in the game at all. His performances led to many results as the Devils only lost twice in regulation with Schneider in net in December. There was a reason why Schneider started nine games in a row to close out the month beyond Kinkaid being lit up in his two appearances. If it wasn’t for that last game in Washington, Schneider’s numbers would stand out even more. Still, the man posted up a 92.5% save percentage at even strength and a 89.1% in penalty killing situations, which are both good marks among the starters in the NHL. I always appreciate how important a goaltender is to a team and he’s very much a big reason why the Devils are where they are right now. As such, Schneider is the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month for December 2017. Thanks again to Alex for helping out for this one with his recent post.
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 December. Can the Devils make further strides in 5-on-5 play to at least remain decent in that aspect in the game? Can the team continue to maintain their seemingly improved defense? What can the Devils do to improve their power plays? How can they keep up their PK success? Who do you think were the best Devils in December? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this past month of games for the Devils in the comments.
Thanks to CJ, Mike, Brian, Gerard, Alex, Devin, Chris, Ryan, Jeff, Dan, Mike, Steve, and Alicia for being a part of All About the Jersey in 2017. Let us hope for a better 2018 in our personal lives and the roles we play on this Devils blog. Of course, let us also hope that the Devils continue to get wins and keep the party going as long as they can. Thank you all for reading.