With one win in their last seven games, the New Jersey Devils have been mired in a slump. We can debate when exactly it started but there is no question that they are in one now. After going through October where the team at least scored two goals per game, the Devils were shutout by the New York Islanders in a 0-3 defeat. The performance, while slightly better than their last two games, was still not good overall and, obviously, not good enough to get a result out of tonight’s game.
How bad was this game and/or this slump? Amanda Stein lamented the following the third period tonight:
Come on guys, I need 10 things to write about!— Amanda Stein (@amandacstein) November 4, 2018
I give her honesty some credit. It’s a bit revealing: Winning? Losing? Who cares as long as it can help easily generate content. I imagine other media members - team employees or otherwise - think similar things during slumps as well.
Fortunately for you, the reader, I’m not an employee of the New Jersey Devils like Ms. Stein, so I can freely criticize the team. Therefore, coming up with 10 things about this loss is pretty easy. Check this out:
#1. Poor Keith Kinkaid. Just like the recent loss in Detroit, the New Jersey Devils got a good performance from their goaltender and did not reward it. Keith Kinkaid faced 32 shots and was beaten only twice. The first one was a power-play rebound goal for Jordan Eberle on his right flank. That one is not on him. The second one was a 2-on-1 goal by Brock Nelson. Maybe he should have had it but given how the Devils scored zero goals, it does not really matter much. Overall, the Islanders were successful at getting to the net for shots (note the heatmap at Natural Stat Trick), they pinned back the Devils quite a few times as the game went on, and their power plays were more threatening. Kinkaid stopped heads-up shots from the slot by Anders Lee, all four from Josh Bailey, five other shots from Nelson, and an array other shots from Isles. #1 kept this a one-score game until there was less than five minutes in the game. Even then, while not ideal, the game wasn’t over at 0-2 either. I think Kinkaid played a very good game and the guys in front of him faltered again.
#2. Sometimes the other team has a hot goalie. Thomas Greiss stopped all 35 shots that he faced tonight. It happens. Sometimes the other team has a goalie that seemingly stops everything on a given night and that’s enough to win the game. Even if the Devils pounded the Isles in possession, zone time, and attempts for three periods, a hot goalie can maintain a score or make it possible for a one against the run of play to make the difference. While that was not the case tonight, the best chances at scoring came from the Devils’ top players such as a 2-on-0 with Taylor Hall shooting and Nico Hischier having four shots close to the net or in the slot. All were stopped. Frustrating as it is, that does happen.
#3. This was the first shutout loss of the season. Ergo, please do not tell me about how the Devils can’t score against backups or “no name” goalies or whatever. This was the first shutout loss of the season for New Jersey, a team that has been scoring at least two per game in their first ten. They’ve lit up quite a few backups on the way tonight. Those games do not stop existing because of this loss.
#4. The penalty kill was a strength, emphasis on the was. Nelson’s goal and the long empty netter from Scott Mayfield were insurance goals. Eberle’s power play put-back was enough to make it a win for the Isles. Since losing their first game of the season to Colorado, the Devils have given up at least one power play goal per game in all of their non-winning efforts. While a perfect PK does not guarantee a win, it does help the cause. And their last few power play goals have come from shot locations in dangerous areas: in the slot, inside of the circles, and around the crease (the last two, come to mind). The Devils’ wedge has not been sufficient against other team’s 1-3-1 formations and it contributed to the loss tonight. Sure, the Devils did have some solid penalty killing efforts tonight. But in this game, the one that failed was significant.
#5. Penalties happen but the Devils took poor ones yet again. Jean-Sebastien Dea hooked Adam Pelech right in front of a ref on offense in the first period and shoved Casey Cizikas into the Isles’ net in the second period away from the play. Both were dumb decisions by Dea and they both unnecessarily put the Isles on a power play. Dea’s first penalty ended early thanks to Eberle’s goal. Later, on a rush play that ended with Travis Zajac firing a good, low shot at Greiss, Miles Wood hit Greiss prior to the shot. So even if it gone in, it would not have counted. Of course, Greiss stopped the shot anyway. Wood served two minutes for that. After that, Taylor Hall tried to strip a puck from Mayfield and ended up tripping him, meaning the Devils had to kill two more minutes after killing two minutes. The good news is that the Devils cleaned up their act such that Dea’s second minor would be the final one of the night for New Jersey. The bad news is that it meant the Devils spent five-plus minutes down a man in a first period where they really should have stayed in 5-on-5 as much as possible. While four calls is not an excessive amount and it was not an issue throughout the night, it hurt the cause and in a slump like this, that pain looms larger.
#6. The Devils failed to play to the score. Part of understanding what Corsi, shots, and chances mean in the run of play is understanding they are affected by score effects. Teams that are losing need to score and so they take more risks and they push to attack more often. As a result, a team that is losing by a goal usually has higher proportions of Corsi For, shots for, and chances for in the hopes in catching up in goals for. That did not happen tonight and it was plain to see even if you do not want to know or understand these counting stats.
In the first period, the Devils were flying at even strength as they out-attempted the Isles 15-6, out-shot them 9-3, and out-chanced them 9-3. It was a big reason why the Devils out-shot them 16-9 overall after the first period. The Isles did score - on a power play - in that period. And as the game went on, the Isles played like they were down a score. The Mat Barzal line (Eberle, Barzal, and Anthony Beauvillier) was coming alive and pinning the Devils back more and more. The Brock Nelson line (Nelson, Bailey, and Anders Lee) was pushing more often. Even the Isles’ fourth line of Ross Johnston, Cal Clutterbuck, and Cizikas had a positive night and did positive things to help their team perform. The result: The Devils, down only one goal, were out-attempted 16-17 and out-shot 7-12, although they out-chanced them 8-6 in the second period. The Devils were still down only one goal to start the third period and ended up being out-attempted 18-22, out-shot 9-10, and out-chanced 9-10. Much of the damage by the Isles was in the first ten minutes of that period as the Devils struggled to get much of anything resembling pressure, puck control, or positive shifts happening.
The point is not, “Get more attempts/shots/chances and you’ll always win.” That didn’t happen tonight as the Devils did finish ahead in 5-on-5 attempts and chances; but that was driven mostly by the first period. For a team to be losing on the scoreboard and get out-done at 5-on-5 in two straight periods after a good first period is symptomatic with both a team performance that was not good enough and, given the last few games, a team in a slump. That first period can be seen as progress. Showing up to attack in the final ten minutes of the third period can be seen as progress. But this progress was not enough tonight and will not be enough to end this slump short of the other team playing like garbage.
#7. The first line had the best chances and some of the worst shifts. Near the end of the second period, Hall, Hischier, and Kyle Palmieri were blitzed on a shift. The Isles rang up a number of chances and someone (Palmieri?) just iced the puck with nobody in front of them. Forget the missed chances. Forget not beating Greiss. A little play like that was symbolic of their struggles tonight. It was done despite not needing to do it and it ended up making life more difficult for themselves than it had to be.
Overall, the Devils forwards are led by this line. Tonight, they were the second worst line by CF% per Natural Stat Trick. What that means is that when they were on the ice, the Devils were out-attempted in 5-on-5 play. That is not what you want to see when the three best forwards are out there. Worse, this came about in the second half of the game. So while they had the best chances to score, they had plenty of shifts where they were stuck playing defense, having to re-group after a failed clearance or a lost puck in their own end, and scrambling to make something happen. It also does not reflect well that a missed pass from Hall to Palmieri for what would have been a great shooting opportunity led to Bailey springing Nelson forward for his goal.
The Devils, as a team, need 9-13-21 to be their best to have a good chance to get a result. They were not tonight. That’ll happen but given the slump and the overall team performance, that hurt the cause.
By the way, Andy Greene and Damon Severson was the defensive pairing that saw the most Isles shots on net tonight in 5-on-5 play. That was with 9-13-21 in front of them. Severson saw seven shots against with those forwards and Greene saw eight with the same trio. With other lines, the Devils had better numbers with 6-28 behind them. I point this out to really highlight that it was a bad night in the run of play for what is arguably the Devils’ best five-man unit - and not just because Greiss denied Hall in a 2-on-0 in the second period or other singular chances.
#8. Tonight was the debut of Brett Seney - and it was a successful one to a degree. John Hynes made a good decision by putting him with Blake Coleman, another fairly quick forward who can be a thorn in the other players’ side. He had a shot on net. He won six out of ten faceoffs. Most impressive is that Barry Trotz made a point of it to have Seney see plenty of Barzal, Beauvillier, and Eberle. The Devils’ 5-on-5 numbers with Seney on the ice against them were positive. This is not to say that Seney was a star and will be a star. But it was a good debut despite the shutout loss. A rare bright spot, if you will.
#9. The other bright spot from tonight was the play of Marcus Johansson, Travis Zajac, and Miles Wood. You may have noticed they spent a lot of their time in the Isles’ end of the rink. While the Islanders eventually went ahead in the 5-on-5 battle over time, this line was kicking the tar out of Leo Komorov, Andrew Ladd, and Valtteri Filppula. I did not hear a lot of out of those three names tonight and for good reason, the Devils won that match-up. I don’t know why Trotz didn’t want to change it; I suppose he figured his three other lines were causing enough issues for New Jersey and did not want to interrupt their good things. While it would have been great for the Zajac line to have scored, they were not the problem tonight. I’m admittedly reaching for a positive, but this was one other thing that Hynes got right - or at least, Trotz got it wrong.
#10. John Hynes should bear plenty of blame for this loss. How does a team down by a one goal - just one goal - come out flatter at the start of the second and third periods than they did in the prior periods? How does a team, who had similar struggles in Detroit, play as if those games did not happen? How does Hynes decide after getting Seney from Binghamton that he needed Kurtis Gabriel and still play him in light of Matt Martin not playing tonight? How does Hynes figure on maintaining his lines throughout the night despite the Hischier and the fourth line of Gabriel, Dea, and Boyle getting pounded? While Drew Stafford really wasn’t bad, how does Hynes figure he needed him back in the lineup for this game? How does Hynes look at five straight games of 30+ shots against (tonight was #5) and make no changes to the defense or any of their defensive structure? How does one look at a power play whose own hotness has cooled and not consider changes? How does he continue to see the struggles with the Devils making passes going forward with the Isles increasingly gain the zone after three or four clean, crisp passes as the game went on? How does he plan to do anything about the team’s run of allowing third period goals? How has he developed this MacLean-esque lack of adjustments in the past couple games whereas Cooper, Blashill, and Trotz seemingly has done it to the great success of their teams?
I know Hynes is not on the ice and making the plays. I know that it is possible that Greiss stops everything and wins the game for the Isles even if the Devils put up a 70% CF% and out-chanced them 30-2 or something remarkable like that. But that did not happen tonight as the numbers are evidence of what Devils fans all over the world saw: another lackluster performance. Yet, the team who’s now 1-5-1 in their last seven, has been beaten in 5-on-5 play in the past few games, and is not getting saved by special teams. They are without a road win so far this season with their next four games in a row. At a minimum, some of the blame for these struggles has to fall on the coach and his staff. That blame increases as the team tries to come out the same way and expect different results. I understand and know he and the staff cannot pick up sticks and skates and show them how to do it. But they aren’t bystanders either. Will the media ask Hynes any of those questions? They’re not total cliches or can be answered with them, so probably not.
There’s ten things and it was simple to write about them. But I get it. You’re an employee of the Devils. You’re hamstrung trying to put lipstick on a pig. Fortunately for the readers, I do not have such restrictions.
The Opposition Opinion: Over at Lighthouse Hockey, Dominik is pleased with the Isles winning their fifth straight game and taking the Metropolitan Division lead. Yes, you will see an Isle in tomorrow’s division snapshot.
The Game Highlights: In case you want to see the highlights of a 0-3 Devils shutout loss, here it is from NHL.com:
It Is Not Just One Player: While I did not like Kurtis Gabriel being called up and playing tonight, he was not terrible and did not take any penalties. While I do not understand Drew Stafford drawing in, he was not just a body on the ice either. While I understood Pavel Zacha’s demotion to Binghamton, I do not understand how Dea moved up on the PK depth chart - which was limited by his own penalties - in light of this. While I saw the Zajac line pushing the play forward, I also saw them not get the best chances like the top line. While I saw the Hischier line have great chances, I also saw them get pinned back more often than not. While I saw Damon Severson have some poor moments, I saw them from all of the other defensemen and Severson was also present for more Devils attempts than anyone not named Johansson tonight. While I saw Will Butcher not make a great impact tonight, he also did not fail in a critical moment that led a goal against. While Brian Boyle may not make a big impact, he did at least win most of his draws tonight and his ice time was kept to 7:01 at evens and 13:33 in total.
You can highlight your favorite scapegoat but this slump is not on one player. Hence, I’m highlighting Hynes more because he’s the boss of them all and the boss is not seemingly making the changes to help his team out.
Oh Yeah, the Draws: The All Important Faceoffs were mostly won by New Jersey tonight. The Devils won 55% of them, with only Hischier being below the breakeven mark, and he was just 5-for-11. None of the goals against them came shortly after faceoffs. Over a whole season, faceoffs really do not correlate with success. Tonight was a reminder that they do not necessarily correlate with success in a game. But at least we can strike that issue off the list.
Is the Season Over?: No.
Will This Get Better Before It Gets Worse?: Maybe not, unfortunately.
Two Final Thoughts: For all of the talk about softness, I do not believe a soft team is one that does not throw a lot of checks or does not make a point of it to establish themselves as physical. It’s a team that plays like being down one goal as if they were down three. In this past week, the Devils have been soft. The good news is that I believe they can sort that out. Will Hynes and his staff at least figure out how to make the team more resilient to early deficits or shifts that do not go their way? At least at intermission? We shall see, because I think that is a key to getting the team up from their slump right now.
My last real thought is that I wrote more than ten things about this game fairly easily.
Your Take: The Devils were shutout by a hot goalie and a hot Isles team who legitimately played better than New Jersey as the game went on. So it goes in a slump. What’s your take on this loss? What should the Devils do before playing their first back-to-back set on Monday? Please leave your answers and other thoughts in the comments.
Thanks to Devin for the game preview. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread and/or followed along on Twitter with @AAtJerseyBlog. Thank you for reading.