It’s been a rough few weeks here for the Devils and their fans, as the team has been in a bit of a tailspin. Since starting the season looking like a team that might have some dreams of being a contender, things have crashed significantly for the New Jersey. In their past nine games, the Devils have now lost seven games, six of them in regulation. What started as a few lackluster, penalty-filled efforts with some unfortunate tying/winning goals given up in the closing minutes has bloomed into a bit of an early-season crisis, as the Devils have looked utterly lost multiple times in the last week. So how worried should we be about the Devils’ play right now? Is this recent trend just a blip or is it a harbinger of a very not nice final 69 games of the season?
The obvious thing that has been noted over the past week is that the Devils have looked their worst since embarking on their current seven-game road trip that they wrap up in the next few days. In their first five games of the trip, they’ve been blown out after taking a 2-0 lead twice (one of those to arguably the worst team in the league), and also dropped unimpressive games to Detroit and the Islanders. The comfortable win Monday against the Penguins stands as an oasis in a desert of bad road hockey for New Jersey.
The numbers reflect the stark difference we have seen home and away thus far. The record will obviously stand out the most, as the Devils are a great 5-1-1 in home contests (including the game in Gothenburg vs. Edmonton) and a dismal 1-5-0 on the road. This isn’t purely a luck thing — though with records that divergent, the percentages obviously are playing a role with a 1.037/0.976 PDO (sv%+sh%) split — the Devils are just not playing quite the same hockey on the road. The shot and attempt numbers are considerably worse on the road (47.23 CF% and 47.51 SF%) than they are at home (51.44 CF% and 54.52 SF%).
If you’re perhaps looking for encouragement, though, the high-danger chance numbers, which are bonkers at home (65.74 HDCF%) are still very good on the road (59.36 HDCF%). Add that to the bad splits in shooting and save percentages on the road and there is at least some reason to believe this trip is a bit of an anomaly. Still, the Devils have been sloppy and have given up more than a few slam dunk goals, particularly in the two blowouts that chased Keith Kinkaid and Cory Schneider from the net on consecutive Tuesdays.
This sort of goes along with the home/road issues, since the Devils were almost exclusively at home prior to this trip, but the team has been slipping since their dominant first two games, even before they did hit the road. Their cumulative expected goals (xGF%) still looks quite good over the season thus far, but looking at their trend since the beginning of the season shows a team that has been steadily slipping. The same goes for their share of shot attempts, which has seen a steeper dropoff down significantly below 50%. Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey on Twitter) has some really great data visualizations over at his Tableau page, which is the source of the trend graphs below.
The puck has pretty much consistenly been heading less and less and the right direction for the duration of the season since a great opening pair of games. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the reason is, as the slide started even before they hit the road. This team had some people convinced with a dominant first several games that featured a +13 goal differential. Now, they are very much in the process of un-convincing all of those people. The Devils haven’t really experienced any substantial injuries over that time, so it’s hard to say what the problem is, other than perhaps a slide in discipline and execution of a game plan. John Hynes is going to have to figure out pretty soon how to screw his players’ heads on correctly or this season is in some danger of becoming unglued.
The Devils’ lack of action over the summer was met with a lot of grumbling at the time this summer, and with the team spiraling a bit, those grumbles have returned to an extent. Ray Shero couldn’t land the few targets he might have been hoping to persuade and subsequently more or less sat out the rest of free agency. Whether it was bad luck, a lack of desirable options, or both, the bottom line was that the Devils were entering the season with a lot riding on whether the kids could take another big step forward this season. Some, like Nico Hischier, have shown signs that their development will continue unabated, others — most notably Pavel Zacha, of course — have failed to make the necessary leap to this point, and in between is a player like Will Butcher, whose results have been a mixed bag. The result in the aggregate, though, has been a team that just does not quite have enough options outside of their top guys to keep up at times. And a defense that made not significant adds in the offseason has also been sporadically effective, with some games featuring solid defense and effective offensive support, and others looking completely discombobulated at times.
CJ touched on the issue of depth, as well as the Devils road issues, in his post on Hall on Wednesday. Essentially, the Devils just don’t have the horses to prevent other teams from throwing the kitchen sink at their top line away from home. And if the top line is neutralized, things get much more difficult for the Devils. The first two games of the regular season featured the Devils at their very best, and looking back at those games, a clear difference does emerge in what went on those nights. Yes, God help me, I am talking about the Pavel Zacha-led second line. More than anything, I want to stop re-litigating all things Zacha, but the Devils dominance in those games mirrors the fact that they had a dominant second line humming along behind the big guns. Whether they fully intended to or not, the Devils bet big on Zacha this year as being the everyday second line center. So far, aside from those opening games, that bet has come up snake eyes, and they are scrambling for answers down the middle.
In the absence of other options, though, the Devils may need to explore CJ’s option of splitting up their top line if they can’t figure out a combo that works behind them. The return of Jesper Bratt tonight from injury can perhaps put them on the path to a solution, but it’s a lot to ask from the winger to come in and fix this team. Ultimately, the Devils hopes may rest on figuring out how to get more matchups working in their favor, both home and away. With the away games specifically, John Hynes may need to completely reevaluate his approach.
Level of Concern?
I’m going to put my concern level somewhere around “moderate” for this team right now. In the aggregate, the numbers still look okay, and the record, while not very good, is certainly salvageable. The reality though, is that they have to find some answers soon or else they risk digging themselves a hole that will be difficult to climb out of. This road trip has been pretty much a disaster, but the team looked good enough at home before it to have some hope that a balanced schedule might be a bit more kind. They have some personnel and goaltending concerns overall, but the team is at least capable of playing the kind of hockey it needs to to win. If they continue to flounder through the next couple weeks, it might be time to reach for the panic button, but for now, some adjustments and elevations in performance might be enough to push this team back in the right direction.
Attempt, shot, and chance numbers retrieved from Natural Stat Trick.