The bright start to the 2018-19 regular season for the New Jersey Devils is now in the distant past. The dark clouds of reality have overshadowed it in what became a very dismal month of games in November. It was a busy month. It was a month mostly on the road. It was an altogether bad month as the Devils put together a record of 4-8-3. Only two teams in the National Hockey League earned fewer points than the New Jersey Devils in November.
As a result, the Devils slid to the back of the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference during November and have remained there by end of the month. Before games were played on December 1, the Devils are only ahead of one team in the East and the Metropolitan - Philadelphia - by way of tiebreakers. I cannot stress enough how bad the month was.
I’d like to think that most fans want the team to move forward, whether it is to try to salvage the 2018-19 season or just get some wins to make watching this team enjoyable again. I know I do. But we must look at the month that just happened to see how they got to where they currently are as we begin a new month.
The Games of November 2018
The New Jersey Devils effectively ended October in Tampa Bay when they got crushed 3-8. This was the first of what would be a seven-game road trip. The Devils would play the first of their 15 games away from Newark and all within the first 11 days of the month. The trip included the first of many back-to-back sets of games on the schedule too. After a home-heavy October, this trip would go a long way of showing us who the 2018-19 Devils could be.
It became the Road Trip from Hell.
November 1 was notable as it was not only the first game of the month, but the first start for Cory Schneider, who was cleared to play earlier that week. They would visit the Detroit Red Wings. The start was not stupendous and the Devils struggled with Detroit. How ugly did it get? The team allowed their first shorthanded goal of the season; an empty net shorthanded goal gave Detroit insurance, and Marcus Johansson scored with seconds left on the clock to make the ENG the GWG. It was a 3-4 loss and it would end up being the second best result from the trip.
On November 3, the Devils returned to the area to play the Islanders in Brooklyn. They scored zero goals. The Islanders put up two and tacked on an empty netter to make it a clean 0-3 defeat. This would be the first time the Devils were shutout this season. That it was a game within the division added further pain to the loss as the Isles were then surging and the Devils were clearly slumping.
There would be a different performance on November 5 in Pittsburgh. In what would be an offensive battle, the New Jersey Devils finished their plays, got bounces, and generally earned a win against the Pittsburgh Penguins. What’s more is that the win was led by Brian Boyle, who scored a natural hat trick. This would be the first hat trick scored by the Devils this season and it happened Pittsburgh’s Hockey Fights Cancer Night too. The Devils won 5-1 and it was a great win to snap the winless streak that started the month. Perhaps the Devils could build off this win.
Nope. The Devils followed the win by getting pounded by the Senators on November 6 in Ottawa. The Devils scored the first two goals. Then Ottawa tied it up within a minute in the first period. The Devils responded to each of those goals by showing as much fight as a stuffed animal. This continued for the next two periods as the Sens kept lighting up Schneider and the Devils. It was a shameful performance by the Devils. The game ended with a 3-7 score.
Two days later, the Devils went into Toronto. This was the Hockey Hall of Fame game as the Hall of Fame celebrated the 2018 class that weekend before the induction ceremony on Monday. This class was led by Devils legend, Martin Brodeur. The Devils respected the legend by getting creamed by the Maple Leafs. They held up for one period and then the offensive waves flooded Keith Kinkaid and the Devils. The chatter before the game out of John Hynes was about the Devils’ “compete.” The compete sucked as New Jersey lost 1-6.
The trip would finally end on November 11 in Winnipeg. It was another poor outing by Schneider and another poor showing by the Devils skaters as they ate another decisive loss. It was an easy win for the Jets; the Devils lost 2-5 to end their seven-game road trip with a record of 1-6-0.
Needless to write, the Devils were happy to be home again after that one. Even better, they were facing Pittsburgh again. The Pens were struggling as well as both teams needed a win. Pittsburgh was frustrated and started bringing nonsense to the game as the Devils tried to keep ahead on the scoreboard. The Devils may have been equalized, but they were never behind. Taylor Hall put up the deciding goal amid a four-point night in a 4-2 win over the Penguins. The Devils earned a much needed win as justice and resiliency prevailed.
And the Devils actually followed that up in their next game. The Devils went into Philadelphia, looking for revenge from the last game in Philly plus an also-needed win, on November 15. Keith Kinkaid was on point and when he wasn’t, the goal posts were. Five were hit and Kinkaid stopped everything the Flyers threw at him. This was even more difficult as Sami Vatanen left the game with an injury, bringing the Devils down to five defensemen for most of the game. But Joey Anderson’s first NHL goal, Kyle Palmieri’s insurance goal in the third (where upon Philadelphia’s Brian Elliott was injured on the play), and an empty netter provided the goals in a 3-0 win over Philly. It was a gutsy win. It was two wins in a row. Maybe the Devils could right the proverbial ship.
Nah. Against Detroit on November 17 at the Rock, the Devils played a good game in regulation. They only struggled at finishing their plays. That eventually bit them as Detroit found a third-period equalizer. The game required overtime and the Devils were terrible in overtime again. Detroit took it easily in the 3-on-3 situation to make it a 2-3 loss that felt like a stinker. The Devils were left with a mere point despite doing more than enough good things (in my view) that should have led to a win. The frustration continued on November 18 in Carolina. The Hurricanes blitzed the Devils for two goals within the first thirty seconds of the game. One that Cory Schneider should have stopped and one that no goalie was going to. The Devils responded by playing mostly well for the remaining 59:30 - and scoring just one goal. The one game where Schneider is only beaten twice was the one game where the Devils could not solve Curtis McElhinney. The Devils lost 1-2.
There would be a respite from the frustration on November 21, Thanksgiving Eve. The Devils hosted Montreal. The Devils held well against a good Montreal team for one period and finished the period up 2-1. In the second period, the Devils shredded through the Montreal defense for three more goals against Punchin’ Carey Price featuring a brace by Pavel Zacha. Remember that his second goal was a power play goal. The Devils ultimately cruised to a well-played 5-2 win. It was an example of how good the Devils could be when they were on.
They would not be on in their final four games of the month. After Thanksgiving, the Devils faced the Islanders in Newark. The Devils were put behind in the third period again. But, this time, the Devils would score with the extra skater - Marcus Johansson again - and tie it up with about ten seconds left. Perhaps the Devils would be the ones to break hearts this time. Nope. Overtime came and that was another fail. The Devils lost 3-4 in OT in a game that featured several points of frustration about the 2018-19 season - as if this month did not feature them in general. This game would be the last home game of the month as the Devils went to the state of Florida for a back-to-back and then Washington DC on the final day of the month.
While it was not as awful as the Road Trip from Hell, it was a winless road trip. Schneider was awful in the first period to Tampa Bay and the Devils were owned in a 2-5 loss. The Devils in Tampa Bay, Florida in 2018 has not been good. On the next night, Kinkaid was beaten late in regulation in a close game to force overtime and the Devils were owned in OT for a 3-4 OT loss. On November 30, the Devils played the Capitals. The Caps went up, the Devils came close to tying it up twice, and the Caps pulled away both times. The game ended with a 3-6 loss featuring many of the issues prevalent in November: a bad power play, bad mistakes and shifts such as turnovers and defensive miscues, goaltending not being helpful, and not finishing plays when the play is going New Jersey’s way.
The month of November was heavy with eleven road games and the Devils won two all month. They saw potential wins go up in smoke in all three OT losses, not to mention the team was terrible in each of those three overtimes. They lost eight in regulation and six of them were by three or more goals. It was a very bad month for the New Jersey Devils.
By the Numbers
What makes November 2018 more baffling is that some of the underlying on-ice stats were really good for the Devils. Let’s look at them.
These numbers were pulled from Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com on December 1, 2018; so it is inclusive of the entire month of November. For the “For” stats, higher numbers are better and are ranked accordingly. For the “Against” stats, lower numbers are better and are ranked accordingly. Green numbers are ranked in the top ten in the NHL and red ones are ranked 21st and below.
This is very odd. Typically, a team putting up a 4-8-3 record in a month is not this good in 5-on-5 play. They’re usually giving up a ton of attempts, shots, and chances. While in November, the Devils were among the bottom ten in the league in attempts allowed and shots allowed rates, the Devils were beating those rates with their own attempts and shots, respectively. This was not a team taking on water. They were out-doing their competition over the month in those categories. Even if you adjust for scores and venues, the Devils are still coming out ahead given their CF% and SF% are both over 50%.
And it’s not like the Devils have given up a ton of chances. Sure, their high-danger chance rate went up; but they’re still among the better teams in the league when it comes to allowing it. And, again, they’ve generated more chances. For both scoring chances in general and those in the slot and at the crease, the Devils look real good. The adjusted 5-on-5 numbers at Natural Stat Trick give them a bump up in nearly all six of those stats.
Among the individual skaters, regulars such as Will Butcher, Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt (who returned to action in November), and Blake Coleman looked great by these standards. More limited action from Egor Yakovlev (made his NHL debut in November) and Stefan Noesen also looked strong in this regard. Only five players finished below 50% CF% and none were worse than 48.5%, which is quite good.
So it makes those team shooting and save percentages really stand out like a sore thumb. Despite out-attempting, out-shooting, and out-chancing the competition in 5-on-5, the Devils were out-scored. The team save percentage was low. Cory Schneider was heinous. Keith Kinkaid was not consistent but he wasn’t the issue most nights. Still, the Devils gave up a lot of goals in 5-on-5 play and that definitely hurt amid the good shooting, attempt, and chance rates.
Almost as poor was the shooting. The Devils were just below league median in terms of scoring so it was not as if the Devils were scoring a ton of goals that would have necessarily turned a lot the L’s into W’s. (This is a 5-on-5 count, so OT isn’t included here.) Some, sure. Shooting less than 7% as a team adds to the frustration given at how many shots they did generate and put on target. The majority of the team had an on-ice shooting percentage less than 8%. This matches up with how plenty of the team’s best chances in games such as breakaways, odd-man rushes, and such left begging for a goal but ended up with nothing. If Schneider was anything better and/or Kinkaid was hotter (92.2% is about league median), that would have been a big help; but the scoring lagging also held the team back too.
Speaking of lagging, let’s cringe with one-half of special teams:
Power Play Situations:
The state of your power play units, Rick Kowalsky!
The Devils’ power play finished November with a +1 goal differential. That’s sad. The Devils generated a decent number of power play opportunities. This number is inclusive of all power play situations, including 5-on-3s and five-minute majors. The Devils did not score on anything but 5-on-4 situations and they only scored five times. Remember that second goal by Zacha on November 23 against Montreal? That was the last PPG of the month. The Devils have not converted a man advantage in their last four games of November.
Since the Devils were on the ice for more time, their rates were a lot better. After all, when you don’t score on a power play, the power play continues and that leads to more potential shooting opportunities. Even so, the Devils were still in the bottom third(ish) of the NHL in generating scoring chances - which may be a function of how they run their 1-3-1 outside of the homeplate area. And their other rates, while better than last month, are nothing to write home about. But the shooting percentage was very low on the power play and that results in a low goal scoring rate and a lot of gnashed teeth about wasted power plays. Given how the Devils had prime opportunities on the power play to change a game around or get an insurance goal to prevent a late equalizer in November, and there is reason to be really frustrated with the power play.
What’s more is that a lot of the same issues under Geoff Ward’s power plays from past season have been on display in November. The zone entries remain a challenge. The focus on a drop pass or a back pass from the neutral zone - Kowalsky’s most visible change to the power plays so far - has mostly took more time off the clock instead of securing more entries. Puck control and distribution remain on a knife as a badly missed shot or a pass not handled near-perfectly has often led to a zone exit to end a potential attack. Opposing teams who like to be aggressive on the penalty kill have been very successful against the Devils. And in November, even the non-aggressive ones did not have to sweat too much.
As with the goaltending, I don’t think a better power play alone would have turned a bad month into an awesome month. But it would have been a big help.
The other half of special teams was much better, at least.
Penalty Killing Situations
The Devils’ penalty kill remains one of the better ones in the whole NHL. The goaltending has been pretty good. The rate of allowing attempts and shots is very good. The rate of goals allowed is great. The Devils’ PK was a -5 in goal differential for the month, which is great. After a month of creating about a shorthanded scoring opportunity per game, three shorthanded goals were finally scored. Blake Coleman has two of them and Travis Zajac has the other one - which was created by a shot by Coleman. Pavel Zacha continued to get more minutes and the defense pairing of Ben Lovejoy and Andy Greene remained viable. The individual PK stats look pretty good for a team that did well on the PK in November.
The only big downside in November with respect to the penalty kill was that the Devils had to be on the penalty kill as much as they did. The Devils finished November with 127 PIM (tied for the eighth most in the NHL in the month) with 52 minor penalties (tied for the fourth most in the NHL in the month). Who were the culprits? Damon Severson (14 PIM), Miles Wood (12 PIM), and Lovejoy (12 PIM) led in this charge. It also didn’t help that five players (Hall, Noesen, Boyle, Vatanen, Palmieri) each took four minors in November too. Given the nature of the struggles the Devils had throughout November, I believe many of the fouls could have been avoided with smarter and/or calmer play. I’m sure some of them were necessary to prevent a scoring opportunity or even a goal, but that’s still a lot of shorthanded ice time for a month of games. To put it another way, the Devils spent approximately 9% of all of their games this month down a man.
It is great that the Devils only conceded eight goals, they did not get drowned in shots most nights, and they hit back for three goals of their own. But the best penalty kill is to not have to kill a penalty in the first place. This needs improving going forward.
Additions and Subtractions
The Devils have had six players return or debut for New Jersey in November:
- First is Cory Schneider. He technically returned at the end of October when he came in relief for Kinkaid after Tampa Bay dropped 7 goals on him. Schneider made his first start on November 1 against Detroit. It wasn’t great. Schneider made four more starts. Three of them were even worse. Schneider is effectively a distant #2 on the goaltending depth chart as John Hynes opted to start Kinkaid in the back-to-back set at the end of November and the start of December. There really isn’t a good solution to Schneider here. Demoting him to the AHL and hoping he’ll “figure it out” against AHL competition to play better in a better NHL doesn’t make much sense. However, his performances haven’t warranted minutes in the NHL. It is tough square to circle.
- Second and third are Brett Seney and Kurtis Gabriel. Both made their New Jersey debuts on November 3 against the Isles. Gabriel was brought up as “muscle” against the Isles. He played less than 6 minutes and provided nothing in such limited time. Seney, on the other hand, has earned the coaches’ trust to a degree as he remained with New Jersey and played in all games since November 3. Seney is very much a depth player at the moment and it took some time for him to contribute. But he scored his first NHL goal against Winnipeg on November 11 and his first NHL assist on November 15, which was on Joey Anderson’s first NHL goal against Philly. There’s room for improvement (example: his 48.8% CF% is the second lowest among players who played the majority of the month), but it’s a start for the young player, who is in his first season of pro hockey.
- Fourth, and most important, is Jesper Bratt. Bratt suffered a fractured jaw prior to the season opener in Sweden. He was out for over a month after being used as the second line right winger in preseason. Bratt returned to that role on November 9. That game was not so good (NJ lost it 1-6), but the young winger would get going from November 11 to finish the month with two goals and five assists in 11 games while helping Marcus Johansson and Pavel Zacha perform much better. Bratt’s speed and confidence on the puck was reminiscent of how he performed in the first half of last season when he wowed many Devils fans. The coaches even put him up with Hischier and Hall for a few games by the end of November and it was effective. His return has been a welcome sight for the team.
- Fifth is Egor Yakovlev. The 27-year old defenseman was signed to a one-year contract from the KHL. He accepted a demotion at the beginning of the season, but he was called up after some injuries. Yakovlev suited up on November 11 and has made five other appearances. He’s been OK. While the Devils have not relied on him for any special teams, when he’s been on the ice, the Devils have a CF% above 54% and a SF% above 55%. While he’s had a miscue here and there, he hasn’t been a detriment to the team in 5-on-5. As such, the coaching staff has rotated him in for the likes of Mirco Mueller and Will Butcher already.
- Sixth, for the final game of the month, Michael McLeod was called up and made his NHL debut on November 30. With Dea claimed on waivers, the Devils gave their 2016 first-round draft pick a shot. McLeod played only eight shifts and less than six minutes against the Capitals. It was a cup of coffee on the ice - and on the calendar as McLeod was sent down to Binghmaton the next day.
Those were the additions. There were injuries suffered in November and the loss of one player, though.
- The month started with Stefan Noesen on the IR with an upper body injury. He returned against Toronto on November 9. Since then, any games he missed were due to being a healthy scratch.
- While he was not injured, Pavel Zacha was demoted to Binghamton on November 2. Mostly because he was not producing anything. He wasn’t useless but as a forward, some points are expected and he had a goose egg in both goals and assists. He would return to the lineup five games later (after the Road Trip from Hell) on November 13 against Pittsburgh. Zacha would finally get on the board with his first goal of the season on November 17 against Detroit. He would score again on November 19 and put up a double on Price on November 23. Not huge production, but he’s seemingly safe on the roster now.
- If the Road Trip from Hell wasn’t bad enough, the final game with Winnipeg yielded injuries for Nico Hischier and Brian Boyle. Hischier missed four games while Boyle missed five. They would return in the middle of the month. The fourth line saw some different looks as Hischier’s absence meant Travis Zajac filled in on the top line.
- Sami Vatanen picked up a lower body injury from the November 15 game in Philadelphia. He left the game in the middle of it, leaving the Devils with five defensemen. He ended up missing three more games before returning after Thanksgiving.
- The most significant injury of the month unfortunately happened to Joey Anderson. The young winger broke his ankle early in the Montreal game on November 21. Over a week later, Corey Masisak reported on Twitter that John Hynes confirmed the news and that Anderson would be out for week-to-week. Masisak noted that Anderson played on the broken ankle for a shift, which is impressive in its own right. The Devils ended November with one man on IR: Anderson. I would not expect a quick return for him.
- Marcus Johansson missed the Florida game on November 26 with a lower body injury. He did return for the Washington game on November 30.
- Lastly, the departure. Jean-Sebastien Dea was picked up off waivers by Ray Shero before the beginning of this season. Dea was placed back on waivers on November 28 as Dea has not done much on the fourth line in November. Pittsburgh claimed him on November 29. Since Dea was originally a Penguin, Pittsburgh had the option to put him in the AHL and they did. Given the ascendance of Seney and Anderson pre-injury plus the return of a healthy Boyle with a healthy Noesen and Drew Stafford in the press box, Dea’s services became unnecessary. At least he provided a little bit with the Devils in October 2018.
Devil of the Month
With such a poor month of results, one has to look for the bright spots on the team this month. It was not so much that Taylor Hall had a bad November. He did lead the team in scoring with five goals, nine assists, and 52 shots in November while yielding a 55.2% CF%, a 58% SF%, and a HDCF% of 59.7%. Hall was quite good. I was just impressed by two other players.
The runner-up, so to speak, is Jesper Bratt. Bratt came back from a significant injury and went right back to work as if January through April 2018 never happened to him. Two goals and five assists in eleven games is good. But the real impressive part of his month is how he performed with other players. Check out his With You or Without You stats for this season. Johansson and Zacha away from Bratt were losing in the run of play. With Bratt, the two were functional and productive. The line in November out-scored, out-attempted, and out-shot its competition in 5-on-5 play. A couple of games or shifts with Hischier and Hall? The team had CF%s above 58% and SF%s above 60%. For a team where secondary scoring was a big concern, the Devils now have an actual second line with Bratt back in the lineup and playing this way. Johansson-Zacha-Bratt is a functional line. Hynes and his staff can comfortably swap Bratt and Palmieri if need be. Because of this, I name Jesper Bratt the honorable mention for the Devil of the Month for November 2018.
My choice for the Devil of the month is a player that I think is gaining in fandom. Blake Coleman had an awesome November. Coleman put up five goals, seven assists, and 47 shots on net. Among all Devils in November, Coleman finished tied for first in goals and second in assists, points, and shots on net. The number of shots is remarkable. Coleman took 146 shots last season. Coleman took 32% of his entire shooting volume last season in this past month. Keep in mind that Coleman does not play on a power play unit and he is not on a “scoring” line. Due to injuries here and there in November, he’s had various teammates. Yet, he put up more points and shots on net than any other Devil not-named Hall. He also maintained good CF%, SF%, SCF%, and HDCF% values in 5-on-5 play. That’s pretty great despite the fact that he does not usually play with the most offensively talented Devils and in what are usually offensive situations. What’s more is that Coleman is responsible for all three of the team’s shorthanded goals in November (2 who he scored, 1 he assisted) while still being a very good penalty killer. He knows his role and he excelled in this past month.
CJ wrote on November 14 that Coleman was the team’s best non-top-line forward. Coleman has proven him right - and then some. Because I declare that Blake Coleman is the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month for November 2018.
Final Thoughts & Your Take
Back on November 26, Corey Masisak at The Athletic ($) wrote about the 2018-19 Devils failing to succeed on the margins. The 2017-18 team, in contrast, succeeded very much in close games, getting post-regulation wins, and, most of all, getting results when the team is not playing an overall great game. It is a great post. I directly pointed to it in my recap of the 3-4 OT loss in Florida, which was a great example of Masisak’s argument. I think that column will stand up for a while as a reason why this season’s team is where it is now and why it is not any better despite some favorable underlying numbers.
I have been and remain a proponent of these stats, but to do so means understanding what they actually represent. As I brought up when looking at the defensemen individually on November 25, they are great for a macro view of the team. Truly bad players would have bad stats over a period of time. But the Devils are getting wrecked by specific events that these stats do not really cover. The micro view is where the damage is being done. Counting attempts against does not reflect whether the other team was just better or if a player’s turnover helped them out. Models like GAR and expected goals have their place, but they do not fully account if a Devil utterly failed on a play to leads to a goal against or if they suffer from the goaltender giving up a bad goal or if they failed to score on a great opportunity. A lot of these stats focus on 5-on-5 play, which is important. But as Masisak pointed out, it is not where the Devils are losing points and games (think 5v6 situations, failed power plays, overtime failures).
What would it have taken for New Jersey to have a better record in November? I think the answer is better goaltending and a better power play and fewer critical errors and not going flat after something goes wrong. Fixing just one thing may help a little but to go from Bad to even Possibly Good needs more than just one thing to be better. I’d love it if the answer to the team’s woes were as simple as just dealing with just one player or one thing (e.g. demoting Schneider for an indefinite amount of time). But it is rarely that simple and a full look at this past month - at the micro and macro level - supports that.
In short, a lot has to be better from all parties involved with the New Jersey Devils. I will state this: a bad December after this past month will all but guarantee that the Devils will return to the NHL Draft Lottery in April 2019.
Now that I’ve wrote at length about a bad month of 15 games, I want to know your take about all of this. What are your main takeaways from this past month? Do you think the Devils can bounce back from this? If so, how? Would you agree that Coleman was the Devil of the Month, or should it have been someone else? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils in November 2018 in the comments. Thank you for reading.