After three months of positive results and expectations being beaten, the New Jersey Devils slumped through most of January. They entered the month with two straight losses. That was extended to a six-game winless streak. After then winning two game,s the Devils lost four-straight heading into All-Star Weekend. The Devils ended the month with a win. That meant the team finished with a 3-6-2 record in January 2018. As fate would have it, a better month would have given the Devils an edge in securing a playoff spot in a tight Metropolitan Division. Alas, the struggle is real as they enter a crucial month of February, which has started off well as of this writing. Before we continue any further, let’s look back at what happened last month.
The Games of January 2018
The New Jersey Devils began the new year away from Newark. They ended 2017 away from home in the first of four straight road games. The team’s first game of the year was in St. Louis. The Devils battled back from a tough start to tie it up. They actually scored a third goal to break through - except it was taken away due to the dreaded offside challenge. The game continued through to a shootout where the Devils lost, 2-3. On Thursday, January 4, the Devils went into Dallas. The Devils did play well but a terrible turnover by Andy Greene and a horrible game from Sami Vatanen put the Devils in too deep of a hole. Despite a valiant effort at the end, they lost 3-4 in regulation. The road trip concluded on Sunday, January 7, in Brooklyn. The Islanders may have well been called the Islan*ers since they played like ‘D’ is optional in this past month. In what became a goal-fest, the Devils went up 4-2 in the third period and proceeded to blow that lead. That game went to a shootout, where the Devils lost with a final score of 4-5.
Between calls, poor individual performances, and a feeling of Murphy enacting his Law, the Devils needed a break. Their bye week took place after the Islanders game along with four other teams in the division. Players were healed up. Heads were supposedly cleared. Focus could have returned. On January 13, the Devils hosted the Philadelphia Flyers - a good opportunity as any to get back to winning ways. That did not happen. Instead, the Devils had the game slip away from them as they put in a disappointing performance against the Winged P’s in a 3-5 loss. The winless streak was now six games long.
It would not become seven. The Devils proceeded to put in two very good performances in their next two games. Passes were made. Decisions were generally good. Shots were taken early, late, in-between, and often. In a rematch in Brooklyn on January 16, the Devils decisively smacked down the Islan*ers, 4-1. After getting trounced by them twice earlier this season, the Devils hosted the Capitals and gave them as good of a game as they’ve seen in 2017-18. While the Devils saw a 3-2 lead get tied up in the third period, Taylor Hall showcased why he was a Superstar with a thrilling overtime goal. The Devils beat the Caps 4-3 in OT. Spirits in New Jersey were lifted, hope returned to the fans, and why not? They just took down two divisional opponents and did so with an attacking authority. This was a good time as any to get some revenge against Philadelphia.
Except they didn’t. Keith Kinkaid gave up three goals on seven shots and hurt himself as he was beaten on the third goal. Ken Appleby from Binghamton had to come in and put in an excellent performance with the Devils down 0-3. The skaters - who lost Brian Gibbons early in the second period from a blocked shot that broke his thumb - could only score once as the Devils, again, were outshined by Philly in a 1-3 loss. That was bad. Things would get worse soon.
After the Flyers game, Taylor Hall was ruled out with an injured right thumb. Hall was sorely missed in the next three games. While the Devils gave the opposition goalie plenty of rubber, the Devils were blanked by Detroit on home ice in a 0-3 loss. It was just sad as the Devils couldn’t break Petr Mrazek of all goalies. The loss was bad enough that there was a player’s only meeting after the defeat. The meeting must have worked because they came out like they were on fire against a Boston team that did not lose in regulation in 17 games at the time. It was close. It was a more than respectable effort against a hot team. It was another game where the goalie, Cory Schneider, hurt himself and had to be replaced by Appleby. It was marred at the end by Boston thug and winger Brad Marchand jumping and elbowing Marcus Johansson towards the end of the game. It was a 2-3 loss in Boston, which would not be so bad, except that it was the team’s third straight loss and not that far from a six-game winless streak. The final game before the All-Star Game weekend was a home game against Nashville. Nashville was really good. The Devils weren’t. Their slump was on full display when they stunk in another 0-3 loss. The bleak feeling during that winless streak returned during this losing streak.
If there was a way to end the month on a high note, the Devils found it on January 30 in Buffalo. Keith Kinkaid returned from his injury and played well. Taylor Hall returned to action and played well. The team performance was good all around against a surprisingly stingy Buffalo team. They earned that 3-1 win. They deserved to snap their losing streak with how they played and they did so. It remains to be seen whether the good times will keep rolling in February; we will find out soon enough.
Only three wins out of eleven in a month is not good. What makes it frustrating was that the Devils did not play a lot of bad games. OK, the two Flyers games were not good. The shutout losses were not good. But the Devils were not doormats or played like scrubs in the other losses. The few wins they did pick up were from playing well. What happened? A whole bunch of things happened. The bounces dried up. The goaltending was just not good enough. One half of special teams was not so effective. Mistakes that otherwise would be covered up or handled tended to just cost the Devils in January. Injuries hit them in a significant manner. There was plenty of adversity for the squad. The 3-6-2 record says plenty about its impact. January 2018 was not a good month for the Devils.
By the Numbers
The numbers provide evidence to how the team has performed in various situations. These numbers were pulled from the linked sites on February 2, 2018; so it is inclusive of all thirty-one days in January.
5-on-5 Play (Note: All Numbers from Natural Stat Trick): I don’t normally start with this, but let’s look at shooting and save percentages. Tell me if you notice something with these numbers:
Shooting Percentage: 10.38%, 8.54%, 8.41%, 5.54%
Save Percentage: 92.74%, 92.99%, 91.18%, 89.52%
Those are the percentages from each month from Natural Stat Trick for the Devils. They both cratered in January. In the first half of this season, the Devils were riding high in PDO. January was a cold slap to both halves of it. When I write that the goaltending was not good enough - it really, really wasn’t. In the bigger picture, Cory Schneider was not good when he played (he was sick and did get hurt) and Keith Kinkaid was only good in three games. Even with Ken Appleby playing way better than anyone expected, the goalies put up a sub-90% in 5-on-5 play. It’s really hard to win games with that kind of performance.
It’s even harder to win games with a shooting percentage below 6%. Just ask the team that played in Pittsburgh for this season and Carolina. Not getting the bounces, the right-place-in-right-time plays, the tips, and that mythical “finish” on most plays just held the team back. Sure, there were some nights where the offense brought the shots and the opposing goalie just played well. Sure, the Devils had two big goals taken away from challenges. But, overall, the team needs to produce and they struggled to do so. The most positive thing I could say was that they were very unfortunate to get their shots into the net after three months of relatively warm-to-hot shooting. The result of these percentages? The Devils were out-scored 16-24 in 5-on-5 play. They were a bottom ten team in goals and a bottom ten team in goals against. It’s really hard to win games with that kind of performance.
The sad thing is that it wasn’t like the Devils were totally outplayed throughout the month. From a Corsi For% perspective, the Devils were a top-five team in the NHL. Their CF% was 52.8%, the fifth best in the whole NHL. This meant that they put in the work and made the progress to regularly out-attempt their opponents. Even with score and venue adjustments, the Devils’ CF% fell to 52.5%, the seventh best in the NHL with adjustments. What that means is that the run of play was actually good. It is a far cry better than where they were in October and November.
This was also true for other on-ice team stats. The Devils were actually the best 5-on-5 team in the NHL in shots for percentage (percentage of shots for over total shots) at 55.79%. That’s right, the Devils led in out-shooting opponents across the month. What about scoring chances? It’s another top-ten percentage as the Devils’ January scoring chance for percentage was 52.94%. As for those high-danger chances (chances in the slot and at the crease), the Devils finished 12th but still well above breakeven at 52.04%. The for and against rates that lead to these percentages are worth looking at if you want to feel good about the team’s 5-on-5 play. As in, the Devils’ shot attempts against rate per 60 minutes was the second lowest in the whole NHL in January. The Devils’ shots against rate per 60 was the second lowest in the whole NHL in January. The Devils’ scoring chances against rate per 60 was the eighth lowest in the whole NHL in January. That’s all just impressive. While the Corsi for-stat wasn’t too shabby, the Devils made their attempts count. The Devils’ shots for per 60 minute rate was the fourth best in the NHL at 34.32. Yes, a New Jersey Devils team had a shooting rate above 34 for a whole month. As for chances, the Devils were tenth best in scoring chances per 60 and sixth in high-danger scoring chances per 60. The Devils did have an offense and a defense going in 5-on-5 play - just not with many goals (and too many against).
This is all not to say the Devils were a really good team in January. As much as I support it, I know a team cannot live on CF% (or SF% or SCF% or HDCF%) alone. (Thanks 2013-14 Devils.) But what this all does mean that, for the most part, they were doing a lot of the little things and not-so-little things that leads to the Devils controlling the play more often and generating shots. That tends to result in an offense and defense that is effective, perhaps more than we may realize. Unfortunately with the crummy shooting and save percentages the Devils had in January, the results weren’t likely to match the performances. And they didn’t happen. The takeaway here is that the Devils aren’t a bunch of poorly-coached overachievers who are finally getting brought back to reality. There’s at least a decent team in New Jersey. If they can keep it up and the percentages rebound, then the future is brighter than it may seem after a 3-6-2 month.
Power Play Situations: The Devils’ power play was underwhelming at best to watch. The numbers support that. First, from NHL.com, the Devils went 7-for-41 in the month for a 17.1% success rate. That success rate ranked 21st in the league in January. The more important number to know is 41. 41 power play opportunities were tied for the second most in the whole league in January. This includes a month where the Devils had zero power plays in their final game (granted, their first Flyers game had 7 so, whatever). Nothing says a lack of satisfaction like not converting on a whole lot of chances. It does not help at all to know the Devils gave up two shorthanded goals, leaving the power play at a mere +5 goal differential.
The power play stats at Natural Stat Trick aren’t all that hot either. The Devils’ shooting percentage of 11.67% ranked 19th, which isn’t all that bad but not all that great either. The problem was more in getting the shots at all. The Devils shot at a rate of about 54 shots per 60 minutes on the power play, which was the 22nd highest in the NHL. Their rate of attempts was 23rd in the NHL at just over 99 per 60 minutes. Relative to the rest of the league, these are not good rates. They wouldn’t matter so much if the reason why the Devils weren’t getting a lot of shots or attempts on their power plays was because they scored a whole bunch of goals early on it. That was not happening in January; they only scored 7 out of 41 opportunities.
The Devils have stuck to a 1-3-1 formation and, due to injury and performance, have moved some players around to find out what would work. The coaches have not yet figured it out. The breakouts are random as to whether the Devils will even gain the zone. Even when they do enter the zone, dump-ins are common and its structured such that one pass going awry leads to an early end of their time in their oppositions zone. To put it simply, the Devils continue to not take advantage of most of them being a 5-on-4 situation. It’d be one thing if they were able to put up a load of shots and they were just unfortunate. At least then we would know that their process is working to some degree. The current power play process of the Devils is not working so well.
Penalty Kill Situations: The penalty kill as a whole in January was good. Per NHL.com, the Devils killed 30 out of 36 situations for a success rate of 83.3%. That success rate ranked eighth in the NHL in January. Those 36 situations was also the ninth most in the NHL in January too. Discipline could be a bit better in that regard. The Devils scored one shorthanded goal, so their goal differential on the PK is -5, which is quite good for a whole month’s worth of games.
The penalty kill stats at Natural Stat Trick are consistent with the idea that the Devils’ penalty kill was Actually Good in January. The Devils’ shots attempts against per sixty minutes was just below Philadelphia for the very lowest in the NHL at 85.06. That rate seems high but in a shorthanded situation, that’s really, really good. The Devils’ shots against per sixty minutes was the eighth lowest in the NHL at 51.82. Again, high rate on its own but really good in a PK situation. As with power plays, these numbers may not mean much if the team was allowing a lot of goals. But that was not the case with New Jersey last month. Their team save percentage of 88.68% was quite good (11th in the NHL) and the team did only allow six power play goals in the month. Once again, the Devils’ strength on special teams is with the penalty kill. At least that has continued through an awful January for the Devils.
Additions and Subtractions
There was plenty of movement within the month of January due to injuries and coaching decisions. Let’s look at it by position.
The Devils used a third goaltender in this season, Ken Appleby, out of necessity. First, Appleby was called up as cover when Cory Schneider was sick and missed a couple of games. Keith Kinkaid started in his place. Then Kinkaid pulled a groin while giving up the third goal against in the first period of the second loss to the Flyers this month. Appleby had to come in. He was sensational and didn’t allow any goals in the 3-1 defeat. Schneider came back from illness and started the next two games. Schneider was hurt while giving up a goal in the second period in Boston and left the game after that period. Appleby again had to come in and again he was perfect. With #1 and #2 on the shelf, Appleby made his first NHL start with MacKenzie Blackwood called up as his backup. Appleby did as well as he could in a 3-0 loss to Nashville. Blackwood was sent back after that game, Kinkaid returned from injury after the All-Star Game weekend, and Appleby finished the month as the team’s #2 goalie.
On defense, there were no injuries. Damon Severson was held out of three games as a healthy scratch for reasons I really couldn’t tell you. He wasn’t a problem on defense; not in January. It could have been worse. He could have been Steve Santini. Santini played three games, all three mostly with Andy Greene on a pairing that played a lot, played a lot of tough competition, and played a lot of defensive hockey thanks to zone starts and performance. Santini’s last game was on January 7 before he was relegated to the scratch list. While he wasn’t playing so well, he was really overwhelmed. I’m surprised the coaches decided to keep him out entirely instead of just moving him down in the lineup. It didn’t help that Severson, Sami Vatanen (one game aside), and Ben Lovejoy all did well in his absence as a right-sided defenseman. Santini ended the month as a scratch and was sent down to Binghamton early in February. At the end of the month, the Devils received a defenseman back: Mirco Mueller. After suffering a broken collarbone on November 12, the Devils activated him for the month’s final game in Buffalo. He was utilized as a seventh defenseman as the Devils went with eleven forwards. Mueller had a solid game and the 11/7 formation went well enough for the Devils to continue that into February. It remains to be seen if/when Santini comes back and how he is used. It’ll be weird if he gets thrown back into the deep end if/when recalled. At least the coaching staff understood that Severson needs to play. I hope they did, at least.
The Devils utilized 15 different forwards in January. Two injuries did strike the Devils hard. The first injury at forward was Brian Gibbons, who broke a thumb while blocking a shot in that second loss to Philadelphia. He remains out for several more weeks. The second injury at forward was Marcus Johansson, who was victimized by Brad Marchand jumping and throwing an elbow at his head. Johansson is currently out with a concussion, his second of this season. Who knows when he’ll be able to return. There was a third, more minor injury: Taylor Hall having a sprain on his right hand. He missed three games before the All-Star Game and he was dearly missed. He did return for the Buffalo game, though. The other moves at forward were scratches. Blake Coleman was scratched for three games before Gibbons’ injury led to his return to the lineup. Stefan Noesen was also scratched for two games to have some others get involved. Drew Stafford also missed three games for the same reason; the injury to Johansson has secured some minutes for the time being. Jimmy Hayes was given three appearances, which he really didn’t do much with. Hayes was scratched towards the end of the month and as of this writing, agreed to go down to Binghamton for a conditioning stint. Kevin Rooney was called up from Binghamton and played in the Nashville game, where he also did not do too much. He was sent down after that game too. The only injured Devils forwards by the end of the month were Gibbons and Johansson. With Hall’s and Mueller’s return, the Devils have went with eleven forwards with Hall taking most of the extra shifts. We’ll see how that long that will last into February.
Devil of the Month
Normally, I give out an honorable mention and a Devil of the Month. I had a harder time than usual with the honorable mention. The Devil of the Month was easy. Too easy. You know who it is already. (Hall.) Who else really did well throughout the month? I’m going to stretch and say it was defenseman Will Butcher. While the power play struggles have been real, Butcher has been excellent in his role in 5-on-5 play. Yes, he’s receiving limited minutes, lesser competition than the other pairings, and he gets plenty of offensive zone starts (His OZS% was around 67%). But he’s been excelling with what he has been given. Just look at the numbers at Natural Stat Trick: Butcher posted a 61.2% CF% in 5-on-5 play and even after adjusting for score and venue, his CF% is 60.4%. A CF% above 60% is really, really good. His shots against per 60 minute rate was 23.37. All three of those stats were the best among Devils defensemen and his CF% rates were second only to Mueller’s one game. Butcher has been very effective in 5-on-5 play. Given that Ben Lovejoy has also played well next to him, this is one part of the blueline that hasn’t been a sorespot. What’s more is that Butcher has been productive. His six assists put him tied for third on the team in scoring in January, which is something given how the power play had issued and Butcher doesn’t play a lot to begin with. If that’s not enough, he finished the month with no penalties - which is great to see from a defenseman. As an honorable mention, I’m giving it to the rookie.
As for the Devil of the Month, it’s easy. It’s the team’s Superstar Left Winger, Taylor Hall. He posted a 54% CF% while going up against tough competition, night-in, night-out. That’s a very good mark. He’s one of the two Devils where New Jersey out-scored their opponents in 5-on-5 play when he was on the ice in January - and the other Devil is his center, Nico Hischier. Also a very good mark. Even with missing three games with a right thumb injury he was likely nursing earlier in this month, Hall led the Devils in January scoring. He led in goals with six. He led in assists with 7. He led in shots with 36. He missed three games and still led the Devils in these categories. Even more impressive is that he has put up a point in every single game he played in January. You could count on him to contribute even when the times were tough for the team. When I think of players for this moniker, I look at the players who have been consistently good to great. Hall defined that in January; he was terribly missed when he was out for those three games. Hall was easily the Devils’ best player in January. He is a Superstar Left Winger. Hall is the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month for January 2018. It was an easy decision.
Now that you’ve read what I thought about the team’s performances in January, I want to know what you think of how the team performed in January. Do you think this is still a playoff team knowing what happened in January? Will the Devils turn it around while continuing to be a decent (or better) 5-on-5 team? How would you even fix the power play? Should the Devils be buyers, sellers, or keep what they have for the NHL Trade Deadline at the end of February? Who do you think were the best Devils in January? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about this past month of games for the Devils in the comments. Thank you for reading.