After a bad January and with a tight Metropolitan Division, the New Jersey Devils needed to be better in February. The shortest month on the calendar included fourteen games, with many of them being within the division. February ended up being a month of streaks for the Devils. But it ended up favorably for New Jersey. They finished the month with a 8-6-0 record and in fourth place in the division - also known as the first wild card spot in the Eastern Conference - with a small lead over other teams. March has already begun and is a tougher month on paper. Let us revisit what happened in February one more time before fully committing to the current grind.
The Games of February 2018
The Devils ended January on a winning note in Buffalo. It would be the start of a three-game winning streak that carried into the start of February. The second win of that little run came against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers ended up being one of the best teams in the whole league last month with a 10-1-2 record. That one regulation loss came on February 1 in New Jersey. The Devils celebrated both Pride Night and coming from behind in the third period to beat the Flyers 4-3 in regulation. That Saturday, the other Pennsylvania-based powerhouse came to the Rock. However, the Pittsburgh Penguins played the night before and looked completely out of it. Most of their players were struggling; especially Kris Letang. The Devils took to the ice and made them suffer for sixty minutes with a strong 3-1 win. At this point, the Devils won three in a row and beat Philly and Pittsburgh. Surely, the Devils were on their way up.
Nope. A losing streak began to take hold. On February 6, the Devils went to Ottawa. After a strong start, the Devils lost control of the game and ended up in a hole. They could not catch up in a 3-5 defeat. This game was also notable for Alexandre Burrows losing his mind after a clean hit by Taylor Hall as Burrows took down Hall, beat him on the ice, and hit him the head with his knee - twice. Burrows was suspended for 10 games for the incident. Thankfully, Hall was OK and, of course, scored after Burrows was sent to the box. Anyway, they still lost. On February 8, the Devils hosted Calgary. Again, the Devils fell behind. They could not complete the comeback in that particular third period, so they lost 2-3. The coming weekend was the first annual Mom’s Trip for the Devils players. The Devils did not do their mothers proud on February 10. The Devils went into Columbus, who was on a losing streak of their own, and were demolished. The Blue Jackets made it rain shots and goals in a 1-6 blowout loss. On the very next night, the Devils returned to Newark to host one of the top teams in the East: Boston. The performance was better, but the Devils’ power play was abysmal and costly. The B’s handed them a 3-5 loss. The losing streak was four games and only help from the teams below them kept the Devils from falling in the standings.
It would end on February 13 in Philadelphia. It was not at all easy as the Flyers would go up 2-4 in the game. But Nico Hischier made it 3-4 late in the second period. With the goalie pulled, Hall put home a loose puck to make it 4-4 to force overtime. A shootout was necessary and Keith Kinkaid stopped the shots as Drew Stafford scored the lone goal. The result was a 5-4 win. This sparked a winning streak. On February 15, the Devils hosted Carolina for the first time this season. While it was close early, the Devils would pull away in victory. With great nights from Hischier, Stefan Noesen, and Damon Severson, the Devils won 5-2. The weekend featured a tough back-to-back: at Tampa Bay and at Carolina. At Tampa Bay, the Devils took advantage of some dubious goaltending by the Bolts and goaltender Eddie Lack played out of his mind. The Devils escaped with a 4-3 win. This game also resulted in Miles Wood getting a two-game suspension for a hit from behind boarding on Vladislav Namestnikov. At Carolina and without Wood, the games were similar in that the Devils allowed a lot of shots, the goalie played above his level, and were opportunitistic in scoring. But the Canes tied it up with the extra skater to force overtime. In the final minute of overtime, Taylor Hall took a shot on net - and put in his own rebound to make it a 3-2 win. Four wins in a row and three over divisional opponents. Things were looking good.
Then Columbus came to the Rock on February 20. Sergey Bobrovsky was excellent in net and held on to a one-goal lead in a tight game. The Devils lost that close game, 1-2. On February 22, the Devils hosted Minnesota. A breakdown led to two goals against in 36 seconds in the second period. The Devils could not recover and an empty-netter made it a 2-4 loss to the Wild. Surely, the Devils would be able to avoid losing on February 24, the night where they would retire Patrik Elias’ number 26?
The ceremony was wonderful and Elias gave a great speech. The game against the Islanders was not as wonderful for the first two periods. The Devils only conceded one goal but they could not get much of anything going for themselves. I was wondering if Elias would somehow get on the ice and show the Devils how to do it. Then Kyle Palmieri emerged to score a beautiful goal in a odd-man situation against (1 on 2) to tie it up. Minutes later, he re-directed a shot by Sami Vatanen to make it 2-1. The Devils held on to win on Elias’ Jersey Retirement Night. The month of games would end for New Jersey on February 27. This was the day after the NHL Trade Deadline and it was in Pittsburgh. The Penguins were more well-rested and put up much more of a fight. But the Devils hit back just as much as the Penguins did and put up a legitimately good performance on the road in a building where Pittsburgh won their previous eleven home games. A tip by Stefan Noesen was enough to be the difference maker and the Devils held on with a 3-2 regulation win in Pittsburgh.
That last win made the month ultimately successful. Not only was it the team’s eighth win, but the Devils went 7-2 against their division in February. Beating Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in a month where those teams were very successful are definite feathers in the team’s cap. They helped themselves them in the standings by beating Carolina twice and the Isles. The only bogey was Columbus. Still, it is a reason look back to February with kinder eyes. Of course and unfortunately, the Devils did not build on that win in Pittsburgh to start another winning streak as they lost their first two games of March. That is discussion for a different post.
To get an understanding of how well the Devils played in February, let’s look at their stats.
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 March 2, 2018; so it is inclusive of the entire month of February.
5-on-5 Play: Rather than hit you with a ton of words, I want hit you with a chart of what I usually type up. If you like it, then I’ll use it going forward and for the other sections in By the Numbers. The source for these numbers is the always-incredible and stable Natural Stat Trick. All ranks are out of 31; higher is better for the for-rate stats, lower is better for the against-rate stats.
The most common situation in hockey was favorable for the Devils in the run of play and about even in terms of production. Rates in the top ten are highlighted in green and in four categories, the Devils made it. They were close in another four. Over the whole month, the Devils out-attempted, out-shot, and out-chanced their opposition. Those are all good things. That the Devils ranked well in both for and against stats speaks well to how the team as a whole has performed in both ends of the rink. Sure, there were some games where the Devils were bodied for a period or a game; but the Devils gave out more than they took in. That should continue. We should all want it to continue.
I should note that the score and venue adjustments were not so kind to the Devils. Namely to their offensive rates. The adjustments dropped their percentages down around the league median with the exception of the high-danger chances. That is not so bad on its own but it gives somewhat of a suggestion that the Devils were not as strong in 5-on-5 play as the unadjusted rates suggest.
What helps that suggestion is the production. While the Devils’ sticks were not cold and scoring 30 goals was a healthy number, they nearly gave up as much. Keith Kinkaid played in 11 of these 14 games. While his numbers improved from some bad months, he wasn’t exactly a consistent wall in the crease. Eddie Lack made four appearances and was a standout in one of them (facing 51 shots from Tampa Bay). The team save percentage was the only stat in 5-on-5 play that ranked in the bottom ten of the league. It is all the more reason to appreciate Kinkaid playing better towards the end of the month and to especially welcome Cory Schneider’s return in March.
From an individual standpoint, Taylor Hall was the 5-on-5 scoring leader with 12 points. Kyle Palmieri scored the most 5-on-5 goals with 7. Surprisingly, Stefan Noesen matched him in shots with 33 and Kyle Palmieri was right behind both with 32. Hall did out-do both in individual shooting attempts; 60 for Hall, 50 for Noesen, and 48 for Palmieri. In terms of CF%, 13 out of 23 skaters in February surpassed 50% with your top 5 featuring Will Butcher (59.31%), Noesen (58.05%!), two games of John Quenneville (56.36%), Brian Boyle (55.81%), and Travis Zajac (54.82%). Hall was definitely on the right side of CF%; but these five crushed their situations. Noesen and especially Zajac had it harder than the other three. The strugglers were Pavel Zacha, two games of Blake Pietila, Jesper Bratt, six games of Jimmy Hayes, and four games of Nick Lappin; all five finished with a CF% below 46% - which is pretty bad.
In total, I’m pleased with how the numbers look in 5-on-5 play. They continued the good figures in January. They did so without the bad results in January too. The only aspect that needs to be better in March is goaltending. But with Kinkaid playing better towards the end of February and Schneider returning, I anticipate that save percentage to rise. The Devils skaters need to keep on keeping on in 5-on-5. They didn’t do that in the start of March, but there are a lot more games left to play.
Power Play Situations: From a perspective of the whole month, the Devils’ power play does not seem to be too terrible. It was not all that great. According to NHL.com, the Devils finished 23rd in success rate by converting seven out of thirty-nine opportunities in February. However, a closer look showcases why it’s worse than it seems. For starters, the Devils finished tied in eleventh in the NHL for most power play opportunities with 39 and they finished ninth in power play ice time with 64:35. The Devils had chances to make something happen. To only score seven goals out of that much time and that many situations is disappointing.
A game-by-game breakdown shows that the Devils scored four power play goals out of thirteen opportunities in their first four games. That’s a good start to the month. Then the Devils went and then proceeded convert no power plays out of sixteen opportunities in the next five games. They even gave up two shorthanded goals in that five-game set. The power play drought ended on February 18 in Carolina, but the scoring went one-zero-one-zero-one over ten total opportunities. This is evidence of a lack of consistency with the power play success.
The stats at Natural Stat Trick show that the Devils shot the puck at a rate of 50.17 shots per sixty minutes on power plays in February. That ranked 24th out of 31 teams. The shots themselves were going in at just under 13%, which is close to league median in February. The same old issues on the ice kept coming up even on nights where the Devils would score: completing zone entries, completing passes in the offensive zone, and maintaining possession of the puck. These issues not only made life easier for the opposition penalty kills, but it led to the Devils having the highest shots against per sixty minute rate in the NHL on power plays in February: 17.6. The Devils regularly gave up a shorthanded chance or two and especially during their drought, it would be more offense than the Devils would have generated.
It got to a point where the units were changed up in the month. The second unit involved two defensemen, usually Damon Severson and Will Butcher. The first unit had Sami Vatanen at the top. Jesper Bratt was eventually removed, Palmieri and Hall switched wings, and others got opportunities with varying sucess (e.g. Noesen, Jimmy Hayes). Geoff Ward still stuck to a 1-3-1 like formation, still allowed for dump-and-chase entries in man-advantage situations, and it was up in the air as to whether the players were on the same page. Even on nights when the Devils were in sync in 5-on-5 situations, an extra man just threw things off. So while the power play wasn’t the worst in the NHL, it still left a lot to be desired in February, and it does not look good for Geoff Ward. Looking back on this month, I still say that he should go.
Penalty Kill Situations: Believe it or not, but the Devils’ penalty kill had some issues in February. While they rank well over this whole season - they’re fifth in success rate as of March 3 - the Devils were around league median in success rate for February. The Devils finished 17th in the NHL with a 78.9% success rate; killing 33 out of 42 situations. That is not bad; it’s just not all that good either. The Devils were familiar with the PK. Their 42 situations were tied for the sixth most in the NHL and their total shorthanded ice time of 71:32 was the fifth most in the NHL (and a second behind fourth).
A game-by-game breakdown shows that the early part of the month was where the damage was mostly done. In both the first game against Philadelphia and the Ottawa game, the Devils PK was beaten twice. After a penalty-less game against Calgary, the Devils allowed a power play goal in each of the next three games. After surrendering two power play goals to Tampa Bay (and out of six situations), the Devils finished the month with no power play goals allowed in their final five games in February. They ended February by going 12-for-12 in those games; both a mark of PK success and improving their discipline. That strong end led me to think the PK was better for the whole month than it really was. At least the streak is on.
A closer look at the numbers at Natural Stat Trick backs up the assertion that the Devils were a league-median penalty killing team in February. Their SA/60 ranked as the 18th fewest in the NHL with 56.57. Their team save percentage was 86.57%, which was the 16th highest in the NHL. Was there any offense from the PK? Some. Their SF/60 was 12.66, tied for tenth in the NHL; but they only scored the one shorthanded goal.
In terms of personnel, the units have been solidified since Brian Gibbons has been out. Andy Greene and Ben Lovejoy anchor the PK on defense with a second pairing usually being John Moore and Sami Vatanen. The most common forwards are Travis Zajac and Blake Coleman typically coming out first followed by Pavel Zacha and Kyle Palmieri. As part of his slide, Jesper Bratt’s PK ice time has been cut, Nico Hischier received a few shifts here and there, and some other players received the odd shift due to necessity or coming on at the end of kills. Keith Kinkaid hasn’t exactly been a wall on the PK with a 85.7% save percentage, but it’s not too terrible. Eddie Lack wasn’t leaky in his four appearances. For the most part, the PK has operated in the same way. Given their current run of success, I would not anticipate any changes. Again, the only surprise here is that the PK wasn’t so strong in the first half of February. Something I had to learn myself when I looked at the numbers.
Additions and Subtractions
Plenty of activity took place in February with respect to the roster. This mostly took place in the bottom six at the forward position. Drew Stafford and Jimmy Hayes were not able to secure spots in the lineup. Jesper Bratt struggled enough to warrant more limited action. The rookie was dropped down the lines in addition to having his power play and penalty kill usage cut. He hit a wall and has mostly remained there. On top of of that, Brian Boyle missed two games with a minor injury, Quenneville missed time with injury, and Miles Wood had to serve a two-game suspension on top of Brian Gibbons and Marcus Johansson being out. As a result, the Devils called up and used some forwards. John Quenneville was called up, played two games, and then was on the shelf with an injury until the end of the month, when he was returned to Binghamton. Nick Lappin was given four games - and contributed very little. The same went for two games of Blake Pietila. Needless to say, it was a good thing that Boyle was out for long and Wood only had two games to serve. The issues at forward combined with the continued absence of Johansson and Gibbons would drive the deals Ray Shero made in this month.
The goaltender position also saw some movement. With Schneider still out in February, the Devils recalled Eddie Lack and sent Ken Appleby back to Binghamton. Lack would prove to be useful in that he appeared in four games and did not get killed in them. He stole a win in Tampa Bay, which is more than enough for a #3 goalie. Schneider returned to practice by the end of the month, played a game in Binghamton as part of a conditioning assignment, and re-joined the team for their first game in March. That the Devils went 8-6-0 with Kinkaid and Lack as the goaltenders is definitely a positive.
Three trades were made in February. The first was a minor-league one. On February 8, Viktor Loov was sent to Minnesota in exchange for forwards Mario Lucia and Christoph Bertschy. Bertschy has made a quick impact in Binghamton with eight points and 36 shots on net in ten games with the B-Devils. The other two were far more significant. After the Devils lost to Minnesota, it was announced that the Devils made a trade with the New York Rangers. The Devils have never made a trade with the Rangers. Their only transaction with them took place back when the franchise was in Colorado in 1979. Ray Shero made team history on February 22, 2018. The deal was not a minor one. New Jersey acquired the then-leading goal scorer of the Rangers, Michael Grabner, for a second round pick in 2018 and prospect defenseman Yegor Rykov. Right before the NHL Trade Deadline on February 26 at 3 PM ET, the Devils made a trade with Edmonton. The Devils obtained Patrick Maroon for a third round pick in 2019. Both strengthened the Devils at wing. Grabner provides a whole lot of speed to an already quick Devils roster; while Maroon provides a lot more value in traffic and down low where the Devils prefer to create offense. The likes of Hayes, Stafford, and the call-ups are now on the outside of the lineup and looking in. These two are rental deals too as both Grabner and Maroon are pending free agents. I still like them as they make the Devils better now even if I’m a little bit concerned about the future. It is also a clear message that the New Jersey Devils want to make the postseason this season. I want it. Given their position in the standings after an 8-6-0 month, I now expect it.
Devil of the Month
If you have even passing knowledge of the Devils, then you know who the Devil of the month is. For the second straight month, the more interesting question is who should get the honorable mention. I could see some argument for Kyle Palmieri, who finished second in goal scoring and in shots in the month. But he was helped out by the Devil of the Month. A fun argument could be had for Stefan Noesen, who was very effective in 5-on-5 play. However, that only went as far as 5-on-5 play and one of his common linemates did a bit more than him. I could see some argument for Keith Kinkaid, who had some really strong performances. Of course, he also had some really weak ones too. His form has been much better than it was in 2017 but a 91.3% even strength save percentage in 11 games is not exactly incredible. I think a worthy runner-up is Travis Zajac.
Zajac finished the month with three goals, seven assists, and 30 shots on net. He took more faceoffs than any other Devil in February and even won a majority of them. What is really impressive is that Zajac put up some great numbers in 5-on-5 play. In February, according to Natural Stat Trick, Zajac finished with a 54.82% CF%, a 55.5% SF%, and a 58.7% SCF% while receiving an offensive zone start percentage of 34.13%. Despite being given unfavorable zone starts, Zajac was one of the best Devils in 5-on-5 play in this month. While his CF% ranked behind Will Butcher, his sometimes-linemate Stefan Noesen, and Brian Boyle, Zajac was more productive than those three and he has played in all situations. This is a player who got his groove back in February; he has returned to being an asset on the team. To that end, I think he’s a worthy honorable mention for Devil of the Month for this past month.
Once again, the Devil of the Month is Taylor Hall. The Superstar Left Winger of the New Jersey Devils has once again scored in each and every game in the month. He put up 9 goals, 10 assists, and 50 shots. These weren’t cheap points either. These point totals include: a 6-on-5 equalizer in Philadelphia that at least gave the Devils a point after dropping four straight in regulation (they won that game in the shotout), a banger of a PPG in Pittsburgh on February 27, an overtime winner in Carolina on February 18. Hall has drawn the tough competition in 5-on-5 play and he had a 53.06% CF%, a 51.45% SF%, and a 52.45% SCF% per Natural Stat Trick. In other words, when Hall was on the ice in February, the Devils out-attempted, out-shot, and out-chanced their collective opposition. The 20:06 Hall averaged per night in February were often not easy minutes and often against the other team’s best competition. And considering how the second and third most productive players were his linemates, it’s clear that Hall is the engine for this team’s offense. Even when the rest of the team struggles, he makes things happen Hall was more than just a producer, he was New Jersey’s top skater for another month and he’s receiving some buzz for the Hart Trophy. He’s definitely New Jersey’s MVP and 2017-18 is not even over yet.
Somehow, going 14 for 14 in games played with at least one point was not enough for the NHL to make him one of three stars of the month. Sure, the three selected had a few more points, but they didn’t score in every game in their month. Hall did. He will have to settle for being named the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month of February 2018.
Back in early October, I had the fortune to talk to Kevin Weekes ahead of the Devils season. I still remember him stating that a good goal for this Devils roster would be to play meaningful games in March. Weekes turned out to be correct. The Devils are now doing just that. They finished February in a playoff position; holding the first wild card spot in the East with a small cushion. The numbers show that the Devils have actually done pretty well in 5-on-5 play in February while the special teams were not all that great. The Devils were able to win eight out of fourteen games with the majority of those wins coming within the division. While it could have been better, February was a good step up over a slumping January.
March has already begun and proven to be a challenge. The Devils lost close games with poor and frustrating performances in Florida and Carolina, two teams that could still make a run for the postseason. A very difficult two-and-a-half week stretch is coming up. From March 8 through March 24, the Devils get to “enjoy” hosting Winnipeg, visiting Nashville, visiting Vegas where few teams have won at all, visiting all three California teams, visiting Pittsburgh on the 23rd, and hosting Tampa Bay on the 24th. All eight of those opponents are holding playoff positions and all have something to play for on top of being rather good. The Devils will get three more home games after then, but that run from the 8th through 24th will go a long way in determining whether the Devils will make the playoffs. The Grabner and Maroon trades indicate that they want it. Again, I want it too and I now expect it.
What would be a big help is if others can step up besides Taylor Hall. Hall has been the engine for this team’s offense and his linemates have been helped out greatly by him. It would be very helpful for Grabner and Maroon to factor in the scoring, for Wood, Noesen, and Zajac to get producing, for Coleman, Boyle, Bratt, and others to chip in, and for the defensemen not named Sami Vatanen to get more involved too. The goaltending is already trending up; they just need to be good and they can be. And the eventual return of Gibbons and the potential return of Johansson can only help. February showed a team that could come up big in difficult divisional games and turn comebacks into wins. They also showed that the Devils aren’t yet a dominant force either. It was good enough to make March a crucial month for the first time in years.
That was the month of February 2018 for the New Jersey Devils. What’s your take on this month? Who impressed you the most other than Superstar left winger, Taylor Hall? What did you think of how the team performed in 5-on-5 play? How about the power play or the penalty kill? What do you make of the team’s transactions in February? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about how the team played in February - and what you expect in March - in the comments. Thank you for reading.