Overall, the calendar year of 2018 was a good one for the New Jersey Devils if only for making it to the playoffs in April 2018 for the first time since 2012. As for the final month of that calendar year, the results were slightly positive. In fourteen games, the Devils went 6-5-3. They earned 15 out of a possible 28 points. This is an improvement after a bad November from a results perspective.
However, the Devils are not that much closer to a postseason berth. They have begun the 2019 portion of their season well on the outside looking in. And as you read this, three games have already passed so you may have a better idea of how January will go. For the Devils to get back to even being in the playoff picture, they need to go on a great run. Something they did not do in December. Let’s look back at the month that just passed to see how they got to where they are currently now.
The Games of December 2018
The Devils got into their December 2018 schedule right after losing in Washington on November 30, their then-fourth winless game in a row. On December 1, the Devils hosted the Winnipeg Jets. The good news was that the Devils managed to make a comeback and Taylor Hall jammed in a loose puck in the final minutes for a late equalizer. The bad news was that the Devils were dominated in overtime and lost their fifth one of the season for a 3-4 OT loss. While they earned a point, it was their fifth winless game in a row. Two nights later, the Devils hosted Tampa Bay. The last two games against the Lightning were in Florida and were blowout losses where the goaltender was changed. The third game in the season series would be no different. The Devils were bad all around in a 1-5 loss to Tampa Bay.
New Jersey then hit the road for three games in California. The Devils finally broke their six-game winless streak on December 6 against Los Angeles, another team down in the basement in their respective conference. The Devils got on the board first, never lost a lead, and pulled away to win 6-3. This was triumphant and badly needed for a team badly needing wins. The back-to-back set on December 9 and 10 was more infuriating. Cory Schneider actually played well in Anaheim on December 9. However, he could not stop his biggest challenge that night: his teammates. The Devils scored on themselves three times that night. Stefan Noesen, Ben Lovejoy, and Andy Greene all helped put the puck past Schneider. The Devils had to scramble - and did - to force overtime with another late goal. Marcus Johansson scored his third 6-on-5 goal of the season to make it happen. The Devils survived overtime and went into their first shootout of the season. They lost that, so the night ended with a 5-6 SO loss for the Devils. December 10 against San Jose would be more decisive. San Jose basically beat on the Devils for the better part of 60 minutes for a seemingly easy win. The Devils lost 2-5. While going 1-1-1 on a road trip through California with three games in four nights is acceptable for some teams, it is not helpful for a team down in 16th in the East that may want to be in a more respectable spot.
On December 14, the Devils returned to the Rock to host Vegas. The beginning was rough. Schneider was abysmal and Vegas scored three times in the first ten minutes. Then something odd happened. The Devils, then without Taylor Hall, started to mount a comeback. It took a setback in the second period, but the Devils kept rolling on. They clawed their back into the game and an own-goal by Vegas tied it up in the third period at 4-4. Then Nico Hischier provided a dramatic overtime winner for the team’s first overtime win of the season and to complete the comeback for a massive 5-4 win. The goal was so good, it received a breakdown. But the Devils could not celebrate the win for long. They had a game in Nashville on December 15. The Devils were holding on with Keith Kinkaid playing well once again. Brian Boyle scored a goal with the goalie pulled late in regulation to force a 1-1 tie after sixty minutes. Overtime was split between who owned the puck, but a shootout was necessary. The Devils lost in the shootout to make it a 1-2 defeat in Nashville. But taking three out of four points from two good Western Conference teams was seemingly a sign for better times ahead for Our Favorite Team.
Not quite. On December 18, Toronto came to the Rock and steamrolled the Devils. Toronto looked like a million bucks and the Devils were jobbers. They lost 2-7 in yet another blowout loss to a very good team this season that mostly showed how far back the Devils are from contending for anything. Prior to this game, Cory Schneider was put on injured reserve with abdominal injury, so the Devils needed to bring someone up from Binghamton. That goalie would get to play. Kinkaid was pulled for the third period after Toronto dominated him and called-up goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood played in his first NHL period of his young career. While he was scored on twice, he did well enough to get his first start in the next game. Blackwood started in the Devils’ game in Columbus on December 21. He played above any expectations those may have had for the rookie. He made 37 stops and was beaten only twice - one of which came through a penalty shot. Blackwood kept the game within reach but the Devils could not score more than once. So Blackwood’s first started ended with a 1-2 loss. It would not be the last the team would see Blackwood this month. The very next night, the Devils hosted Ottawa and Kinkaid was back in the crease. The Devils’ offense showed up and Taylor Hall sparkled with a four-point night, which included this amazing sequence:
The Devils won 5-2 over Ottawa. Once again, there was some reason to be a little more hopeful. Once again, those hopes were quickly dashed. On December 23, the Devils hosted Columbus in a matinee game. Kinkaid was beaten three times and pulled after a quite soft third goal allowed. Blackwood returned to the crease and immediately performed. Not that the Devils skaters were able to crack Columbus despite a whole lot of efforts. The Devils lost 0-3 to Columbus and entered the three-day holiday break remaining at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
The end of the calendar year had three games for the Devils: at Boston on December 27, hosting Carolina on December 29, and hosting Vancouver on December 31. All three games were started by Mackenzie Blackwood. The rookie goaltender was excellent in each game and with Kinkaid’s last few appearances and his whole season having been bad, the Devils coaches were justified to keep going to Blackwood. He didn’t disappoint. Mind you, Hall was out for all three games too. But the skaters stepped up and Blackwood was superb in Boston. The Devils won by a comfortable looking 5-2 result and won in Boston for the first time since 2013. The offense was not as sharp on December 29, but Pavel Zacha scored on his own rebound on a shorthanded breakaway for the game’s only goal against a goaltender. Blackwood was just about perfect. OK, a call on the ice for incidental contact bailed out the Devils as a goal against was wiped away. Still, the Devils won and Blackwood fully earned his first NHL shutout in a 2-0 win. The Devils also won consecutive games for the first time since the middle of November with that win. There would be one more. On New Year’s Eve, Blackwood remained hot in the crease and put up another shutout. Moreover, the offense made their shots count and ran up four goals on Vancouver. Even if Blackwood was not perfect, the Devils put themselves in a position to succeed and they did. They closed out the year with a 4-0 result and a three-game winning streak.
If nothing else, the end of this month was a lot better than most of the rest of December. A young, then-hot goaltender was earning starts. The team had some offense going a few times even without Hall. The Devils won three games to salvage the monthly record at 6-5-3. It was enough to pull the Devils out from the very bottom of the standings in the East and they have a shot to move up a few spots in the Metropolitan Division. Your mileage may vary on whether that is actually a good thing, but it is better to see than a full-on repeat of what happened in November.
By the Numbers
While the Devils’ record was better in December than it was in November, some of the team’s stats are more or less reflective of a team that is near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
These numbers were pulled from Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com on January 3, 2019; so it is inclusive of the entire month of December. 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.
There is a lot more red for the 5-on-5 stats, also known as the stats for the most common situation in hockey games.
The Devils were out-attempted, out-shot, and out-chanced overall. While the Devils had some leads in this game and played six games on the road, the venue and score adjustments hurt the Devils’ numbers across the board. The only stat that the Devils ranked well in December was high-danger chances against per-60 minutes. Even in that category, the adjustments worsened their rate and the Devils failed to out-perform their opponents in terms of scoring chances in just the slot and at the crease.
They were out-scored by eight goals as the team’s shooting remained on the lower end among all teams in December. The goaltending, except for Blackwood, was also bad. As per Natural Stat Trick, three appearances of Schneider yielded a miserable 83.7% save percentage in 5-on-5 play and nine appearances of Kinkaid yielded an 88.5% save percentage in 5-on-5 play, which would have only been acceptable in the 1980s and early 1990s. In 2018-19, that’s still awful. Even if it is just a hot streak, I can see why are some are hyped about Blackwood. Any goalie who had a few good games would look amazing to this team in this past month (and right now).
Of course, even with the hot goaltending, the scoring was lacking. As per Natural Stat Trick, only nine skaters shot better than the team’s 7.33% in December and three of them were defensemen (Greene, Damon Severson, and Egor Yakovlev). Only four could be described as having relatively hot sticks: Hischier, Yakovlev (one goal out of five shots) Kyle Palmieri, and Brett Seney. Miles Wood and Blake Coleman led the team in 5-on-5 shots, individual shooting attempts, and were in the top three for individual scoring chances; and both converted their shots at less than three percent. They stood out among a team of skaters that struggled to find shots hitting the net. The team’s high CA/60, SA/60, and SCA/60 rates all point to the team struggling to keep the other team from attacking. Something that was only exacerbated by the bad goaltending from goalies not named Mackenzie Blackwood.
In short, the Devils were bad in 5-on-5 play in December. Bad on defense, bad on offense, bad at finishing, and bad at making saves. Outside of a handful of stats, this does not suggest that the team is heading in the right direction despite their 6-5-3 record in December being an improvement over a 4-8-3 November. Hopefully the Devils do not go out and do something like give a multi-year extension to John Hynes and his coaching staff, who bear some responsibility for these poor numbers.
Power Play Situations:
Believe it or not, the Devils’ power play was better in December. They were not exceptional by any means. However, it was largely more effective than it was last month.
Not giving up any shorthanded goals was an improvement. Generating situations improved in rank. They scored nine goals, which is more than the five they had last month. Their rate-stats do not all rank well, but being around the league median in most categories is a lot better than everything being in red. There were a few breaks that helped the numbers (e.g. Palmieri’s power play “goal” in Boston was more of an accident by the B’s), but it still counts all the same.
With Hall and Marcus Johansson out injured towards the end of the month, I did appreciate the Devils ditching the drop/back pass on their breakouts. Not that it always led to more offense, but the simpler, straight-forward entries still allowed the Devils to try and set up in their formation as before. It is something I hope the Devils keep when Hall and/or Johansson returns to action. The Devils’ power play could still use some improving in general. I think how they use their 1-3-1 limits them and the Devils still struggle at maintaining possession against aggressive penalty killing teams. That said, the numbers are clear: the PP in December was better than it was last month. That is progress.
Penalty Kill Situations:
The best part about the 2018-19 New Jersey Devils is their penalty kill. They were fantastic in December:
Last month’s stats were good. They were marvelous in December. The Devils had a better CA/60, SA/60, SCA/60, and HDCA/60 rates in 4-on-5 and 3-on-5 situations than their 5-on-5 play. PK situations were where Greene, Ben Lovejoy, Travis Zajac, Coleman, Boyle, and Zacha (who had both shorthanded goals) all shined. The Devils finished December with a mere -3 in goal differential while shorthanded, which is one of the best in the whole league. The only “down” part about these numbers was the goaltending, which was on the edge of being in the bottom ten teams of the NHL.
Even with that, you cannot really ask for much better from a penalty kill than what the Devils put up in December. How the Devils were so stingy while down a man and yet they tended to get lost and confused in their own end in 5-on-5 play, I could not tell you. Regardless, shorthanded situations were not the problem for New Jersey in December and they have not even been a problem for a team as a whole this season. Let us hope they keep up the good work.
Additions and Subtractions
In December, the biggest addition came from Mackenzie Blackwood being called up. Again, I would not anoint him as anything other than a goaltender who has been great in his short time with New Jersey. Still, he has provided something Kinkaid and Schneider have not provided enough of this season: a lot of saves. Those three wins at the end of the month have as much to do with Blackwood as it does with anyone else. Also again, Blackwood was called up as Schneider was put back on IR with an abdominal injury. Schneider’s 2018 could not have gone any worse on the ice between his poor performances, some really bad luck (see the December 9 game), and injuries.
The Devils also lost multiple games from Taylor Hall and Marcus Johansson due to injury. Hall’s is a lower body injury that kept him out for a little bit earlier this season. Johansson has an upper body injury and has been out since the 21st. This has led to increased opportunities for depth forwards such as Drew Stafford, John Quenneville, and Stefan Noesen. Noesen himself was on IR for five games but he returned prior to the month’s end. The Devils have done as well as they could offensively without their best player (Hall) and someone who has been utilized quite a bit in the top six (Johansson). The performances by Stafford, Quenneville, and Noesen have not moved the needle much. When Hall and Johansson return, do not be surprised if they go back to being healthy scratches or, in Quenneville’s case, sent back down to Binghamton.
On defense, Steven Santini has been activated from injured reserve back at the beginning of the month. He was on IR due to a broken jaw from a game against Philadelphia way back in October. Weirdly, Santini did not play until December 20 against Columbus. It was not like the Devils’ defense was playing really well. And Santini could have been given a conditioning assignment if the issue was his fitness after being out on IR for a month-plus. Santini did play in the team’s final six games of the month and has seemingly carved out a regular spot for the time being. So much so that the coaches have moved Sami Vatanen to playing on the left side, off-handed. This meant Yakovlev was scratched and demoted for a bit (he was called up in the new year) and Mirco Mueller found his way to the scratch list. The Devils have a glut of defensemen so someone is sitting every night. The stats suggest that whatever they have been doing has not been working so a rotation would not matter. However, the coaches are tied to the “do well so change nothing” cliche that coaches tend to follow. At least Santini was not activated off IR and sat for the whole month.
Devil of the Month
This is a tough one in that few Devils were consistently good for the entire month of December. I did name one and it comes with a bit of an explanation.
It is a bit off an off the board pick. It is goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood. Whereas Schneider and Kinkaid were well below 90% save percentage in 5-on-5 play, Blackwood posted a 96.9% in six appearances. Whereas Schneider and Kinkaid were lit up, Blackwood gave up fewer than two goals in every game he appeared in. Blackwood may be on a hot streak and for all we know, he gets creamed in January and goes back to Binghamton with the stinging reality that he may not be The Guy. However, without him, they likely do not win their last three games of the month and they do not likely salvage their December record at 6-5-3. Blackwood provided something that Schneider and Kinkaid has not provided enough of this season: excellent goaltending to keep the team in games. Even though he only appeared in the final two-and-a-half weeks of the month, Blackwood is my honorable mention for Devil of the Month.
So who is the Devil of the Month? I’d have to say it was Kyle Palmieri. Palmieri led the team in shots on net with 47. Palmieri was the only Devil to get more than one PPG this month, even if it came with some help from Boston. Palmieri led the team in goals (7) and points (13) in December. He remained a top-line threat with and without Hall on his opposite wing. When Palmieri was on the ice in 5-on-5 play, while the Devils were out-attempted, the Devils did out-shoot, out-chanced, out-high danger chanced, and out-scored their opposition. Sure, it helps to play with Hall and Hischier, but Palmieri was by no means an anchor. If anything, he was someone the Devils could rely on for offense and even with superb goaltending for the better part of six games, you need goals and offense to win. Palmieri provided both all month. So I declare Kyle Palmieri is the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month for December 2018.
This is a bit of a crossroads for the Devils. In all likelihood, this is not a playoff team. If the Devils want to “go for it,” then they need to rack up a lot of wins in a very short amount of time. Despite the last three games of December, I do not see a whole lot of evidence that the Devils can bust out an amazing run of games for a month or so. A three-game winning streak was needed to get to a 6-5-3 record, which by itself is not a great jumping off point.
However, I do not want the team to tank for many reasons. I do not think this team is a superstar-via-a-set-of-lottery-balls away from being a contender anyway. There is a lot to improve here, yes. But with better coaching, better motivation, better preparation, and better players that can be obtained, the Devils can improve themselves. There are some significant issues for general manager Ray Shero to address. He can make it a constructive 2019 portion of the season even if the Devils miss the playoffs by a lot.
Still, the record was better, the run of play was not, the PK was amazing, the PP was a bit improved, and a rookie goaltender was one of the bright spots of a month that had a few of them but not enough of them. That was December 2018 in one run-on-like sentence for the New Jersey Devils. Onwards, I suppose?
Now that I’ve wrote at length about the 14 games the Devils played in December, I want to know your take about all of this. What are your main takeaways from this past month? Where do the Devils go from here? Would you agree that Palmieri was the Devil of the Month, or should it have been someone else? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils in December 2018 in the comments. Thank you for reading.