As of this writing, the Devils just lost their 6th game of the season in spectacularly depressing fashion. In order to fully explain the disappointment of that game, the scene needs to be set — fully.
Shero has had mostly uneventful offseasons in his tenure in NJ and finally decided to pounce this season. The improvement of players like Hischier and Bratt, along with the winning of the draft lottery open an opportunity for success beyond the shallow playoff birth of 2018. And the expiring Hall contract also put on something of a clock — one that Shero went all-in to beat with acquisitions of Subban, Gusev, and Simmonds.
In the beginning of game 1, those hopes seemed well-founded as we hopped out to a 4-0 lead on the Jets. From that point, the Devils would allow 15 of the next 17 goals scored, which resulted in a SO loss in that Jets game, and embarrassing performances against Buffalo and Philly. Things turned slightly against Edmonton — a game in which the Devils held the lead 3 separate times before losing in the SO again. Then, in a tough arena in Boston, the Devils looked okay at 5v5, but ultimately allowed the Bruins to sit on their lead in a way the Devils proved unable to.
Coming into the Monday matinee, the fanbase was starving for a win. We’ve given 4 years to the rebuild with just one playoff win to show for it. We’ve seen 2 first overall picks, and lots of bad hockey. And there were more than a few that game ready to boo Hynes, in particular, for not getting the most out of this roster we were all excited to watch. The fans were hungry, but the Devils were clearly not.
They proved that they had learned absolutely nothing from their traumatic start to the season as they not only surrendered a 3-goal lead AGAIN, but allowed 5 straight goals after being up 4-1 to somehow manage to lose by two in regulation. The team was booed. Hynes was booed. Both rightfully so.
In this article, I want to attribute blame to a few different parties. Blame for why the play is bad, blame for why the leads aren’t maintained, and blame for overly ambitious expectations.
Let’s close out with the most maligned person on the team, John Hynes. In the full landscape of Devils fans, I’m likely on the pro-Hynes end of the spectrum. Before the season, I tried to lower expectations to the point where playing “like” a playoff team would be sufficient for Hynes — actually making the playoffs should not be a pre-requisite to keep his job. Then, after a rough start, I also wrote a piece on overreactions to Hughes, Blackwood, and Hynes last week.
I think Hynes’s system can absolutely work in the NHL. According to Micah McCurdy’s model, which aims to isolate 5v5 coaching impact from the quality of the roster and circumstances, Hynes has a +5.7% threat impact which, according to Alison Lukan’s compilation at the athletic (paywall), puts him as the 5th highest ranking coach in the dataset, as well as the 2nd behind only Craig Berube — the Jack Adams finalist who just brought the Blues from last place to a Stanley Cup — in defensive impact. Ironically, part of the reason expectations were high headed into the season may very well have been due to Hynes’s good coaching up until now. It’s possible that he may have made the roster seem stronger than it was. An expectation that is now, paradoxically, crushing his perception among the fanbase.
That is not to absolve the coaches from blame. Hynes is consistently, failing to make effective in-game adjustments. Giving up two 3-goal leads in 6 games is obviously not completely on the coach — but it is a little on the coach. Furthermore, we are playing a slow brand of hockey right now, which is perplexing given that we can likely out-skill a fair amount of other teams at this point.
Lastly, the assistant coaches need to shoulder a lot of the blame for how their respective units have played. The typical ST% (combined PP% and PK%) should be 100 — you allow powerplay goals at the same rate you produce them. With a catastrophic 0/18 powerplay, and a paltry 12/21 penalty kill, the Devils ST% is 57 which is not only last in the NHL, but last by over 10%. Whether the schemes are not working, ot the players are not adhering to them, some plame has to fall on Rich Kowalsky and Alain Nasreddine for not having their units ready to start the season. Kowalsky not being able to get anything out of this unit is particularly inexcusable. Nasreddine has chaired one of the most successful PKs in the NHL over his tenure, and he’s lost both of the members of the best PK pairing of the decade, so he’s earned some inertia towards criticism from this blogger. Kowalsky has acquired no such respect.
So that handles the coaches, but I still have a lot left to criticize. And anyone who believes Hynes is THE problem will probably not be a fan of some of what I have left to say. Let’s start with this: the fact that the Devils couldn’t find the fire to put up a fight fierce enough to prevent the evaporation of a 3-goal lead in a half a game is certainly not a commendation of the coach’s motivational impact. But, the fact that they needed motivation to be given to them from their coach is just as scathing a condemnation of their character. This brings me to my first criticism of the Devils players which is leadership.
This Devils team has suffered two huge comeback losses, and has been embarrassed in another 2-3 games. Much of this is due to sieve-like defense, and undisciplined play — but some is between the ears as well. These are all areas in which missing Andy Greene is problematic. While about half of this happened before his injury, his absence is has been particularly conspicuous in the games since. As flimsy as our defense has been, we gave up only 1 goal at 5v5 in Andy’s 45 minutes. As terrible as our possesion numbers have been, Greene’s were not only positive, but highest on the team. In a team incapable of protecting a lead, Greene has not allowed a goal when ahead. And in a team that demonstrated a stunning lack of poise under pressure, the captain of the team was not there to stop the bleeding. It’s not an accident that the players commented about leadership after the Florida game. Where will the leadership come from? Will MVP Taylor Hall ascend to the throne? Will do-it-all veteran Travis Zajac be the calming presence? Will superstar P.K. Subban live up to his salary? Or will it be from the goaltenders, who, moreso than any other player, have the ability to single-handedly stop the bleeding of a gauged defense. The goalie is the only player on the ice every shift, and no goal is scored without passing him. And when we talk about the defense, and protecting a lead, the goaltending needs to be better.
The Devils defense has not been particularly good, and I’m not going to tell you that it is. But I’ve never had a lot of expectations for this defensive unit. Greene is headed down, Subban’s trying to prove he’s not, Severson has never strung together a full season of solid defense, Butcher is not an every-situation skater, and Vatanen is a 2nd pairing dman at best. That’s why Hynes’s positive defensive impact is essential. An underwhelming roster is likely why the Devils are 21st in the NHL in xGA rate*. But we’re 30th in GA rate (goals allowed per minute) — what’s causing that drop? Goaltending.
Cory Schneider has an .876 Sv% (-3.4 GSAA) and Mackenzie Blackwood has a .821 Sv% (-5.6 GSAA). They have been two of the 10 worst goalies in the league on value and have cost us a combined 9 goals relative to league average. For all the doom and gloom of the unsalvageable season, the Devils current -14 goal differential would be only -5 with league-average goaltending. Specifically, according to NaturalStatTrick, the Devils are league-average (15th) in expected goal rate against when leading. And yet, we are allowing 8.94(!) goals per hour which is not only lowest, but catastrophically so — by almost 2 full goals per hour. Why? Because we are getting a league-low 76 Sv% in that situation. Fans will look at a goal and talk about all the defensive breakdowns that led to the goal, and they very well may be right. But no effective NHL goalie saves only the shots they’re supposed to — they save almost all the ones they’re supposed to, and a good chunk of ones they’re not. And it’s the latter saves that could’ve salvaged a couple wins from this sluggish start.
My last thing to blame for the disappointing start is expectations. That’s not to say that the expectations are to blame for our poor play — but they’re partially responsible for why the poor play is being perceived as so disappointing. I talked about this when describing what would happen if the Devils didn’t make the playoffs. The reason I wrote that article was because I wanted it to be clear that the playoffs were far from a given. The consensus projections from analytics writers had us a 89 points — 18th in the NHL. Now, that’s obviously better than where we’re at right now, but it’s just 6 games and it’s thoroughly reasonable to believe we’d get to that point when some of the aforementioned features regularize.
Teams don’t go winless for 82 games. Teams dont finish with ST% below 90, let alone 60. Teams don’t sustain Sv%s of .856 for an entire season. There are plenty of things that will improve just from regression to the mean. And when that regression comes, will the Devils be a playoff team? Maybe, maybe not. And while it’s fine if that’s the goal, it being the expectation will significantly raise the likelihood of disappointment. I genuinely don’t mean this pessimistically — I think this team’s long term projection is strong — but this amount of turnover and this amount of youth was always going to take time.
It was my sense in the preseason that expectations were being set too high. It was my sense that there was a bit too much shock at the Devils early performance. And it is currently my sense that the fanbase is being too hasty to blame one man for the results of this team. The “leaders” on the team have to shoulder some blame, the assistant coaches shoulder some blame, the goaltenders have to shoulder a significant amount of blame, and some — perhaps a lot — of blame is to random variation.
There is plenty of blame to go around. And while I understand the desire to believe that our team is ready to compete now, and the resulting frustration with how the team has performed thus far, it seems woefully short-sighted to conclude a coach has lost the team or that his system doesn’t work after 6 games. I think this quote from Abbey Mastracco is apt:
There has been nothing out of Newark to lead me to believe the Devils are close to parting ways with Hynes. The call for his job has reached a fever pitch among fans, but the organization itself has been quiet. If Hynes is worried, he isn’t showing it.
And that’s exactly what the team needs right now, a stoic leader who won’t crack under pressure.
“You just coach,” Hynes said. “Winning or losing, you’re focused on helping the group get better and that’s what we’ve done. It doesn’t change. It hasn’t changed in any year I’ve coached.”
This team isn’t performing as designed. And even so, the results are worse than the performance would project. We’ve been building an identity and a cohesion for 5 years under Hynes. If you think the players have given up after 6 games, I think you have far too little faith in these players. For that matter, I can’t imagine the best approach to fixing it is to scrap the entire identity, and the entire system, and install a new one from whatever coach we drag off their couch. My expectation is that Hynes isn’t going anywhere. And my hope is that he isn’t.
We are at ground zero, when the dust settles, let’s see what emerges from the cloud. If what remains is still significantly worse than projected, then we can drop the hammer on accountability. But until then, I’d preach patience and perspective.
Thanks as always for reading, and leave your thoughts in the comments section below.