After months of hype and excitement, the New Jersey Devils made a lot of their fans from around the world be filled with immesurable amounts of disappointment after their first two games this season. In the home opener, the Devils accomplished the incredibly rare feat of blowing a four-goal lead in a 4-5 shootout loss to Winnipeg. On the very next night, the Devils were steamrolled by Buffalo in a 2-7 beat-down where the team’s effort was as tough as a feather. This kind of start to the season is unacceptable. There are changes that the team will need to make before their back-to-back set at the middle of this week.
Many are upset and/or angry with the team and want a big change. Plenty want to see a significant change such as firing head coach John Hynes and/or his staff (specifically Alain Nasreddine) or benching defensemen Mirco Mueller and/or Damon Severson. I fully hear and understand the unhappiness. With the Devils potentially needing every point to put a playoff run into possibility, I understand the desire the calls for drastic action. I think it is far too early to do so. The truth of the matter is that the Devils’ season is two games old and at some point in the season, there would likely be two awful games in a row. There is no need to hit the panic button. That said, there is a need to make some changes with and within the roster going forward. Even with just two games played, there is evidence - outside of the scoreboard - to show what the Devils have done has not worked.
Defensive Pairings, or Break Up 25-28!
Make no mistake that the pairing of Mirco Mueller and Damon Severson has not been good at all in the run of play in 5-on-5 hockey. According to Natural Stat Trick, Mueller and Severson together has yielded a Corsi For percentage of just over 29%, a shots for percentage of 34.9%, an expected goals for percentage of approximately 38.2%, and a scoring chance for percentage of 23.5%. Breaking even for any For percentage is 50% so the 25-28 pairing is not just being out-performed, they are getting dominated. So much so that anyone with no knowledge of those stats would be able to see those two get stuck in their own end and struggle there. It has absolutely cost the team on the scoreboard. Severson has witnessed six of the team’s eight 5-on-5 goals against in the last two games and Mueller has seen four. Both have struggled mightily at positioning, reacting to opposition players, and making zone exits. It is mind boggling that these two were kept together as long as they did against Winnipeg and even after being benched after the fourth goal against in that game, they were re-united for plenty of shifts in Buffalo.
It is even more mind boggling that the Devils have played Mueller with Severson more than only two other options. The pairing of Andy Greene and P.K. Subban has actually been good. The pairing of Will Butcher and Sami Vatanen has not been as good in the run of play but they have been significantly more effective than Mueller-Severson. John Hynes, Alain Nasreddine, and the staff have to break this pairing up.
The good news is that there were some signs in the Buffalo game of doing just that. There were about six minutes of Vatanen with Mueller, which was a decent pairing last season and it went decently in six minutes so far. Greene and Severson were crushed last season but in about five minutes and change together, they were not. The changes led to Butcher with Subban, who were creamed in their short time together. I can appreciate the coaches deciding to mix it up there even if it was when it was far too late to do so. I would like to suggest continuing that with another re-ordering. Since we know Mueller and Vatanen can play well enough together, then I would keep that. But in the short term, I would keep Greene with Subban and try Butcher with Severson. I would also not be opposed to Severson (or Mueller if someone is willing to play on their off hand) sitting for a night to give Connor Carrick a chance. Not that Carrick will fix the defensive woes alone but that pairing has earned a night on the scratch list in these two games. But if the coaches decide to not do that, then fine - as long as Mueller and Severson are not intentionally together on an even strength shift for a very, very long time.
Zone Exits, Zone Exits, and Zone Exits
I was concerned about how the Devils were performing with making zone exits during preseason. Whether it was by trying to clear the puck out, pass it to someone outside of the defensive zone or to someone in it to carry it out, or carry it out themselves, the Devils had demonstrated enough struggles at all three types of exits to make a point of them. This has obviously continued into the regular season. It has resulted in a lot of additional pressure that the Devils could have avoided. It has yielded extended shifts that end with costly goals against. The time is now to address them.
What I have noticed is that the team has been hesitant to a point when they do win the puck on defense. Whether it is a defenseman or a forward, the players have tried to make a play themselves or take extra time before making a play. That has allowed opposing teams to get their forecheckers in a position to deny clearances and keep plays going on offense. There needs to at least be more urgency when it comes to handling the puck on defense.
There also needs to be better support from the forwards. I understand the Devils want to use their speed and create plays in transition to force the opposition. That only works when the defensemen are able to make passes out of the zone to their teammates. Sure, Subban, Butcher, and Severson have the ability to connect on a long pass. But even those carry risks and if they are getting denied in their own end, then the pass is not going to happen (and the forward would be out of position). There have been too many cases of players assuming a play out of the zone can be made and players trying to make a pass for them to get going instead of focusing on what they can do to exit the zone. There should be more of an emphasis on forwards looking to be outlets by the boards - similar to what the Devils opponents do to them - and moving such that they can be an option for the puck carrier. If the puck handler is looking for a teammate, then it is on the teammate to get open for the handler. And, again, it has to be quick as opposing forecheckers will bear down on the puck.
If the Devils can make gains at succeeding at zone exits more often, then I think a lot of the perceived issues on defense will be improved. But they need to make changes in how they go about generating them because it has been a problem since the exhibition games last month.
Hang Back on the Forecheck if the Opposition is Speedy
The Devils’ forecheck was rather effective against Winnipeg. Not that they are a slow team, but with their weakened-on-paper defense and the fact they played the night before, the Devils were wise to press on them in their end of the rink. It even resulted in the season’s first goal. Against Buffalo, not only did the forecheck not work but it gave up more space for them to streak through neutral zone and attack the Devils. Combined with turnovers in the offensive zone, this meant Buffalo had a lot of space and free reign in the middle zone.
While turnovers are definitely an issue that all of the players will need to work on, I am more concerned about the system with respect to the neutral zone. If a team is just flying through the neutral zone, then there are few options a team can do about it. The defensemen could to take more risks in there to step up and stop them - which could lead to more odd man rushes and even breakaways. A safer decision would be to let up on the forecheck to have some more bodies in the neutral zone. Whether it is through a traditional trap formation or something else, having players there to potentially make an early stop will lessen the pressure on the defense and may even lead to some offensive opportunities of their own. The Devils can and should forecheck when they have opportunities to succeed or opponents/match-ups that may struggle with pressure. But against opponents like the Buffalo where they clearly were intentionally pushing forward in the transition game, the Devils need to adjust. This is one that may solve some of their headaches. The coaching staff just needs to make the call when it is apparent that their forechecking is not working.
Fix the Bottom Six by Re-Organizing the Lines
In terms of Corsi For%, the Devils have had one effective line in 5-on-5 play: the line of Nico Hischier, Taylor Hall, and Kyle Palmieri. Only Blake Coleman is above 50% CF% as of right now. In terms of the expected goals for percentage, the Devils’ forwards are better - which suggests that they are doing better than what it may seem. About half of the forward group is above 50% including the aforementioned Hischier line, Coleman, Pavel Zacha, Travis Zajac, and the debut of Jesper Boqvist. The issue is that the other forwards I did not mentioned are not just below the break even mark, but they are well below it.
What is most surprising is who is last in both categories. It is The Big Deal, Jack Hughes. Hughes has had an auspicious start to his NHL career. So far, Hughes has just three shots on net and nothing in terms of production in two games. The on-ice rates at Natural Stat Trick for Hughes is simply ghastly: a CF% of roughly 23.3% and a xGF% of 23.3%. Those are percentages so low, especially for an offensively gifted youngster, that something is definitely not right. One can conclude similar things about Nikita Gusev, Jesper Bratt, John Hayden, and Miles Wood. Not coincidentally, those four have played multiple shifts with Hughes over the last two games. The trio of Gusev, Bratt, and Hughes has been especially bad as both Gusev and especially Bratt have performed better apart from trio. The coaches decided to swap Gusev out for Wood for the Buffalo game. That went especially poorly with the line generating all of two 5v5 attempts, allowing ten, and generating a paltry xGF of 0.03.
There is a little more to it than just the make up of the bottom six. I noted that the match-up itself was an issue in my recap of the Winnipeg game. Hughes and his unit saw more of Kyle Connor and Patrick Laine than most of the other Jets forwards. That was a tough match up for two players making their NHL debuts. Bratt is not a defensive liability but he cannot make up for two players acclimating themselves to the NHL regular season. It was also a weird match up to continue even as the Devils took a lead and as it was slipping away. It was a home game. The Hischier line has proven itself in the last two seasons to not totally wilt against the other team’s best lines. There was not need to subject Hughes, Gusev, and Bratt or Hughes, Gusev, and Hayden against them.
So Hynes needs to switch up the lines among the bottom six to at least salvage Hughes and Gusev. As well as get Bratt in a better position to succeed. And possibly Wood, although his issues may be more of his own (Example: He fires away way to willingly). The good news is that the Devils have options.
While it may see counter-intuitive to do so, Hynes & Co. may want to split up the Hischier line. Yes, they have been effective (to a degree) in both games. But having two other lines suffer may - and did - undercut whatever good work they did. And as we saw in the Buffalo game, it can be three when unit of Zajac, Simmonds, and Coleman also suffers. Short of outright domination, one line can not consistently carry a team to victory. So breaking up one trio to help the other two or three is a viable move.
We know that Bratt performed much better away from Hughes and Gusev and that he has performed well with Hischier and Hall in the past. Bratt can be swapped with Palmieri, who is experienced, not a defensive liability, and he is a shooter that can flourish next to Hughes. As for Gusev, he can join Zajac and Simmonds to give that unit some offensive flair, speed, and two targets when they do attack. This means Coleman is available to join Hughes and Palmieri. This helps Hughes so in case the match-up is difficult, the other two forwards know how to handle it. Likewise in my proposed Zajac lineup. While this removes the Zajac line from being a “defensive” line, there is more balance on paper in the top three units. Each unit has an offensive component while being experienced enough to handle the NHL on-ice business. The fourth line can be a sheltered collection of Zacha, Wood, and Hayden, Rooney, or Boqvist. Is it guaranteed to be successful? No. Can it provide improvements while also not yielding a third and fourth line that is likely to get swamped in 5-on-5 play, especially on the road? Possibly.
Actually Shuffle It Up When It’s Not Working
There was (is?) much consternation there was about switching Bratt and Hayden in the Winnipeg game as the lead was slipping away. The common complaint of “line shuffling” emerged online and among fans. I do not see it that way. Yes, it was not a good change mostly because John Hayden could not settle a Jell-O mold. My beef was with the lack of shuffling. Especially in match-ups and pairings that were clearly not working.
A coach only has five options when it comes to in-game changes. The coach can change up a line/pairing, change a tactic or instruction for that line/pairing, change the match-up they have on ice, bench a player or a line/pairing, or do nothing and have the players figure it out. Hynes opted to take the fifth option more often than not in the last two games. Take the 25-28 situation again. Sure, he eventually benched Mueller and Severson in the Winnipeg game but that was after the duo cost the team amid a bad game overall. Hynes kept taking the last option over and over until he made a strong decision with the benching. And for most of the Buffalo game when it was somewhat close, who was back out there? 25-28 like the previous night did not happen. I do not get it.
This points to one of my frustrations with Hynes and the coaching staff. Outside of possibly Mike Grier, nobody on the New Jersey staff is relatively new to coaching. Hynes is one of the longer tenured head coaches in the NHL. At a minimum, he should have a good understanding of recognizing when a bad shift is just a bad shift and when a forward line or defensive pairing is struggling. As difficult as it is to do on the road, he should have an understanding of switching up match-ups when he can. To those ends, he should be more willing to make changes in the game as needed. I understand that changing tactics can be difficult and changing lines and match-ups can be easier said than done. But that is part of the job and I think this gets to why so many fans are up in arms about Hynes and his staff.
The good news is that this is entirely fixable. As much as fans complain, it is a common practice as well. It can even be a very powerful one. Look at Pittsburgh, an organization that Ray Shero and Hynes are familiar with. For years, they have started games with Crosby and Malkin on separate lines and, as needed by the game, they can end up together or end up with differing wingers to take advantage of matchups and/or to overload an opposing unit. It can work and not just because it is one of the few things a coach can do in the middle of a game. This does require Hynes and his staff to take notice when things could be going awry and make a change before it becomes damaging. Or after it does so it does not get worse. But it is possible and Hynes has been behind the bench long enough that he should be able recognize it. He just needs to execute.
At a minimum, this will help the coaches put players in a position to fail less if not succeed more - which is the whole point behind constructing rosters and giving each line and pairing instructions on how to play. Let social media rage. The point is to get results and if it means jumbling up lines between periods or in the middle of them to get those results, then so be it.
I was encouraged by the Devils goaltending situation based on how excellent they were in preseason. Cory Schneider seemed to carry on from that until he was hurt. Thankfully, it was a minor injury. Mackenzie Blackwood has not continued his form from preseason. I understand he entered a really tough situation in the Winnipeg game. And playing in Buffalo after what happened in the Winnipeg game was not ideal either. However, that is the job of the goalie. When the opportunity comes, you need to do the job regardless of circumstances: stop the shots. At a hideous 80% save percentage from 45 shots, Blackwood has not been doing his job well.
Even if Schneider is 100% again and is 100% Vintage Schneider, the Devils are going to need Blackwood to play plenty of games this season. The Devils have three games in four nights this week; he is going to have to start one of them. Obviously, he needs to be better. What the coaches can do is assure him that his spot is safe and that they will work with him sharpen him up further. Size is not an issue, but reactions and positioning were in both games. We have seen Blackwood be much better than this, so it could be a simple matter of going over the tape, reviewing what went right and wrong, and having Roland Melanson focus on the issues. If this means additional drilling in practice or additional sessions, then make it so. The Devils are going to need Blackwood to perform well for a chunk of this season. Rather than hoping he rebounds, the Devils should be more pro-active if they are not already.
The last thing that Hynes, his staff, and even the players should do is to freak out over the last two games and make big changes without any consideration of the consequences. I am calling for changes in this post but I am not calling for changes for sake of changes or any massive one like firing everyone behind the bench. It has been two games.
However, the issues with both losses go beyond matters of just effort. Hughes has underlying numbers that are so low that you know it was not just all from him. The Mueller-Severson pairing was so obviously bad that should have been questioned by the media as to why they stayed together as long as they did. Everyone can work hard - just like their opponents - but there are parts of the team that need to be adjusted. That is the key: adjustment. Hynes and his staff will need to make actual adjustments to how the line up is constructed, how they play, and focus on helping certain players out. Adjustments that are more substantive than claiming they were playing soft and not gritty enough and so forth. It is good that Hynes and the players recognize that there need to be changes. I hope they realize it will take more than just working harder to fix what has ailed the Devils in their first two games. And I especially hope they figure it out before Wednesday night at the home of the Second Rate Rivals.
I have made my suggestions to what the New Jersey Devils should consider changing and doing after two terrible games. Do you agree with what I suggested? If not, which ones do you not agree with and why? Which suggestions would you make or add assuming that you cannot fire or trade anyone? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the issues that are plaguing the Devils in the comments. Thank you for reading.