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Annual Devils Overreaction: Where It’s Warranted and Where It’s Not

Blackwood, Hughes, Hynes, and the Devils as a whole — they’re all taking a licking from the fanbase. How much is it deserved?

Winnipeg Jets v New Jersey Devils Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

We’re two games into the season and people have already started saying Hughes isn’t ready for the NHL and Hynes should probably be fired. Part of sports is overreaction to basically everything your team does, especially early in the season what our palette has been cleansed from the months without hockey and we’re left with no other taste in our mouth to dilute the disappointment.

Conversely, it’s generally always part of blogging to either feed into that narrative, or run the opposite way (normally the former). I’m going to do a little bit of both — on a few issues, I will say what I perceive the narrative to be, and what actual substantive concerns — if any — we can have about them.

Mackenzie Blackwood

Blackwood had an excellent first season in the NHL. He earned the trust of the coaching staff and the GM enough for them to put full faith in him and the oft-injured, 33-year-old Schneider. The concern here is that we got too small a sample of Blackwood last year, and that, perhaps, in this full NHL season with a substantive role, Blackwood will be (or already has been) exposed.

I think this is a fair concern, but it shouldn’t be based off these games. The first game, Blackwood came into cold, in a game with already-changing momentum in favor of the Jets. He was consequently, forced into a back-to-back situation in Buffalo starting the next game — one in which the Devils got shellacked. Playing in an away game on short rest has been proven (one, two) to have a negative impact on performance. Now, Blackwood was not just 5-10 points underachieving — he has an .800 Sv% and is, by some measures, the worst goalie in the league so far. So, don’t get me wrong, he’s been very bad even accounting for this. I’m also not saying his performance isn’t a concern.

What I am saying is that, the concern is not because of these first two games. Mackenzie Blackwood had save percentages of .907, .882, and .902 in the AHL before pulling the .918 out of his hat last year in NJ. If the fairly large sample of mediocre play against minor-league competition over 3 seasons was not concerning to you, 2 games played in highly disadvantageous circumstances should not be what does the trick.

In our predictions for this season, I called goalies the X-factor (like always), because Blackwood has black marks all over his track record, and Schneider has seen his playtime and actual level of play consistently impacted by injuries. This first game is categorically bad news on both fronts, but Blackwood can easily convince us this was an aberration with steadier play in the next week or so.

Jack Hughes

Jack Hughes has been conspicuous, but not in the way we had hoped from his prospect status, and his preseason performance. His first two games have been sufficiently detrimental to the team’s efforts to warrant demotion to the third line. Here’s the brand of criticism I’ve seen:

  1. Hughes is not ready to handle the physicality of the NHL
  2. Hughes’s defensive game is not yet ready for the rigors of a 2C in the NHL
  3. He’s trying to do it all himself — which doesn’t work in the NHL

It’s too early to say basically anything about Jack Hughes. Yes, he’s had a rough two games, but these narratives are there every time a small-ish prospect struggles out of the gate. And it’s not that weird to have a couple bad games. Leon Draisaitl recorded only 2 shot attempts at 5v5 over his first two games. Jack Eichel was a fairly heavy negative on-ice impact at 5v5 over his first two games.

Now it’s worth noting that Hughes has been much worse than either of those players in total net impact. Among the 492 skaters who have played 2 games, Hughes is 480th in RAPM xG impact per 60 (-1.6 goals). That’s very bad.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi — a very good impact player in his first seasons — currently ranks worse than Hughes in the metric. Kakko is 428th so he’s struggling a lot too. Chris Kreider has been a strong impact player through most of his career, and is 491st in the metric, better only than Joonas Donskoi.

The Devils have been absolutely buried through Hughes’s first two games and there is not getting around that. But, in the preseason, he was worth about a half an expected goal per 60 minutes (+0.5 xG_Diff/60) against almost-NHL competition and he put up historic numbers as a prospect. It would not be at all shocking to me if he brushed off these first two games en route to a 50-point season. It would also not be totally shocking if it takes him a year or two to figure this league out.

John Hynes

Due to masochistic scheduling, we were given back-to-back games to start the season, followed by a 5 day break to wallow in self-pity, a times during which there has been absolutely. no. shortages. of. Hynes. criticism.

The criticism takes two forms that I’d like to address separately. The first is in his lineup decisions to start the season, and the second is in his long-term impact. I’m fine with people doing the first one, so long as they recognize that it’s relatively inconsequential. I get that people didn’t want a lineup change in the game we were winning and did want one in the game we were losing. I don’t know what his rationale was and I don’t recall a sufficiently enlightening answer to this question from him in any of the press scrums. Sometimes it’s one of those “I told Player X not to do this thing, and he did it, so I moved him down the lineup” type situations. Sometimes it’s diagnostic. I have no clue. I’m not giving him a pass — I disagree with the decisions and believe it should be questioned — but the magnitude of my distaste for his coaching doesn’t go that much further than that. Specifically — and this is very important — I certainly don’t believe he should be fired early- or mid-season.

In order to understand where I’m coming from, it’s probably just best to read this piece I wrote in the offseason. The argument against firing Hynes is really in two parts — 1) He’s actually done better than expected up until now, 2) this team isn’t as amazing as some fans believe.

The offseason acquisitions all seemed to bring about this aura around the Devils entering the golden age. This is awesome and I think there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic for the future. But, are we immediately playoff-bound? Not necessarily. Consensus predictions currently have us at about 89 points and outside the 2nd wild card. So why is it that I get the feeling that, if the Devils do exactly what their roster indicates they should, Hynes will likely be fired?

Hynes has been a perfectly good head coach, and like I said in the article linked above, he’s got a positive impact according to McCurdy’s viz, and he has an unexpected playoff appearance to his resume. Does he sometimes make lineup decisions I don’t understand or don’t agree with? Of course — basically every coach in the NHL does. I don’t know what the practices look like, or what the locker-room looks like, I just care about results relative to expectation. This should be a roughly league-average roster. If we are much worse than that by year’s end, I’ll revisit the question of his employment. Otherwise — I think he should stay right where he is.

Summary and Your Thoughts

I could summarize everything in this piece by just reminding the reader to think sufficiently Bayesian. Thinking Bayesian means that you establish “priors” — Hughes will be good, the team is an 89-point roster, Blackwood is league-average, etc. — and progressively adjust those priors with new evidence. We do not have very much evidence at all right now. I wouldnt’t be shocked if Hughes turned out to actually struggle all year, but I also wouldn’t be shocked at all to see him end up with 50 even-strength points. And wouldn’t it be funny then to look back on how much we all panicked after his first 48 hours.

What do you guys think? Are you concerned with goaltending? Do you think Hughes isn’t ready? What does Hynes need to do to keep his job in your eyes?

Thanks as always for reading, and leave your thoughts in the comments below.