On the Garden State of Hockey podcast before October, Dan and I agreed that as long as the New Jersey Devils do not fall flat on their faces to start the 2019-20 season, they should be able to compete for a playoff spot. One month and ten games later, the Devils clearly fell on their faces to start the 2019-20 season. After all of the hype about the inclusion of Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban, and Nikita Gusev plus a returning and healthy Taylor Hall, the predictions and hopes were quite positive. After a month of going 2-5-3 with blown leads all over the place, confidence in the team has plummeted as fans are going beyond outrage to either despair, apathy, or a combination of both. The Devils entered November dead last in the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference. I know it was bad. You know it was bad. We must take a closer look at it to at least understand how bad it was for the New Jersey Devils in this past month. This is the review of the team’s October 2019.
The Games of October 2019
The schedule was kind to the Devils in October. They had ten games with seven at home. They had two long breaks ending with home games against opponents who played the previous night. As suggested by the 2-5-3 record, the Devils did not take advantage.
It all went awry immediately. On October 4, the Devils had their home and season opener against Winnipeg. The Rock was buzzing and the Devils gave them plenty to cheer for. They went up as much as 4-0 on the Jets, including an amazing one-handed backhanded goal by Blake Coleman with Dmitry Kulikov on his back. However, the Devils would somehow blow this four goal lead. Kulikov scored in the final minute of the second period. Winnipeg scored early in the third period and Cory Schneider had to leave the game due to cramps. Mackenzie Blackwood was torched for a third and fourth goal as the Devils could not respond. Winnipeg’s comeback forced extra time and the Devils would take the 4-5 loss in a shootout. The Devils managed to choke big time - giving up four goal leads in the NHL is rare - and disappoint their fans at home in a big way. And it would be a harbinger of things to come in October.
The losses piled up and fast. On the next night, the Devils went to Buffalo for their home opener and the Devils’ first road game. Buffalo pasted the Devils in a classic blowout. The Devils lost 2-7 and looked as every bit of terrible as the score would allow. New Jersey did have three days off after that game to prepare for October 9’s game in Philadelphia. It was Philly’s home opener and a rivalry game. The Devils took to the ice and were out-classed by the Flyers. Except one or two chances, the Devils made Carter Hart’s shutout look easy as they surrendered four to the Winged P’s. The Devils looked real soft in that 0-4 loss. On the next night, the Devils returned home to play Edmonton. This performance was much better although the Devils could not pull away. With some help with the men in stripes, McDavid dove for a call late in regulation to draw it and jam a puck the ref could not see and blew a whistle on into the net for an equalizer. It counted because of course it did. In a shootout, the Devils lost so they took the final score of 3-4. The winless Devils went into Boston on October 12 for their third and final road game of the month. As with the Philadelphia game, the B’s out-classed the Devils and New Jersey could not solve Tuukka Rask. The result was a 0-3 shutout loss. In the description of the post, Chris wrote “In a game in which a Devils line got zero shots together at even strength, the team should look forward to being booed at home for the next six games if they don’t turn it around.” Chris would turn out to be mostly correct.
The Devils would end October with five out of six straight home games in a row. The sixth game was on November 1, so it is outside of the scope of this review. It was also a relatively easy schedule. There were no back-to-backs. There was a six-day break between October 17’s game against Vancouver and October 25’s game against Arizona. After that game, there was another four-day break before the last game of the month against Tampa Bay on October 30. The time off would allow the Devils to recover and take extra time to practice and prepare for those last two games. Again, this was favorable. The Devils went 2-2-1 on it and botched leads in the three they did not win - but could have.
Entering this run of home games with five winless games, the Devils hosted Florida for a Monday afternoon game. It was Columbus Day so the organization figured on making it a Kids Day. The kids would get to witness the Devils going up as much as 4-1 over Florida - and then see the visitors run up five straight unanswered goals. Similar to the home opener loss to Winnipeg, the Devils let the kids at Kids Day down and disappointed the adults with a 4-6 loss by way of another massive choke job. This did not bode well for October 17. Not only did the Devils badly need to get their first win of the season, they were to play Our Hated Rivals. If there is one team the majority of Devils fans all across the world do not want to lose to, then it is Our Hated Rivals. I am happy to write that they did not lose to them. The Devils built up a lead against them and managed to secure it for the first time in this season. It took seven games, but the Devils finally scored a power play goal and finally won a game. They beat Our Hated Rivals 5-2. It was great. Two days later, the Devils hosted Vancouver in an afternoon game. It would be Jack Hughes versus his brother, Quinn Hughes. Jack ended up being the winner as his power play goal was his first of his NHL career and the only goal of the game. That is not to say that Quinn played poorly. However, Mackenzie Blackwood was the main star of the afternoon as he stopped everything by Vancouver and the Devils won their second game of the season 1-0. While the two wins were not perfect, the fans did cheer them as opposed to, say, the end of the Florida game. It seemed like the team was turning a corner. That turned out to be mistaken.
With six days off, one could argue that undercut the momentum of the Devils. Given that there were some players recovering from minor injuries and Blackwood became sick in coming days, the time off was welcoming if only to allow the team to recover. Besides, their next opponent was Arizona, who lost the previous night and their game with New Jersey was their third in four nights. It was a favorable situation and the Devils failed to take it. On October 25, the Devils went up 2-0 on Arizona late in the first period only to see it become 2-1 by the first intermission and 2-2 just over two minutes into the second period. The Devils broke ahead at 3-2 with Hughes setting up Pavel Zacha for a beautiful goal. On the very next shift, the Devils conceded again. Blackwood was in net, he was not sharp, and it came out that maybe he was not 100% recovered from illness. All the same, Arizona went up 3-4 early in the third, the Devils could not crack Antti Raanta, and an empty netter sent the Devils back into the loss column with a 3-5 loss. Another blown home game. The Devils would have to stew with that for four more days before their final game of the month. Again, they would play Tampa Bay, who played and lost the night before. You would not have known that from the first period. But the game turned out to be a high scoring affair as both goalies were less than average. The Devils dominated the third period in the run of play, went up as much as 5-3 early on only to give up three goals on eight shots. While Cory Schneider beset by bad bounces (literal) and breaks (sort of literal), you cannot defend a sub-70% save percentage. It looked like the Devils were going to repeat what happened against Arizona: see a lead go away and fail to respond. Then Kyle Palmieri responded at the end of the game. He scored his third of the game with seconds left on the clock to tie it up late. Palmieri’s first hat trick as a Devil was absolutely necessary and was quite welcomed. Would it be a goal to lead to another one for the Devils to end the month on a positive note? No. The Devils got lost in their own end in OT and the Lightning put in their seventh off a rebound to make it a 6-7 OT loss and everyone is frustrated with Schneider again. And with the team, who ended their ten games with a 2-5-3 record, sitting in last place in the division and conference.
On October 1, a lot of Devils fans were justifiably excited and confident that the Devils would be much more competitive team. A much more offensive team. At least a team better than what the 2018-19 squad turned out to be. After the loss to Tampa Bay, a lot of Devils fans are in some combination of outraged, frustrated, deflated, or, worse of all, checked out. In a month, the Devils have done whatever they could to throw away whatever goodwill they had in this offseason. In a month, the Devils have put themselves in a position where the playoffs are a real long shot because to get back into the proverbial mix, the Devils would need to get way better results and cannot afford any more extended struggles. Nothing from October suggests that way better results are imminent. (Or in the first two games in November). To Chris’ earlier point, it did not happen in every home game, but there was plenty of booing of the Devils and not by any visiting fans. They have been justified to do so because how the Devils got to 2-5-3 is really not worth cheering. To put it another way, the last article post of October was by Gerard and it was titled “How to Lose Hockey Games” and the first article post of November by Mike was called “I Mean, Come ON.” I suggest reading both as they both reflect where the Devils are now in the eyes of the fans. I can agree that the performances may have improved as the month went on, but I cannot stress enough that October 2019 was a terrible month for the New Jersey Devils.
By the Numbers
The 2019-20 Devils boast a healthy Hall; the additions of Hughes, Gusev, Subban, and Wayne Simmonds; and a group of offensively talented players from last season’s team like Kyle Palmieri, Will Butcher, Damon Severson, Jesper Bratt, Sami Vatanen, and Blake Coleman. Somehow, someway, the Devils have found a way to be one of the least offensive teams in the NHL in this past month. Their six-goal game against Tampa Bay was more than a quarter of the number of goals they had up until that point (22) and it dragged the Devils up from being tied for the fewest 5-on-5 goals to just being one of the lowest scoring teams in 5-on-5.
The following numbers were pulled from Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com in the afternoon of November 2, 2019; so it is inclusive of the entire month of October. 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 22nd and below.
5-on-5 Play: The most common situation in hockey featured 22 Devils skaters and 2 goalies all seeing some action in October. Here is how they did over the ten games in the month. Fans who can recall earlier teams from this decade and earlier will get a sense of familiarity from these numbers.
What is stunning is that as a team, the Devils really have not been allowing all that much. While even last season’s team was strong at defending against high danger chances, their attempt and shot against rates are great on paper. Sure, they had plenty of bad moments in coverage and plenty of puck watching on goals against. But ten different teams did not all light up the Devils. The goaltending, well, that is a different story.
However, the offensive rates are astonishingly bad. I repeat: This team has a healthy Taylor Hall; added at least three offensively skilled players in Hughes, Gusev, and Subban; and had other offensive players making up the core of the team. It is true that Hughes very much looked like an 18-year old player starting his pro career in the NHL in his first few games. It is also true that Gusev has played his way out of the lineup by month’s end due to a lack of an idea of what to do without the puck. Still, to be one of the fewest attempting, shooting, and chancing teams in the NHL after one month with all of these players is simply awful.
Their goals for count of 22 was boosted big-time by four from the Tampa Bay game, which bumped them up and out of the bottom end of the league. It also bumped up their GF/60 rate to one of the higher numbers in the NHL. It is encouraging that the rate of goals is high. It has lacked in the totals due to games played; the Devils were shutout twice in October; and in part due to the general lack of shots. It is a cruel twist to see that team shooting percentage as high as it is. Despite Hall (Hall did have five assists and 20 shots, so he was trying) and Simmonds (led the team with 24 shots in 5-on-5 play, so he was trying too) not being able to buy goals at times in October, the team has been shooting at a high rate. A team shooting percentage above 8% is hot, being above 10% is fantastic (and not likely to last). But with so few attempts and shots, nevermind shots in good locations (a.k.a. scoring chances), it has not yielded nearly enough offense in 5-on-5 to make up for how much the team has allowed. Offense is more than just goals themselves. The Devils in October demonstrated how not generating a lot can undercut the overall cause. Such as not being able to respond to the other team coming back from the Devils’ initial leads.
Going back to the opposite end, let us touch on the goaltending. It has been awful. Abysmal. And shared between Mackenzie Blackwood and Cory Schneider. Per Natural Stat Trick, both are rocking 5-on-5 save percentages of 86.4% and 87.9%, respectively. Both are nowhere near average or even below-average. Both are bad. Schneider has the lower percentage but even with a shutout against Vancouver, Blackwood is not far ahead of Schneider. By the end of the month, it seemed that the coaching staff favors Blackwood as being the #1 although by no means has he been all that good. Before you write stating that he has: his 5-on-5 save percentage for October is 87.9%. It is rising as of late, but since this is about the month that was, it was super-bad.
Past Devils teams had a similar profile where they were the stingiest or among the stingiest in terms of allowing shots, attempts, and scoring chances. They were lacking in generating their own in kind but the ratio was good enough that the Devils often came out ahead or at least breaking even. Add decent to better goaltending and that has resulted in a lot of good results and a Devils team that was difficult to play against. The 2019-20 Devils are not on their level. They did not have the goaltending in October, their offensive output outside of shooting percentage is terrible especially given the talent on the team in October, and while their against rates are decent to great they are nowhere near enough to account for the lack of offense in October. There have been signs of progress towards the end of the month (e.g. two of periods against Arizona and Tampa Bay was actually dominant) and to start November. But the positive trend at the end of October was not enough to overcome the junk built up from earlier in the month. In the most common situation in hockey, the Devils were really bad in October. This will need to improve and dramatically so for the Devils to turn their season around. That may be happening now and we shall hope that it is sustained.
Power Play Situations: For the first six games of the season, the Devils converted zero power plays. Their performances ranged from “everything but the goal” to “just decline the call next time,” only worse with that goose egg. Thanks to Kyle Palmieri, the Devils ended this run of futility against Our Hated Rivals. Even better, they did start a power play goal per game streak that continued into November.
The on-ice rates for the Devils’ power play look pretty good - except for the whole lack of goals. Despite my misgivings about the Devils’ power play sticking to its back/diagonal back pass in the neutral zone before an entry is attempted, the Devils have generated offense in general on their man advantages. Could it be better? Yes. It is at least a far cry better than their 5-on-5 on-ice rates. That said, one cannot ignore the lack of goals. The thing about a power play is that when you do not score, then you could have more opportunities to shoot as well as more ice time. Of course, this also lends itself to a low team shooting percentage and a low rate of goals. The Devils achieved that in October despite putting up a power play goal in each of their last four games of the month. As a result, the Devils had one of the lowest conversion rates in the NHL for the month.
Curiously, the Devils have also not drawn a lot of situations. 39 is not a super-low number but it is also not a high number. The mitigating factor is that the Devils themselves have not taken a lot of calls, so it is somewhat even. As the Devils ended with a PPG streak instead of a deficit, I can understand why fans would be more positive about the PP going forward.
One thing of note during the month is the fall of P.K. Subban and Will Butcher. Butcher was running the first power play unit last season. Subban’s arrival bumped him down to the second unit. Over the futility, Subban was replaced by Vatanen on the first power play unit while Severson is the man in the back with Subban moved to a winger spot on the second unit. Butcher is not even involved regularly. Plans do change and with the current success, it is hard to not keep it going.
The four goals have come from two people: Palmieri and Hughes each have two. Hall leads the PP in shots with 15 and has the most points by a player with three, all of which are assists.
Penalty Kill Situations: This was a nightmare to start the season. It has improved a bit by month’s end. It is still an ugly set of numbers for the month.
A success rate of 73% is low by any means. It has improved since the end of the month but it was definitely a sore spot in the first half of October. Conceding ten goals reflects poorly on the goaltending (Per Natural Stat Trick: Schneider is at 72.2%, Blackwood is at 83.3%) but also on the skaters involved. I did a deep dive into the eight PPGAs they allowed after the Boston game in this post. I noticed a lot of puck-watching and a lack of attention to detail to players off the puck. This burnt them on the penalty kill (and in defensive situations overall). There were not any notable changes among the personnel outside of injuries and penalties forcing changes. So I think the Devils did right some of their wrongs from earlier in the month. The on-ice rate states are encouraging that they are doing something right in their formation. The killer plays that do get allowed have been, well, killers.
I will point out that I am pleased to see the Devils having been shorthanded only 37 times. That is one of the better counts in the league. As Miles Wood, Severson, and Coleman are not strangers to the penalty box and the team added Simmonds, I was concerned about how many calls the team would have to kill. Outside of the Vancouver game, it really has not been an excessive amount. There are going to be calls in most games but that is true for most teams. At least in this past month, the Devils were not so undisciplined with respect to the rule book that this caused more pain than it actually did. As with the power play, this did improve by the end of the month so I can understand if fans are not as concerned about it as they were back after the Boston game.
Additions and Subtractions
The Devils added only one player in October. After the loss to Buffalo, the Devils announced that they signed defenseman Joe Morrow to a one season, two-way contract. Morrow reported to Binghamton and has remained there since.
Speaking of Binghamton, the Devils have also called up only one player from the minors in October: defenseman Matt Tennyson. Tennyson had a long look at camp as a potential depth option in case any of the defensemen became hurt and the other depth options were not playing well. When Andy Greene and later Will Butcher were out with minor injuries, Tennyson was added to the roster. With Mirco Mueller and Connor Carrick initially not playing well, Tennyson received an opportunity to play. He has made five appearances with the team in October and has remained in the lineup at the start of November. Has he been good? He has the second-lowest on-ice CF% rate on the team at 38.06% and a SF% of 41.28%. That would be a no.
Speaking of Carrick, he is unfortunately the first Devil to suffer a significant injury this season. Greene (finger), Butcher (upper body), and Hischier (ribs) missed time due to smaller issues but all returned to action by the end of the month and only missed a handful of games. Carrick broke his right pinky blocking a shot in practice prior to the team’s loss to Arizona. As per Chris Ryan’s report at NJ.com, Carrick needed surgery and will be out for four to six weeks.
Other than that, the only changes with the Devils were internal. Tennyson, Carrick, and Mirco Mueller have all been healthy scratched at one point or another. There has been more consternation about Jesper Boqvist, Jesper Bratt, and Gusev getting scratched in favor of Kevin Rooney and John Hayden, who both have been healthy scratched for a few games. Boqvist has been scratched the most with only two appearances in October: the loss at Buffalo and the loss to Florida. He would not see the ice again until November. At least he is remaining in New Jersey.
In terms of management, Assistant General Manager tom Fitzgerald went behind the bench to join John Hynes and his staff. This occurred after the Florida game. It remains to be seen what impact, if any, he will have. Sure, the Devils won the next two games and then proceeded to botch two leads in their last two games of the month.
Devil of the Month
Normally, I highlight two players who have excelled throughout the month with the standout being the Devil of the Month. It is not enough to be leading in points for the month. Although it is a good sign, Hall has been so poor in the run of play to start this season that I cannot in good conscious give it to him. As well as the team’s against rate stats were in 5-on-5, none of the defensemen were exceptional. Andy Greene was a lot better than he has been in months but that is not it. Not with some other forwards who have been more consistently good in the run of play in addition to producing.
The honorable mention will go to the Pride of Montvale, New Jersey. As high as the team’s shooting percentage has been, the team needed a goal-fest against Tampa Bay to avoid finishing tied for last in 5-on-5 goals and the team also entered that game with the fewest goals in all situations. Kyle Palmieri led the charge in that game with a hat trick. Not only was it the first hat trick this season, it was his first as a Devil. And it was crucial as the third goal came right by the end of regulation when the Devils needed a score more than anything else. The hat trick rocketed Palmieri up to being the team’s leader in goals with six. Palmieri also ended the power play futility with a goal against Our Hated Rivals; another feather in his 2019-20 cap. But this honorable mention is not just for being the top goal scorer (6) on a team that has not scored a load of goals. Unlike his common teammate Hall, Palmieri has had some very good on-ice rates in 5-on-5 play. When Palmieri was on the ice, the Devils took 51.64% of the attempts, 52.34% of the shots, and 52.63% of the scoring chances. For a team that struggled as a whole to generate offense, Palmieri was either making it happen or helping to make it happen. That makes him an honorable mention for Devil of the Month of October 2019.
Who has stood out more than that in my view? Get ready for this: Pavel Zacha. He has been a source of criticism, complaints, and so forth ever since he was drafted. It has intensified as the players picked after him in 2015 have all become excellent and Zacha, well, has not. However, you may have noticed a lot less beating of this particularly dead horse namely because this horse can still gallop. Zacha has been playing with more confidence, more awareness, and even more intensity to start this season than in the past. The results are noticeable. When he steps on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the Devils have a CF% of 52.66%, a SF% of 53.33%, and a SCF% of 53.85%. That is the second or very best among the Devils skaters in October. Even his expected goals for percentage is the best on the team at a very high percentage of 58.24%. This all means that when Zacha is on the ice, good things have happened and he is often involved. While a few others have similar rates (Travis Zajac), Zacha has accomplished this with varying linemates and switching off between center and winger. It should be seen as impressive on a team that has been on the wrong end of those stats as a whole. Zacha has definitely produced on the score sheet along with taking care of business in the run of play. He finished tied with Hall in 5-on-5 points with two goals and four assists. On top of that, Zacha put up 16 shots in nine games, which is an uptick in shots per game from past seasons. Of course, Zacha has continued to be relatively strong on the PK despite the lack of success from the unit as a whole. For a team where a lot needs to change and in a hurry, Pavel Zacha is one of the few players who just keep on doing what he has been doing because it has been working well. He has proven that he can be a useful forward in the NHL. Most of all, the people here and elsewhere online are not lamenting his continued existence in the organization. I think they realize that he has been good in October. If not, they should consider that he is as I name Pavel Zacha the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month of October 2019.
Concluding Thoughts & Your Take
The Devils ending the month at 2-5-3 is bad enough. It is bad enough that they went 0-3-0 on the road with two goals for and fourteen goals against. It is bad enough that they had two long breaks against tired teams at home and went 0-1-1 against them. It has felt worse to witness and to write about a team that has done enough to generate leads in most of these games and then the team somehow snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. The goaltending was victimized until it became clearer that they were just not good. The defense was great at limiting opportuinities only for plenty of those crushing goals against to come as a result of someone puck-watching or making a bad turnover. The offense had some great moments like Coleman’s goals, Zacha’s three point game against Florida, Hughes’ three point game against Arizona, Palmieri’s hat trick, Bratt’s two goals after being scratched, Hall’s first of the year, and two 40+ shot nights. But these are all almost all overshadowed by how the remainder of the game went, which often was in a loss (save for one of Coleman’s goals). Had the Devils held onto a couple of these leads and/or win some of those games in the shootout or in overtime, then the record would be better, the team’s situation would not be so dire, and everyone would have been a lot more chill (dare I say confident?) about the team. But they did not, so there is no chill in New Jersey.
Given how the Devils have fallen straight to the bottom of the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference with these losses, getting a point out of a game does not feel like a consolation and it does not provide any solace as the team needs wins and badly. It is not enough to say that the Devils have 72 more games (or 70 as of this writing) so they can make it up. If you figure the team will need 96 points or so to compete for a playoff spot, then the margin for error has become lower - the team would have to earn 61% of the remaining possible points. In October they have earned 35%. That will require a massive sea change. Maybe it is happening as of this writing; 3-1-2 in last six is positive - but it needs to be sustained for confidence and hope in the team can be restored.
My concern is that if management does make a significant change either behind the bench, with the roster, or both if things stay bad or get worse, then it may be done too late. I do not want to see the team make a change, see the team turn it around, and then realize that the team has no time to get back into anything. I do not want Devils to recognize that the change should have happened five or ten games earlier. Of course, this presumes that a change would be for the better. It could be for the worse. Theoretically, it can always be worse. Although it is hard to do a lot worse than 2-5-3 in the first month of the season and generating such little offense despite the talent on the roster.
Last season’s team effectively sealed their fate in November. They went on a long road trip where they were dominated a lot and the pain just kept coming as the Devils fell harder down the standings. This season’s team has fifteen games in thirty days in November. There will be more road games. There will be only short breaks. There will even be a game on Thanksgiving (in Montreal). And with how October went for the team, there will be little room for extended struggles. The Devils may have been playing better as the month went on, but they need to be even better and get more wins to start clawing back into something resembling a playoff picture. This is the reality after falling flat on your face. You have to get back up, get an ice pack for your face, and move on. We shall see what the 2019-20 Devils will do in November. If the positive trends in their performances lead to wins, then the next month in review will be much better (to write, to read, to remember). If not, then, well, you know what happened last season.
Now I turn this over to you. What did you think of the Devils’ performances in October? Who impressed you the most among the Devils in the month? What was your favorite game? What was your least favorite game? What did you learn from this month in review? Do you agree that Zacha is the Devil of the Month? If not, who should it be and why? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils in October 2019 in the comments. Thank you for reading.