Tomorrow, the New Jersey Devils will take on Our Hated Rivals in the World’s Most Overrated Arena. It will be the team’s 31st road game of the 2018-19 season. It has been no secret that the Devils have been awful outside of New Jersey this season with a record of 8-19-3. The only other team with less than ten road wins this season is Ottawa, who sits in last in the entire league. What I intend to do with this post is point out how bad it has been and what could be done about it to make road games more successful next season.
The Devils on the Road in 2018-19 So Far
The most common situation in hockey is 5-on-5 play and a team’s performance in those situations generally gives us an idea of how they’re doing. According to Natural Stat Trick as of February 21, the Devils have these road stats for 5-on-5 hockey (with and without venue & score adjustments):
The somewhat good news is that the Devils have been decent relative to the other 30 NHL teams when it comes to scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances. They are by no means a great team at it, but they are not giving up loads of them away from home and they have been able to generate a decent number. The score and venue adjustments at Natural Stat Trick suggest that the Devils are a bit better at it than their actual totals. Further, the Devils have not been totally bereft of scoring goals. Again, they have not been lighting up nets - their 8-19-3 record speaks to that. But their sticks are not particularly cold outside of Newark.
That said, the Devils have been bleeding a lot of shots and shooting attempts away from home. They are not generating nearly enough in kind to make it respectable. Most teams in the NHL do not reach 50% in some of these categories on the road, but the Devils have been well away from it. Only Ottawa, who the Devils just played, can claim to have a leakier defense in road games this season. Then there is the goaltending. It has been a massive problem for the Devils nearly all season long and it shows up here as well. Only three teams have a worse road save percentage than the Devils. There have been road games where the goaltender’s numbers look awful but the run of play shows that the goaltender has been buried in shots and attempts that keeps opposing home teams on the attack - which leads to more scoring opportunities. In short: Giving up lots of shots plus goaltenders not stopping a lot of shots equals a lot of goals against. It does not matter much whether they are chances or not. This terrible combination is a huge reason why the Devils are 8-19-3 on the road.
What about special teams? Interestingly, they have not been a big concern. The NHL.com stats page provides splits for success rates at home and on the road. The Devils’ power play has a success rate of 19.6%, which currently ranks twelfth in the league. Not 21st, 12th. New Jersey has been 18 for 92, which are both respectable values for goals (tied for tenth with four other teams) and opportunities (seventh), respectively. As for the penalty kill, the Devils have killed 76 power plays out of 91 away from the Rock. That’s a success rate of 83.5%, which is the fifth best for road PKs in the NHL. Only five teams have allowed fewer than 15 power play goals on the road and the Devils are below the league median in terms of shorthanded situations (tied for nineteenth). While there can always be improvements, I do not see either side of special teams being a cause for their road woes.
Fans have lamented the Devils’ defense and their goaltending throughout this season and with good reason. At the team level, they stick out as major reasons why the Devils have failed so much away from home.
Devils Players on the Road in 2018-19 So Far
Usually, that is where I will leave it. But for something like this, I want to see if there are any Devils players who have been particularly good or bad on the road. As you would expect from the team 5-on-5 stats, there are plenty of players really struggling away from the rink. So much so that I can save some time by telling you who does not have terrible numbers on the ice.
According to Natural Stat Trick, the following Devils have a CF%, SF%, SCF%, and HDCF% above or close to 50% in all four stats: Taylor Hall, Will Butcher, and Ben Lovejoy. (Michael McLeod also fits but he has played all of 5:31 this season, so I’m not including him.) What that means is that when these three players were on the ice in 5-on-5 hockey, the Devils were either even or out-performing the opposition in attempts, shots, scoring chances, and high-danger scoring chances. You may note that Hall has been injured since late December and has only played in 17 games and the other two are defensemen. Unfortunately, Butcher is the only one who has seen the Devils outscore their opposition at 25-22. Road scoring with Hall on the ice has been 10-13 and Lovejoy has seen it at 12-19.
If I stretch out that CF% requirement to 49%, then I can include Nico Hischier and Joey Anderson in that group. Beyond that, it gets worse and worse and worse. Put it this way, there have been 17 Devils skaters with a CF% below 46%, which means the Devils have been out-attempted by a notable difference when they are on the ice. This group includes some call ups but it also consists of Marcus Johansson (just above 45% at 45.08%), Andy Greene, Damon Severson, Pavel Zacha, and plenty of bottom six forwards (which has included Zacha on some nights). Whether it was Brian Boyle, Stefan Noesen, Brett Seney, Kevin Rooney, or Drew Stafford, opposing home teams enjoyed playing against these players more often than not. And while I’m highlighting CF% here, almost all of those players have all witnessed 45% or fewer shots-for percentages and similarly low scoring chance percentages.
That Greene and Severson have been caved in on defense is a problem in of itself. (Read: It will likely be its own post at some point.) And that the Devils have been out-done on the road with Johansson and Zacha on the ice is a bit of a surprise. One of those may be moved soon so its sort-of moot. But seeing a lot of the depth players down this low supports the argument that the Devils do not have enough talent. Yes, recent call ups like Rooney are here but also intended-to-be bottom six forwards like Noesen, Stafford, and Boyle are also in this group. Given that home teams get the last change for faceoffs, they typically take advantage of matching lines and units so they can get their best players out there against the Devils’ lesser players. These stats support that has been happening and it has been hurting the Devils’ cause on the road.
So What Can They Do About It?
What you may figure the Devils need to do in general may likely be enough to make road games less of a nightmare next season.
First, the Devils need to sort out their goaltending situation and stop the bleeding there. If Cory Schneider is truly “back” and Mackenzie Blackwood is truly a NHL goaltender, then this may be enough for better goaltending performances in 2019-20. That alone will help the Devils be more successful, not just on the road.
Second, the defensive performances need to be better and this is a combination of talent and coaching. There have been more times than I can count where the Devils get lost in their own end, fail to make an exit, and players are noticeably confused as to who is covering what. This tends to happen when the Devils are pinned back. I can imagine this gets exacerbated on the road where time and energy is spent traveling rather than being able to prepare for the game and sharpen up skills. Still, whatever tactics they have been using has not been good enough and it apparent on the road. At the same time, the Devils need better skaters who can better perform off the puck in general. That Greene-Severson ended up so low in on-ice 5-on-5 rate stats in Devils road games tells me that the pairing needs to be improved upon. It deserves its own post, but I will say that the upgrade needs to be for Greene, who is not at all the same player he was four to six seasons ago.
Third, the Devils need a different approach to building their depth players. These are the players that tend to get targeted by the home team when it comes to matching lines and units. Despite bringing back many of the same players who were at least somewhat successful last season, the Devils’ bottom-six got hammered. The hammering only continued when injuries forced call ups to take these limited minutes and those players showed why they did not make the New Jersey Devils out of camp. I understand that much of free agency will focus on Hall’s extension, Hischier’s extension, and hoping the Devils land a “name player.” But for the Devils to be more successful, they would be wise to find the third and fourth-line players that will fit the team’s approach and can perform well enough off the puck to not be rolled over in the run of play in 5-on-5 hockey on the road. Not that a ton of money should be put into it, but a more talented group of skaters making up the depth of the roster will those matchups on the road a little less easy for the home opponent.
These are all things the Devils can do for next season. Until then, well, I would not expect much at all.
Expect More Road Pain in the Meantime
The Devils have ten more road games after tomorrow’s game. By March 2, the team could be even less talented depending on who is moved by the NHL Trade Deadline. There is also the temptation to not do as well as possible in the hopes of securing a more favorable draft pick and more lottery balls for the top-three. Combined with the fact that the Devils have been so bad on the road so far, this could get really ugly.
On the surface, it does not seem so bad. The Devils will have twenty games left in their season after Saturday and they’ll have ten of them on the road. However, it is the distribution of those games and who they will play that will make it tough. Here is the list of those ten road games:
- March 2 at Boston
- March 8 at Washington
- March 9 at Our Hated Rivals
- March 12 at Calgary
- March 13 at Edmonton
- March 15 at Vancouver
- March 17 at Colorado
- March 29 at Detroit
- April 4 at Carolina
- April 6 at Florida
Out of those ten, six of those teams have something to play for whether it is playoff positioning (Washington, Boston, Calgary) or a playoff spot at all (Carolina, Colorado, Vancouver). Six of those ten road games are in a trip in the middle of March which includes three games in four nights through Western Canada. Through the rest of the season, the Devils have only one break that lasts more than two days and it’s three days from March 26 to March 28 - which precedes a road game in Detroit as part of a back-to-back. Even those games against teams with nothing to play for are far from gimmies if only because we know how bad the Devils have been this season. There is a real chance that the Devils may end up with a road record almost as bad as Ottawa’s - and that is saying something given what we saw last night from them.
For some fans, that may be more than OK given this season. Whether or not you count yourself among that group, we can agree that Devils road games can still be hard to watch as the season winds down.
So we know the Devils are bad on the road. It is largely because of their 5-on-5 play on the road, where the team has been bleeding shots, attempts, and goals away from home. Among the players themselves, only three regular skaters can say that the run of play was at least decent when the Devils were on the road this season and one of them has been out for close to two months with a “day-to-day” injury. If the Devils want to make 2019-20 better, then they need to improve their defense, get better goaltending, and beef up their roster depth. Doing so will really help on the road and yield better performances that should yield a way better record than the 8-19-3 they currently carry. There is not a whole lot the Devils can do this season and there is a chance the Devils’ road record remains as one of the worst in the whole NHL after the Devils close their season on April 6.
What do you make of all of this? What issues have you seen from the Devils on the road that they may not have at home? What would you do to help the Devils be a better road team next season? Can the Devils do anything to make the last eleven road games better than the last thirty? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils’ performances on the road this season in the comments. Thank you for reading.