For most, the start of a new calendar year is a sign of a new beginning. A mark to start something new. A day to put the previous year behind you and look forward to the one beginning. For the New Jersey Devils, it was more of the same. The Devils remained bad on the road, not good at home, and down in the basement of the standings. New Jersey finished January with a 4-8-0 record. Before games were played on February 1, Moneypuck had the Devils with a 1.12% chance of making the playoffs. That is the third lowest percentage in the NHL. It is just ahead of fellow lottery-ball chasers, Detroit and Ottawa. If nothing else, the first month of the season did yield one resolution for the Devils: the 2018-19 season is effectively lost.
To that end, February, March, and the first week of April should be addressed with the future in mind. The shortest month of the year will be quite busy for the Devils. Not only do they have fourteen games in twenty-eight days, the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline is weeks away. By the time this is posted, it will be three Mondays from today. General Manager Ray Shero and his staff will have to make some potentially significant decisions real soon. Before we focus on that, let us look back and review January 2019.
The Games of January 2019
The month of games opened on January 2 in Dallas, Texas. The Devils visited the Stars and forgot to pack a defensive effort. In a high-scoring affair, the Devils lost 4-5 to the Stars whereupon they allowed forty shots on net and sixteen high-danger changes in 5-on-5 play. This was a game where the shot count was 27-2 in favor of Dallas at a point in the second period. I wrote in my recap: “I really hope this trip improves on Friday and I do not see this kind of defensive performance for a long, long time.” I was proven wrong. I would go on to see this kind of defensive performance multiple times this month.
On January 3, the Devils did not play a game. Instead, they made some news when it was announced that head coach John Hynes received a multi-year extension. In his January 9 posting of 31 Thoughts at Sportsnet, Elliotte Friedman revealed it was a two-year extension. Keep that in mind as you read on.
On January 4, the Devils provided the extended head coach something rare in this season: a road win. Against Arizona, the Devils got off to an early lead, saw it slip away, and then tied it up in the second period. The score held all the way to a shootout where Drew Stafford proved some value and scored on a sweet move. The move secured a 2-0 shootout win for a 3-2 result in the desert. The Devils carried the good feelings from that win into Vegas on January 6. They did not lost. After building up a two-goal lead, Vegas scored three unanswered in regulation. Despite a myriad of twenty third-period shots, the Devils could not get an equalizer. They lost 2-3 to the Golden Knights. The Devils’ road trip to start 2019 would end in Buffalo on January 8. It started off well enough with an early first period goal by New Jersey. In the second period, Buffalo lit up the Devils for five goals. The game ended with 33 shots allowed to New Jersey’s 21 and five goals to New Jersey’s one. It was a beatdown to end a road trip that went 1-3-0 to start the year.
While the Devils have been a better team at home this season, you would not have known it on January 10. The Devils hosted Toronto and it was another decisive loss where the Devils looked like children going up against the men on Toronto. The shots: 43-29 in favor of Toronto. The chances: 32-24. The high-danger chances: 17-7. The score was the only thing close about this game, which was a 2-4 loss for New Jersey. Fortunately, the Devils would have an easier opponent on January 12 coming to the Rock: a fellow bad team representing Philadelphia. Goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood returned to the lineup for this game and was excellent. Forward Marcus Johansson also returned and played in this game. The Devils took the game to the Flyers early, built up a lead, and even added to it. A literal last-second breakdown allowed the Flyers to get a consolation goal to make it a 3-2 win, but the game was not as close as the score would suggest. On January 14, the Devils would get another non-contender opponent coming to the Rock representing Chicago. If you liked goals, then this was your night. The Devils drew Cam Ward as their opposing goaltender and made it rain goals on a pitiful Chicago defense. The Devils’ had their own miscues, but they happened well after the Devils were up as many as four or five goals. The Devils won the game 8-5. While wins over Philly and Chicago were hardly statement makers, they were a welcome respite from the performances from the first five games of January.
Unfortunately, the Devils would have to go back on the road for their next two games. On January 15, the Devils went to Columbus. They received a rude awakening from the likely playoff-bound Blue Jackets. Columbus dropped the Devils with a tough 1-4 defeat. On January 17, the Devils went to Nassau Coliseum to play the Islanders, New York’s less odious hockey team. Gerard put it simply: it was a dismal 1-4 loss to the Isles. The road woes clearly continued. In theory, a home game against a then-struggling Anaheim team on January 19 would be a good pick-me-up in the team’s final game before a bye week and the 2019 NHL All-Star Weekend. Reality said no. The Devils may have held Anaheim to a mere 14 shots, but they only kept them to three goals. They scored one in 59 minutes, one in the final minute of regulation, and that secured a 2-3 defeat. New Jersey went into their break on a three-game losing streak.
The Devils did not lose the week off. They won their first game after the break, which is mighty impressive as it was a road game. Once again this season, the Devils just frustrated Pittsburgh and left western Pennsylvania with a win. And not just any win, but a 6-3 win with three even strength goals, two power play goals, and a shorthanded goal. That was a bright spot to end a three-game losing streak. In their final game of the month, the New Jersey Devils finally faced Our Hated Rivals - the New York Rangers. It took fifty games in the schedule before the rivalry was renewed. Alas, the Devils saw the game slip away from a 2-0 lead thanks to penalties, some utterly inexcusable defending, and a lack of execution in all three-zones. The Devils were in a position to succeed, but found a way to lose to Our Hated Rivals 3-4 at the Rock. That was a very sour end to what was an unsuccessful month of play.
By the Numbers
The numbers were quite ugly for the Devils in 5-on-5 play in December despite a not-totally-ugly record. How did it look for a team that went 4-8-0 in January? Appropriately hideous.
These numbers were pulled from Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com on February 1, 2019; so it is inclusive of the entire month of December. 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 21st and below.
That is a lot of red. The eye-test in most games showed that the New Jersey Devils’ defense was problematic. The stats also show that the Devils’ defense was very ineffective. Even the scoring chance and high danger chances against rates ranked poorly and were far higher than what the Devils generated. Hockey is not a one-way game, so when the Devils are pinned back and conceding additional shooting attempts, shots, and chances, that means the Devils are not doing it themselves. Their constant puck-chasing and/or puck-watching on defense reduced how much the Devils could actually attack.
The sad thing is that one thing did go right in 5-on-5 play for the Devils in January: scoring goals. The Devils were a top ten team with 25 goals scored and their shooting percentage was actually good. If the Devils were able to generate more shots, then they could have had even more. They had the goal totals to put up a respectable record in January. But the same issues cropped up in January. The goaltending was not good enough (amazingly, there were four playoff-likely teams with an even lower 5-on-5 save percentage in January) and the defense was absolutely not good enough to help out said goaltending, stop the opposition, and get the play going in the right direction.
How bad was it for the players? According to Natural Stat Trick, only four out of twenty-four New Jersey Devils skaters had a Corsi For percentage above 50% in January: Blake Coleman, Travis Zajac, Miles Wood, and Ben Lovejoy. That’s it. Over half of the team had a CF% below 45%, which is horrendous. Only seven skaters can say the Devils gave up shots at a rate fewer than 30 per sixty minutes in January. Only four skaters can say that the Devils allowed a rate of fewer than ten high-danger chances per sixty minutes in January. These are not values that happen because one man - even a Superstar - is out injured or a few players are hurt. It takes a lot to get numbers like this in a 12-game run from poor execution, poor coaching, and not having enough talent. Check the schedule and you’ll see that the Devils were not facing an incredibly difficult run of opponents. Yes, there were some contenders but they even got wrecked in the run of play to the likes of a rebuilding Rangers team.
These 5-on-5 numbers that one would expect from a Bad Team. The New Jersey Devils were certainly Bad in January and in 2018-19, so this should not be a surprise. Yet, I am disappointed. If the Devils are going to try to be better in 2019-20, then 5-on-5 play is what they absolutely need to improve.
Power Play Situations:
I have expressed a lot of disgust with Rick Kowalsky’s management of the power play. I must give credit where it is due. The power play was not bad in January. It was not spectacular, but the stats for January were not as abysmal as the 5-on-5 stats
I think a lot of my frustration comes from how the Devils have received 39 power play situations and maybe half of them actually threatened to do anything like score a goal. The team’s relatively low for-rates point to that, shots on net excepted. Despite injuries, players rotating in and out of the lineup, and the runs where the power play was not effective, Kowalsky has the Devils have committed to their 1-3-1 formation for both power play units. Damon Severson is still used in Kyle Palmieri’s spot on the second unit when Sami Vatanen was available. With Taylor Hall out, it was a mix of players to distribute from the left half-boards (the goalie’s left) until Marcus Johansson returned. Players get in this formation and do not move very much. The game plan is to hope the penalty killers move out of impatience or hope the puck carrier can make a great play. When it’s Hall, then the latter may be occasionally viable. Not so with Johansson or Jesper Bratt, no offense to those guys. And the Devils’ power play still struggles mightily against teams that have aggressive penalty killers. At least the Devils have dumped their back-pass from the neutral zone, but they still build up from in-deep. I still think the team could use a Plan B since Plan A has not exactly functioned.
But it is not all terrible. Over the course of a month, it is good that the Devils drew so many fouls. Putting up seven power play goals in twelve games is a good thing; most NHL teams did not do that. The scoring was spread apart, too. Palmieri led with two power play goals; five others have one each; and Travis Zajac led with three points as ten other Devils had at least one point. However, the for-rates point to the struggles that you and I have likely seen when the Devils are up a man on the ice. There is room for improvement, but I do not think this was an aspect of the game that doomed the Devils to a 4-8-0 record in January.
Penalty Kill Situations:
The Devils’ PK has seemingly been a consistent bright spot in the 2018-19 season. The underlying rate stats show that the good times keep on rolling. However, they have not been as good across the board.
Overall, a 14th ranked penalty kill in terms of success rate for the month is not bad at all. It is pretty good. The against-rate stats are almost all great, with the Devils doing a better job in PK situations in terms of HDCA/60 than they did in 5-on-5. In general, the Devils’ penalty kill has and can keep the opposition from generating a whole lot relative to most other teams in the NHL. They did so in January.
There are two issues here. First, there is that familiar issue for 2018-19: the goaltending. The Devils just avoided the bottom ten with a 83.33% save percentage in shorthanded situations in January. While the team has only seven power play goals in January, one has to wonder how much greater it would be if the goalies were closer to league median of 85.5% for the month of January. Second, discipline definitely could have been a lot better as the Devils had 36 such situations to kill. I have to see if there is any correlation between teams who post poor 5-on-5 numbers and taking penalties. It would not surprise me as it is common for teams who are stuck defending to be more likely to take a call for various reasons (e.g. to stop a goal or scoring chance, a tired shift causing a bad decision, frustration from chasing the game on defense). While the Devils’ goaltender issues may not be solved in February, the fouls can be addressed. I would like to think that the coaches can sit down with Coleman, Brett Seney, Wood, Stefan Noesen, Ben Lovejoy, Damon Severson, and Steve Santini among others to stop taking so many minor penalties. I mention those names as they each took at least three in January. That is how I see it.
That said, the way the Devils do business on the penalty kill continues to be quite effective even with those two issues. Keep it up. While a great PK does not make a team good, the Devils are not losing games and thinking about the 2019 NHL Draft in January because of it.
Additions and Subtractions
This team misses Taylor Hall.
That should not be a controversial statement. Any team who has the reigning NHL MVP would miss him if he was out for an entire month. Moreso in the case of the Devils, who have had their depth somewhat tested with several other injuries going into and throughout January 2019. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but joining Hall, Cory Schneider, and Joey Anderson as players who missed time in this past month were:
- Marcus Johansson, who did return to action and appeared in seven games in January.
- Miles Wood, who did play in nine games and returned to action in the last two games of the month.
- Ben Lovejoy, who has been out since the loss in Columbus on January 15.
- Sami Vatanen, who suffered a concussion due to an elbow by Derick Brassard on January 28.
- Stefan Noesen, who played in four games and has been out since.
- Mackenzie Blackwood missed a few games due to injury and was not on the bench for the win in Pittsburgh as he was representing Binghamton in the AHL All-Star Game.
- Travis Zajac apparently picked up an injury in the 3-4 loss to Our Hated Rivals; he did not practice on February 1 or travel to Montreal for the first game in February.
Between the players being out and the team being where it is in the standings, management has made some “interesting” call-ups. Egor Yakovlev was like a yo-yo between the AHL and NHL before finally making an appearance in the final game of January against the Rangers. At least he scored a goal in that one. John Quenneville technically played in the first game of January and was demoted shortly after. He continued to do positive-enough things in Binghamton for the month. For forwards, the Devils instead called up Kevin Rooney, Blake Pietila, and Nathan Bastian. Believe it or not, Rooney and Pietila each played in seven games in January. They did not accomplish much but they were on the active roster. Bastian made his NHL debut against Anaheim, had a fight, and that remains as his sole NHL stat other than 9:32 of ice time. Rooney is still with the Devils by month’s end as Pietila and Bastian were sent down. Kurtis Gabriel was also called up by the month’s end but he did not make an appearance until February 2 in Montreal.
As for scratches, the defense did have a log jam of sorts, so Santini was a scratch for three games and Mirco Mueller was a scratch for seven. With Lovejoy hurt, both received more attention as needed. After it was learned that Vatanen had a concussion, the Devils called up Eric Gryba. But he did not play against the Rangers; the coaches instead went with Mueller playing on his offhand. Which I understand to a point. I also understand that the team may prefer Gryba than their latest player. The Devils did make a trade in January - a minor-league trade. On January 30, the Devils traded left-shooting defenseman Michael Kapla for right-shooting defenseman Ryan Murphy. While Murphy has played in plenty of NHL games, he was sent back-and-forth between the NHL and AHL. It appears that instead of throwing Murphy right into a New Jersey Devils game, the organization wants him to get his feet with how the Devils do business with Binghamton. I would not be surprised if he is called up in the future.
While it is not an addition or subtraction, the Devils did extend head coach John Hynes’ contract back towards the beginning of the month. The Devils proceeded to go 4-7-0 since that news came out with a mere two road wins. It was hardly a shining endorsement of the coach. Most of the performances were not shining either.
Devil of the Month
Two Devils stood out in January and they largely played on the same line. Amid the injuries and some trash-tastic performances, a trio was kept together for the most part of January because they were at least producing if nothing else.
The first that comes to mind is Travis Zajac. He finished January with the most points on the team with eleven according to NHL.com. In other words, two goals, nine assists, and 23 shots on net. The Devils’ team rates in January were horrible in 5-on-5 play. However, when Zajac was on the ice in January, the Devils actually out-attempted, out-shot, out-chanced, and out-high-danger chanced their competition in 5-on-5 play according to Natural Stat Trick. Zajac was the team leader in CF% for the month with 55.59%. Again, only four out of twenty-four Devils skaters posted a CF% higher than 50% in January. So to lead at about 55.6% is a testament to the work Zajac regularly puts in. He’s been prone to errors like anyone else, but he has not made nearly as many and he has rarely had a truly awful game for a team who had a bad January. Zajac is my honorable mention for Devil of the Month.
The actual Devil of the Month stepped up huge on offense. With Taylor Hall out and a myriad of other issues, the team badly needed someone to be a producer. Someone to catch fire. While the Devils were out-attempted and out-shot in a big way as a team, this one man had great percentages like Zajac. He led the Devils in individual shot attempts, shots on net, and scoring chances in 5-on-5 play per Natural Stat Trick. Nico Hischier was behind him and it was not exactly close. along with being a team leader in 5-on-5 production with six goals and nine points in 5-on-5. The Devils did put up a good number of 5-on-5 goals with 25 in January. Six of them came from this one man. While Zajac had one more point in all situations, this man led the team in goals (7) and shots (39). He was so good and his stick was hot enough that he really should have been on the power play. You already know exactly who I am talking about. He is everyone’s favorite penalty killer and the best Texas-born player in franchise history: Blake Coleman - the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month for January 2019.
Any thought that the Devils had a chance to make it to the postseason was faded during January. Any hope that the Devils could “go for it” was dashed in January. If this month did anything with respect to What This Season Means for the organization, then it is that it was proof that this is a lost season. The Devils do not have anything realistic to play for but contracts and decisions for the future and lottery balls. I’d include pride, but then I recall the loss to the Rangers, so I’m not going to include that. What’s next is a month where Ray Shero should move current players for future assets; and the games should be seen with an evaluation mindset. Given how badly the team played in January both in terms of results and various stats reflective of their performance, the Devils may not need to actively try to be bad. They can keep on keeping on and likely finish with goods odds to win any of the top three spot in the 2019 NHL Draft Lottery. That is a statement I can make after how January 2019 went for the team. That’s what one can write after a bad month of hockey by a team who is bad at hockey this season.
Now that you’ve read what I wrote about the Devils and how they did in January 2019, I want to know your take. What are your main takeaways from this past month? Where do the Devils go from here? Would you agree that Coleman was the Devil of the Month, or should it have been someone else? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the Devils in January 2019 in the comments. Thank you for reading.