February may be the shortest month on the calendar but it was anything but short on activity by the New Jersey Devils. The Devils played 14 games in 28 days, traded away four players by the NHL Trade Deadline on February 25, 2019, and injuries forced so many call ups from the Binghamton Devils such that the Devils entered March with fewer than five NHL-caliber forwards - and even that is a charitable count. Still, the month was not utterly awful in what is now a lost season for the Devils. The team went 6-7-1 with all six wins coming in regulation or overtime. As March has already begun, let us look back at all that happened in February 2019 for the organization.
The Games of February 2019
The busy month of February started in Montreal. The Bell Center got to experience a Devils squad that has been playing for pride for some time. They also witnessed Mackenzie Blackwood put in another great performance. They were disappointed when Nico Hischier scored shortside in overtime. Yes, the Devils opened up February with a 3-2 OT win on the road. It was a positive sign to begin the month. It was thrown away in the following week.
The Devils returned from Montreal with a four-game home-stand. They lost the first three of those four games. Against a fellow-hapless team in Los Angeles, the Devils fans booed Ilya Kovalchuk a lot. By the game’s end, they were booing the team as a horrendous start to the third period led to a 1-5 loss to Los Angeles. Two nights later, Cory Schneider made his first start for the Devils since his most recent injury. Schneider looked and played like he did when he was great years ago. He was excellent and he only needed one additional goal against the Isles to earn that elusive win Schneider has not had since December 2017. The Devils could not give him that second goal. They could not get it done in the shootout. Schneider was great but still took the shootout loss in a 1-2 defeat to the Islanders. Two nights later, the fans at the Rock were able to boo Zach Parise as Minnesota visited the Devils. They lost 2-4 in a performance that Gerard called “A love letter to Sherman Abrams,” which should tell you how that game went. [Sherman Abrams is the personification of tanking] The losing streak would end at three games on February 10. The Devils took on a Carolina team with legitimate playoff hopes and spoiled those hopes a little bit. Thanks in large part to a brace by Marcus Johansson and a rare good game by Keith Kinkaid, the Devils won 3-2.
In the middle of the month, the Devils went on the road for a three-game road trip against teams in the Central Division. The February 12 game in St. Louis was a total blowout. The Blues tap-danced all over the Devils for sixty minutes and so the Devils lost 3-8. On Valentine’s Day, the Devils were in Chicago. The Devils took another decisive road loss in a season full of them; this one was by a 2-5 score. On February 15, the Devils were seemingly on pace for a third-straight loss by three-plus goals. By halfway through the game, the Devils were losing 1-4. After the fourth goal against, Kinkaid was replaced by Schneider. Schneider started making saves and the Devils skaters went to work to chip away at the deficit. Will Butcher put the team within two near the end of the second. Before halfway through third, Kyle Palmieri converted a power play to put the Devils within one. With less than three minutes left, a seemingly harmless shot by Ben Lovejoy got through Devan Dubnyk’s legs and the game was tied. In between these scores, Schneider was stopping everything and the Devils were playing with a spirited effort. Overtime was not in NJ’s favor to start, but two mistakes by Minnesota rewarded the Devils. Dubnyk hesitated with the puck after taking a pass from Parise. He just awkwardly flung the puck behind the net and Palmieri got to it. Jared Spurgeon forgot about Nico Hischier crashing the net. Palmieri curled around for a bank shot, Dubnyk stopped it, and Hischier swooped in to put home the puck. The Devils won 5-4 in overtime to avoid a winless road trip. The Devils won over Minnesota. The Devils won on the road. Most of all, Cory Schneider was credited for his first win in over 13 months - and it came with an epic call by Devils play-by-play announcer Steve Cangialosi. It was very much a feel good moment in a season not filled with a lot of them.
The good times rolled on to a second-straight win. On February 17, the Devils returned to the Rock and hosted Buffalo. Schneider was superb again, Palmieri had a three-point game, and the Devils won 4-1. The next game was against Pittsburgh, a team that the Devils have done rather well against this season for one reason or another. Unfortunately, the attempt at the season series sweep did not work out. The game was watchable, Johansson was great with two points and eight shots, and the Devils had good efforts in the first and third periods. The problem was a real bad second period and the Devils could not come up with the equalizer. The Devils lost 3-4, the first loss to Pittsburgh this season. The Devils rebounded in a big way on February 21 against Ottawa. The Devils and Senators both held out players to ensure they would not get injured before any trades would happen. The Devils may be bad, but the Senators have been even worse. The game itself proved that as the Devils crushed the Senators 4-0. Schneider shutout the Senators - his first shutout since November 1, 2017. The Devils’ return home was successful at 2-1-0.
Unfortunately, their final road game of the month would be a stinker. Worse, it was at the house of Our Hated Rivals. The Devils played with little fire, intensity, pride, and, most of all, competency against the Rangers. As a result, they lost decisively 2-5 in what I called an afternoon disgust. On the day of the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline, the Devils traded away Kinkaid, who was originally-planned as the starter for the night, and Johansson. On top of that, the injuries were mounting so the team was becoming more and more Binghamton-like. But the Devils did right by their fans on Pride Night and handed Montreal another loss. Worse for playoff-fighting Montreal, it was in regulation. It was an ugly game. Wood and Quenneville got hurt in the game. It was close. It was still a 2-1 victory on the strength of another fantastic performance by Schneider, Nathan Bastian’s first NHL goal (a deflection of a Connor Carrick shot, his first assistt as a Devil), and a rebound put-back by Kurtis Gabriel. The month ended with a home game against what was then one of the hottest teams in hockey and the leader in the Western Conference, Calgary. The Devils have been bad and they were (and still are as of this writing) riddled with injuries. I expected an ugly loss. Instead, the Devils only lost 1-2. It does not feel great to write about “moral victories” but in an already lost season that featured many blowout losses, you have to find things to appreciate.
Such as a record of 6-7-1 in 14 games in a season with nothing to play for and in a month where injuries have mounted and four regulars were traded away. It could have been a lot worse. The Devils got some breaks and benefited from some players having big performances throughout the month. And so they picked up a few wins to dull some of the pain of 2018-19. I would like to expect more, but I don’t hate this.
By the Numbers
The Devils did not have the worst record in February. They were arguably the worst team in 5-on-5 play in February. The stats are telling and they did not say anything good about the Devils.
These numbers were pulled from Natural Stat Trick and NHL.com on March 1, 2019; so it is inclusive of the entire month of February. 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.
5-on-5 Play: It was ugly in February.
The Devils were abysmal at creating offense all month long. Yes, they did finish in the middle third of the league in goals scored. But that is because their shooting percentage was decent. It was not because they were taking a good number of attempts, shots, or scoring chances. What’s more is that because they were not creating a lot offensive events, that put further pressure on the defense as well as make the games less competitive for the Devils.
The defensive rate stats were not as awful but they certainly were not good from shot and attempt standpoints. The Devils were great at limiting scoring chances, but they could not turn those stops and defensive stands that protected “the house” into much for them. Instead, the opposition just worked around it and would eventually find some success. The silver lining is that the 91.34% and 31 goals against, which both rank in the bottom third in the league for February, are improvements from previous months.
So why was it so awful? One big factor is the drain on talent by injuries. As the Devils became more and more hurt, the fill-ins have been asked to do more and more beyond what is expected. And that can drag down the healthy NHL players - especially if they do not excel. As per Natural Stat Trick, 31 skaters suited up for the Devils in February, only one game worth 11:48 of Blake Pietila finished at 50% or higher in the month, and 10 skaters had CF%s below 40%. Those 10 include brief appearances of John Quenneville and Ryan Murphy, longer stays from Brett Seney and Kurtis Gabriel, and a few veterans who had a real rough go of it in the run of play last month: Andy Greene and Travis Zajac. CF% may not be everything but it is representative of how things in general went in 5-on-5. Being below 50% is not favorable and the lower it is, the worse it was for the Devils when they were on the ice. That a third of the roster in February saw the opposition take 60% or more of shooting attempts when they were on the ice is problematic.
Fortunately, two of the three Devils goalies in February were excellent. So much so that it kept some games closer than expected and that led to some results.
Power Play Situations: Speaking of results, the Devils power play did not get a lot of them in February.
The Devils’ power play was a +3 in goal differential. Thanks to a lot of teams scoring just six power play goals, the Devils ended up outside of the red for goals scored. They had opportunities. They had ice time. They just did not convert a lot of those opportunities. And so conceding three shorthanded goals undercut the performance of the Devils power play last month.
The on-ice rate stats make it clear that the Devils’ power play issues go beyond just not converting a lot of their 41 opportunities last month. Similar to their 5-on-5 play in February, they were just not creating a lot of offense. Their rate of shots, scoring chances, and high-danger chances all rated rather low compared to their peers in the NHL. While they suffered from players being lost due to injury, the Devils still loaded up their first unit with whatever offensive players they had available. They still had their top defensemen to lead the 1-3-1 from the back. They still struggled in February. The injuries definitely took their toll by month’s end but the PP was not good throughout the month.
For what it’s worth, your power play goal scorers for the Devils, as per NHL.com, in February were Kyle Palmieri (2), Marcus Johansson (1), Pavel Zacha (1), Jesper Bratt (1), and Travis Zajac (1). As of March 1, Palmieri and Zacha were out and Johansson was traded. The drain was real.
Penalty Kill Situations: The Devils’ penalty kill has been a strength all season long. Even with the injuries at forward, the PK was a positive in February.
The only downside in February was that the devils were on the penalty kill quite a lot. They took a lot of situations and spent a lot of time down at least one man. However, the Devils did not give up a lot of goals, their success rate was still in the top-ten, and their goal differential was just -5 in the month. This means special teams combined for -2 overall, but it is not the PK’s fault the PP did not convert more chances.
The on-ice rate stats were not dominant but they rated pretty well. The Devils did a good job in terms of their rates of attempts against, shots against, and high-danger chances against. Scoring chances did not rate as well, but it was around league median so I do not see it as a concern. The big plus in February was goaltending. While the Devils finished just outside of the top-ten in save percentage, the goalies did more than a decent job in the crease for those 45 penalty kills. Combined with what they allowed, this meant the Devils were able to kill 38 of them. From a personnel standpoint, Andy Greene was like an iron man as he played over 63 of the 81+ minutes the Devils were shorthanded in February per NHL.com. This was especially noticeable after Ben Lovejoy was traded away. Call-up Kevin Rooney has earned the coaches’ trust to take regular PK shifts (and scored a shorthanded goal), Damon Severson has seen his PK ice time usage grow, and the remainder of the regulars continued to put in good work.
For another month, the PK was a positive for the 2018-19 Devils.
Additions and Subtractions
How much time do you have? This post is already long (as usual), so here’s the quick version.
In terms of trades, General Manager Ray Shero was active in selling players by the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline. Four players who have expiring contracts were dealt away. Out went Brian Boyle, Ben Lovejoy, Keith Kinkaid, and Marcus Johansson. In came Nashville’s second round pick this year, Dallas’ third round pick this year, Columbus’ fifth round pick in 2022, Boston’s second round pick this year, Boston’s fourth round pick in 2020, and Connor Carrick. I thought it was a good run of trades by Shero. The team has nothing to play for this season and I do not see that any of those players factor into a long-term future. So picking up a bunch of extra picks and Connor Carrick is a good return for four men who likely could have signed elsewhere on July 1, 2019, leaving New Jersey with nothing to show for it.
In terms of additions, the Devils also added Kenny Agostino from waivers on February 11, 2019. Agostino has bounced back and forth between the NHL and AHL. On a Devils team that needed bodies at forward, Agostino has been a regular for the last nine games by default.
In terms of injuries, the Devils were absolutely wrecked by them at forward. Twenty different players plus defensman Egor Yakovlev lined up at forward in February. Taylor Hall was out all month and by the months’ end, we now know he had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. So much for “day to day with a lower body injury.” Stefan Noesen also remained on IR all month. Jesper Bratt, Pavel Zacha, Travis Zajac, and Blake Coleman all missed a couple of games in the month. At the end of the month, Miles Wood and Kyle Palmieri suffered injuries that will keep them out for weeks. Call-up John Quenneville was knocked out of action in his first game back with New Jersey. These injuries plus the departure of Brian Boyle led to call-ups for Kurtis Gabriel, Joey Anderson, Nick Lappin, Michael McLeod, Blake Pietila, Nathan Bastian, and Quenneville. Brett Seney and Anderson were sent down in the month for purposes of performance and wanting to have them not get rolled in the NHL. Anderson has since been recalled in early March.
Only Kevin Rooney and Nico Hischier played in all 14 games. Johansson could have joined them, but he was held out of a couple games for precautionary purposes before he was traded to Boston. As of this writing, the Devils have more Binghamton and Binghamton-quality forwards than NHL-caliber forwards.
The defensemen were better from a health-standpoint than the forwards. Sami Vatanen missed all but one game in February due to a concussion. He is back in action for the time being, but he was missed in this past month. Ryan Murphy, who was acquired at the end of January, was called up and played in one game for New Jersey. He was sent back to Binghamton afterwards. Instead, the Devils went more with Eric Gryba to fill in a spot on the blueline. He was called up and appeared in eight games until Carrick was brought in. At the end of February, another injury hit the blueline. Mirco Mueller’s skate got caught in the ice on a rush and crashed hard into the boards almost head-first. Mueller was stretchered off. While he has use of his limbs and does not have a concussion, he is now out with what is believed to be a shoulder injury. As the Devils have Carrick, Steve Santini, and Yakovlev on the active roster, they are not short on defensemen. The Devils’ blueline was weakened without Vatanen; but a majority of their defensemen were NHL-caliber throughout the month.
As for the net, Cory Schneider returned to action. He was in recovery from an abdominal strain and had a conditioning stint in Binghamton. He dressed for the first time in New Jersey since that injury on February 5. This led to Mackenzie Blackwood being sent down as the team did not want to keep three goalies on their active roster. He made his first start on February 7. He has since taken back his starter’s position in New Jersey if only because Keith Kinkaid was traded (and terrible in February). When Kinkaid was traded on the morning of the NHL Trade Deadline, Blackwood was recalled. For the remainder of this season, barring any injury, the Devils will spend the rest of 2018-19 with a Schneider-Blackwood tandem.
Hopefully, March will have more Devils return to action instead of more names being added to the list of injured players. The first two games of March have went against that, but it will be a long month.
The Devil of the Month
Marcus Johansson was on his way of taking this. He put up four goals and four assists in ten games. He was held out of two games through no fault of his own and was dealt right at the deadline to Boston. While three players had more points than him in February, they also had more appearances. I would like to think he could have produced against Ottawa and maybe make that Rangers loss a little less ugly. On a team that was increasingly weaker, Johansson thrived with his 19 minutes per game of ice time and 27 shots in ten games. So this is an honorable mention of sorts. But really, it is an honorable mention for an honorable mention for this section.
The actual honorable mention for Devil of the Month of February 2019 is Jesper Bratt. Bratt led all skaters in points in February with three goals and nine assists in twelve games. Unlike Johansson, Bratt’s points were more consistent in this past month. Bratt had a four-game point streak from February 5 through February 10 and a five-game point streak from February 14 through February 21. Bratt was held pointless in just three games in February: February 2 in Montreal, February 12 in St. Louis, and February 23 in New York. What really made him stand out to me was his 5-on-5 stats. Sure, like with the rest of the team, the percentages were ugly. But when Bratt was on the ice, the Devils actually attacked. As per Natural Stat Trick, he led the Devils in CF/60, SF/60, and SCA/60 (and second to Hischier in HDCF/60) and he led in CF/60 and SF/60 by quite a bit. It is true that the opposition still managed to out-shoot and out-attempt the Devils when Bratt was out there; but given how abysmal the team was at creating offense in February, I do not look so down on someone who was a high-event player. It all points to Bratt being a conduit for offense. So does his 3.79 GF/60, which also finished just second to two games of Carrick. Bratt had a very good month on offense and so he is my actual honorable mention for February 2019. Who was better?
Believe it or not, Cory Schneider.
Cory Schneider did more than just get his first regular season win in well over a year. He did more than just shutout the dumpster fire known as the Ottawa Senators. Schneider was legitimately one of the best goaltenders in the NHL in February. In eight appearances, according to NHL.com, Schneider posted an overall save percentage of 93.5%, an even strength save percentage of 94.1%, and a penalty kill save percentage of 93.5%. Those are excellent percentages on their own. Among all goalies who played at least five games last month, those are all percentages that rate in top ten. As per Natural Stat Trick, Schneider’s all-situation GSAA of 5.63 also rated in the top ten in the NHL. Only goalies who have been way hotter (e.g. Jordan Binnington, Andrei Vasilevskiy) have superior percentages. So it’s more than that Schneider has been great, only a select few have been better than him last month.
After months and months of criticism and jeering Schneider has received, they have both become much more quiet. After posts and statements about how Schneider is done and he is more likely to stay hurt and decline further, those are forgotten for the moment. It is possible that this is just a hot streak and March will show that Schneider may not be “back.” But in February, Schneider has been moving well from post-to-post, he is not at risk of blowing an easy save, and he is reacting well to whatever situations he has been thrown into. He looked a lot like the goalie who should have received more minutes in 2013-14 and played very well in 2014-15. Schneider’s performance opened the door to Kinkaid being traded for someone not even in high school yet. Most of all, Schneider was a big reason why a team beset by injuries, weakened by trades, and has lacked talent was able to pull out four wins and go beyond regulation against playoff teams. For that, I am happy to say that Cory Schneider is the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month for February 2019.
Concluding Thoughts & Your Take
The Devils have traded away four players and injuries have taken out a majority of the forwards. Compared to the roster that played in Game #1, only Andy Greene, Will Butcher, Nico Hischier, Travis Zajac, Blake Coleman, Mirco Mueller, Damon Severson, and Sami Vatanen dressed for the Calgary game at the end of this past month. Drew Stafford and Steve Santini were on the active roster but were scratched in Sweden. And Mueller got hurt in that game, which just shows how much has changed from October to where we are today. Yet, in spite of the injuries, the trades, and the fact that the Devils have nothing to play for by way of not being competitive enough this season, the Devils put up a 6-7-1 record. The Devils received great performances from two of the three goalies that appeared for the Devils. Johansson, Bratt, Hischier, and Palmieri were productive while they were still Devils and/or healthy. Of those eight non-wins, the Devils only lost three of them by three or more goals. They did at least a little damage to the playoff causes of Montreal, Buffalo, Carolina, and Minnesota at the time when they happened. They did not get embarrassed by Pittsburgh, Calgary, or the Islanders.
Do not misunderstand me. This is still a bad team. By the end of the month, they were still ranked in the bottom five in the league standings. But in February, the Devils showed that they are not the worst team in hockey. Even with a forward group mostly from the farm club, they were not total doormats in all of their final few games of the month. This is a rationalization but that is a positive because there is something to rationalize. With the Devils already playing games just because they have games to play, there is not much else but that. Already in March, the Devils dropped their first two games and the upcoming schedule has a nasty six-game road trip in the middle of it plus three (maybe four) home games against playoff-hopeful teams. It is possible that the Devils do not do as well in March as they did in February. To that end, I think we should appreciate the good bits of the month that just ended and just move on. So it goes in a lost season.
Now I turn this over to you. What did you think of the Devils’ performances in February? Did Shero do well enough by the NHL Trade Deadline? Who impressed you the most among the Devils in February? What was your favorite game? What was your least favorite game? What did you learn from this month in review? What do you expect, if anything, for March? Do you agree that Schneider 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 February 2019 in the comments. Thank you for reading.