March is the last full month in the NHL regular season. The 2018-19 regular season will end on April 6 and the New Jersey Devils will be done after that date. We have known for a while that the Devils would not make the playoffs. However, the team was mathematically determined in the middle of a bad month of games. How bad? The Devils went 4-9-2 in March. They earned just ten points. For the sake of perspective, only Buffalo earned fewer points (6) in March. The Devils will enter their final week of the season in 29th place and just a point ahead of 30th. Even if you prefer that the Devils fall as far as they can in the standings, the team had to suffer a lot of bad performances and bad results to get there. In other words, I’m glad this month is over and the 2018-19 season is coming to a close. But before the end, let us take one last look back at the month of March.
The Games of March 2019
The Devils played 15 games in this past month, including a six-game road trip that took them through Western Canada and a four-game homestand. The Devils entered the month coming off a 1-2 loss to Calgary that closed out February. Unfortunately, it would be a while before the Devils would earn their first win since February 25. Injuries forced New Jersey to call up several forwards from Binghamton and that really showed at times throughout the month. Especially early on. Here is a list of those early games.
- March 1: A 3-6 loss to Philadelphia at home. This one was testy and yielded two injuries to call-ups Nathan Bastian and Nick Lappin. Yes, the Devils had to make call ups for their call ups.
- March 2: A 0-1 loss to Boston on the road. Given how good Boston is and how bad and injured the Devils were, losing 0-1 in a goaltender’s duel is a moral victory of sorts. It was still an actual defeat.
- March 5: A 1-2 shootout loss to Columbus at home. Jesper Bratt was injured in this game and the Devils nearly snared a sluggish Blue Jackets squad. Alas, the Devils lost in the shootout. This would be the last home game for the next six games.
- March 8: A 0-3 loss to Washington on the road. Mackenzie Blackwood did all that he could but the Devils could not score and it is near-impossible to win without scoring.
- March 9: A 2-4 loss to Our Hated Rivals in the World’s Most Overrated Arena. This one was tough in that the Devils blew a lead, a game where the power play actually converted, and a good game from Cory Schneider for a regulation loss to a hated rival.
- March 12: A 4-9 loss to Calgary on the road. The Devils took a 4-3 lead into the third period and gave up six goals. To say this game got out of hand would be an understatement.
The Devils went winless in their first six games of the month and seven games overall before they visited the Edmonton Oilers on March 13. The injury-riddled Devils scored a mere ten goals including being shutout twice. They earned just one standings point. Therefore, it was absolutely glorious that the Devils ended their streak of futility in Edmonton. It was a high-scoring affair as the Devils converted power plays, tacked on a shorthanded insurance goal, and three second period goals in a 6-3 win. The Devils swept their two-game season series against the fighting McDavid’s for their first win of the month and their first win since February 25.
It would not be very long before their second win. March 15 in Vancouver was a late night for the locals in New Jersey. However, those that stayed up (or recorded it on a DVR and watched it at a reasonable hour) were rewarded with the Devils coming back from a two-goal deficit and prevailing in a 7-round shootout thanks to Damon Severson becoming the first Devils defenseman to score in a shootout. With wins in Edmonton and Vancouver, the Devils had a chance to split their six-game road trip. They did not do it. On March 17, Colorado gave them a reminder that the Devils are bad, they are not, and so the Devils took their third shutout loss of the month, 0-3. A record of 2-4-0 on the six-game road trip may be seen somewhat positively since it seemed like 1-5-0 or 0-6-0 was a real possibility. All the same, the Devils would return home for their next four games.
This set would end up being a split, which is mildly impressive given how it started. The first two games were big losses in efforts that showed that the Devils were outclassed by their opponent. On March 19, the Devils lost 1-4 to Washington. On March 21, the Devils lost 1-5 to Boston - a result I thought was going to happen in their game back on March 2. It was still a decisive loss. However, the Devils would turn things around on the afternoon of March 23. Six Devils returned to action from their injuries: Nico Hischier, Sami Vatanen, Miles Wood, Pavel Zacha, Micro Mueller, and John Quenneville. Zacha created the equalizer in regulation and provided the difference maker in the shootout for a 2-1 win. The losing streak was stopped at three games, which was good for a change. The homestand ended on March 25 when they hosted hapless Buffalo. Buffalo has been as bad as New Jersey and Ottawa on the road; and they went on to be the worst performing team in March. The Devils took advantage of that with a very solid 3-1 win where Cory Schneider made a ton (45) saves and special teams played crucial roles in the victory. As with the aftermath of the Vancouver game, it felt like the Devils could salvage some of this month after a terrible, terrible, terrible first half of it.
Also as with the aftermath of the Vancouver game, the Devils would take another shutout loss where they look terrible. Surprisingly, this was in the home of Detroit. Detroit has been terrible this season and the Devils have been “racing” with them for the bottom of the standings. Detroit did not look like a team set for a bottom-five finish as they just rolled through the Devils in all three zones over and over. The Devils lost 0-4. The month of March concluded with the Devils’ final weekend home game of the season against St. Louis. This one was a tricky one to predict. Both teams played the night before. While St. Louis had playoff seeding to play for, they did blow their game to fellow playoff-missers New York the night before. As it turned out, the Devils would show up for Fan Appreciation Night and give their fans something to appreciate. The Devils went after the Blues, they showed up to play in all three zones, and they did plenty to take the game in regulation. However, they did not have the bounces on their side and so they needed overtime. There, St. Louis took over and with three seconds left, the Blues scored. The Devils ended March with a 2-3 overtime loss. It was a poor ending to an otherwise good game. It was a respectable effort that was refreshing to watch after a terrible game the night before in a month full of terrible games.
And so that’s how the Devils achieved their 4-9-2 record. They beat three non-playoff teams (and it may be four since Arizona is now on the outside looking in as of this writing), whilst losing to three others. Their best results against playoff-bound teams (assuming Columbus does not miss) are two post-regulation losses. The Devils nearly went a month between home wins (February 25 to March 23) and they went 2-for-8 on the road. If there was any doubt that the Devils were one of the worst teams in the NHL, then the month of March erased it.
By the Numbers
The 5-on-5 stats for February were awful. They were not much better in March. They reflected a team that went 4-9-2 in the month.
The following numbers were pulled from Natural Stat Trick, Offside Review (for expected goals, and NHL.com in the afternoon of March 31, 2019; so it is inclusive of the entire month of March. Some of the ranks may shift a spot or two after Sunday night’s games. 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: With the exception of the nine minutes and twenty-one seconds that Nathan Bastian played, no Devil had a CF% at 50% or higher in March. Thirty Devils suited up for at least one appearance in March and that’s the result. That should give you a further idea of how bad 5-on-5 play was for the Devils. This chart will give you more.
I included expected goals stats to provide an idea of how many goals the team should have scored and allowed based on shot location and type for and against them. The expected goals model thought pretty well of how the Devils played in 5-on-5 situations in March. Reality said otherwise. The Devils were tied for the fewest amount of goals scored in March, they were among allowing the most (the Calgary game did not help), and the Devils’ proportion of attempts, shots, and scoring chances were solidly in the bottom third of the NHL. Adjustments for score and venues did not help the Devils at all. Across the board, the adjustments made the Devils’ stats worse. This all shows that the Devils were indeed a bad team in 5-on-5 hockey, the most common game situation.
There are a few silver linings. First, the high-danger scoring chance proportion was the only one that was good. That was driven by the Devils being the very best team in terms allowing high-danger chances per hour. Second, the Devils’ against rates were not that bad. Their rates of allowing attempts, shots, and scoring chances were closer to the league median than the bottom. We can even call them decent.
This leads me to point out two other big flaws in March. First, the goaltending took a step back. As per Natural Stat Trick, Cory Schneider was not great at 91.5% in 5-on-5, but Mackenzie Blackwood was lit up more often and posted an even worse 90.1% in 5-on-5. Even though there were games where the goalies were the only reason why the game was close, the 24th best save percentage in the month does not help so much.
But the bigger issue was the offense. As you would expect from a forward group undercut significantly by injuries and call-up players showing that they belong in the AHL, the Devils struggled to create and finish attempts, shots, and chances throughout the month. The Devils were shut out four times out of fifteen games and 5-on-5 offense was a big reason for it. Ditto for the sad fact that the Devils have scored three or more goals against a goalie only three times in March. It is not some great revelation that a healthier team would have been better. These numbers showcase what how bad it can be when its not.
By the way, your leader in 5-on-5 scoring on the Devils in March was New Jersey’s own Kenny Agostino with three goals and four assists in fifteen games.
Power Play Situations: As you may expect, a team beset with many injuries at forward led to a less-than-successful power play. How did that go?
It could have been a lot worse. It was not good. I mean, they’re below the league median in March in all rate stats. But they did draw a good number of advantages, they were a goal or two away from being above the league median, and their power play conversion rate was far from the very worst in the NHL in March. There is a reason to think they could have been a bit better given that the expected goals model is at least a goal higher than the team’s GF/60 rate. Do not misunderstand me. It was ugly at times. However, there were a few bright points here and there to keep the power play from being a total crater. And, hey, only one shorthanded goal against is not a bad thing.
For what it’s worth, the scoring of those six power play goals was spread apart. Blake Coleman was the only one to net two. Zacha, Stafford, Zajac, and Severson converted one apiece. Zajac led the team in power play scoring with three points. The aforementioned goal scorers each had two points. Will Butcher and Agostino each had two power play assists.
Penalty Kill Situations: The Devils penalty kill has been the one thing that has been mostly consistent and effective all season long. March was no different.
The Devils were a -3 on the PK. Combined with a +5 on the power play, special teams were a net positive in March. But the penalty kill was one of the better ones by the stats and the performances. What is impressive is that the Devils accomplished this while giving shifts to Kevin Rooney, Blake Pietila, and others first out of necessity and second out of earning the minutes. The skaters did a great job limiting their opposition’s rates while attacking enough times to make them worry at least a little. The goaltenders were excellent in shorthanded situations. Altogether, the Devils’ actual GA/60 rate beat an already good expected goals against rate.
The only complaint one can have for the PK is that the Devils had to utilize it so much. While the load was shared, Coleman alone was responsible for seven of the Devils’ forty-two situations. That said, the Devils showed that they can kill penalties quite well with and without their ace shorthanded attacker. Once again, I applaud the very good work the penalty kill put in throughout the month of March and throughout the season.
Additions and Subtractions
Between injuries and a Devils team with nothing to play for, opportunities were given to a lot of Devils. Thirty skaters suited up for at least one game for the Devils in March. The state of the team lead to the NHL debuts of forward Brandon Gignac, defenseman Colton White, and defenseman Josh Jacobs. Veteran AHL forward Eric Tangradi made his Devils debut. The situation led to call ups like Nick Lappin, Blake Pietila, and Kurtis Gabriel to dress for over half of the games in March. The only position not touched by injury, illness, or wanting to see what someone can do was goaltender.
The beginning of March added to the injury list with Nathan Bastian and John Quenneville being hurt in the first game of the month, Jesper Bratt being held to “week-to-week” with a lower body injury, Kyle Palmieri missing a couple of games here and there, Nick Lappin being held out, and Nico Hischier suffering an upper body injury, Sami Vatanen missing games due to illness, and Mirco Mueller suffering a shoulder injury from a scary hit into the endboards after the toe of his skate got caught in the ice. I’m sure there are others I am forgetting. It’s been a long month.
The good news is that almost all of those players have returned by the end of the month. The current injury list has Taylor Hall still out after knee surgery, Bratt still out with his significant injury, Vatanen is still battling something, and Bastian still out - but he is close to returning. By the St. Louis game on March 30, the Devils are at a point where healthy players can be scratched such as Gabriel and Egor Yakovlev. The Devils will not be 100% by the end of the season, but they are in a far better position health-wise on April 1 than they were on March 1.
Of the call ups, the “winners” appear to be Kevin Rooney, Michael McLeod, and Joey Anderson. They remain with the Devils and have been in games (Bastian is still not ready to return, Gabriel has been a scratch) as other NHL players have returned. The likes of Lappin, Pietila, and Tangrai have been demoted. The debuts of Gignac, Jacobs, and White were short-lived and understandably so. It could be argued that Rooney, McLeod, and Anderson should not be in New Jersey based on their performances, Rooney on a PK aside. But it is clear that management wants to see what they can do and have kept them active even after the March 23 game against Arizona.
Lastly, the Devils have not yet signed anyone to a contract. As junior and college seasons are in their playoffs and teams are being eliminated, some prospects are now available to sign or bring in on a try-out basis. The New Jersey Devils have not done that in March. The team’s AHL affiliate, Binghamton, has given out two amateur try-out deals. One was given to Penn State’s center Ludvig Larsson, who played in Merrimack in the three previous years. So there’s a connection to Binghamton’s head coach, Mark Dennehy. The second was to J.D. Dudek of Boston College. His rights were sent to Edmonton as part of the Patrick Maroon trade last season. Clearly, Edmonton either forgot about him or have no plans for him. It may be a very minor thing - Dudek did not exactly light it up with Boston College. But it suggests that the Devils did not burn their bridges with Dudek, they presumably got Edmonton’s OK, and so Binghamton has a player to try out for the cost of nothing. These ATOs may not mean much in the bigger picture, but they were events that happened in March.
Devil of the Month
This will be a stretch. Between all of the players that played and the fact that the team went 4-9-2 while getting owned in 5-on-5 play, there were not a lot of standouts. There certainly was not a lot of consistently good play in March. The players that come to mind do not really have impressive resumes. But here’s what I’ve figured.
Blake Coleman led the Devils in goal scoring in March with four. He was the only Devil to score in even strength (1), power play (2), and penalty kill (1) situations. He led the Devils by far with 41 shots on net. By no means it was a perfect month for Coleman. He put the Devils in some tough spots with his 16 PIM, which led to eight shorthanded situations. But the Devils killed all eight and Coleman has stayed out of the box since March 21. When Coleman was on the ice, the Devils took 48.97% of all shooting attempts, 48.91% of all shots, and 51.23% of all scoring chances. That Corsi percentage led all Devils forwards who played more than a few games in March and was second only to Will Butcher. That scoring chance percentage was the best among players active throughout March. Whereas Butcher played with NHL players, Coleman was forced to play above his level and sometimes with players who had no business with being in the NHL. As one of the few NHL forwards who played throughout the month, Coleman would contribute something in just about every game. Did he have some bad nights? Yes. Remember, the team went 4-9-2; everyone had some bad nights. To that end, I think he is the honorable mention for the Devil of the Month of March.
The actual AATJ Devil of the Month of March is someone who may have earned a job through his play in March. Believe it or not, this player led the team in scoring in March with three goals and six assists. His 25 shots on net were fourth on the team and he only took three penalties. In 5-on-5 play, this player was the scoring leader there too with three goals and four assists. His individual attempts were standouts on the team in 5-on-5 play in March: 36 shooting attempts (third on team), 22 scoring chances (tied for second), and 12 high-danger chances (second). coleman often had more volume, but this player was more productive. And his own CF% and SF% were above 48% - which is above the majority of the team in March - like Coleman. In a month where the Devils scored only 25 goals, I have to give the one involved more of them than anyone else his due. Most telling: When the likes of Wood, Palmieri, Hischier, etc. returned, this player stayed on a top line as Coleman was moved back to a role he was more suited to. I am referring to someone I thought was maximizing his opportunities after that six-game road trip ended. I am referring to New Jersey’s own Kenny Agostino. Maybe being the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month for March 2019 is not worth much. And I admit it is a stretch. But earning a NHL contract is and I believe he has done that over the past month.
Concluding Thoughts & Your Take
This is not the worst Devils season I have every seen. This is not even the worst Devils season under Ray Shero’s tenure as general manager of the Devils. As bad and non-scoring as March was, injuries absolutely contributed to that result. This is not a team that struggles to register 20 shots in a game like the 2016-17 team. This is not a team that is seemingly aimless and totally underwhelming like the John MacLean era in 2010-11. However, this team is bad and March further confirmed that it is bad and I think all Devils fans just want the next three games to fly by and hope the lottery works in their favor on April 9. I get it.
If there is a larger lesson to be learned, then it is that the Binghamton Devils are not going to provide the talent to fill in all of the gaps the Devils have displayed this season. At least, they are not going to now. It is possible - and I certainly hope for it - that McLeon, Bastian, Gignac, and Seney among others improve enough to be NHL players. It is possible that the Devils have identified some potential #13 and #14 forwards so they can move on from the likes of Drew Stafford. At the same time, I’d like to think this month shows that there is not a whole lot of value in Rooney and there is far less in the likes of Lappin, Pietila, Tangradi, and so forth. The answer to the defense will not be found with Jacobs or White or the other defenders down there. The team will likely need another crew of vets to ensure the pipeline is not just filled with guys on ELCs who have varying futures. I’d like to think that March has confirmed that Shero and his people need to shake up the depths of their roster if they hope to make some gains. A better 13th forward will not make the difference between making the playoffs or not, but it will reduce any drop-offs in quality when guys get hurt. We’ll see if this is heeded in June and July.
As one final point, I have noticed some fans have been upset when the Devils take a lead in a game or, worse, win one. These fans are following the Sherman Abrams way. Let the record show that the Devils’ 4-9-2 record in March was the second worst in hockey. The Devils still fell in the standings. They have increased their odds of winning a lottery on April 9. They have done the job. So please do not be upset that the Devils won four games or picked up ten points. Between the injuries, the lack of talent, and the coaching, the Devils have taken plenty of damage as to not win their way out of a top draft pick. The job has been done whether you realize it or not. Related: the last three games of the season are unlikely to change the reality.
Now I turn this over to you. What did you think of the Devils’ performances in March? 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? Where will the Devils finish in the league standings by April 7? Do you agree that Agostino 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 March 2019 in the comments. Thank you for reading.