Each of the past two years, I’ve done a wildly premature analysis of the Devils first pre-season performance from an analytical perspective. It’s done somewhat ironically. I say somewhat, because although it is the preseason, and numbers this small wouldn’t even mean much in the regular season, and our players weren’t even all in the same country during these games, this IS the first real data we have on the team we will see in the new year.
These numbers should not alter your current opinions. But if you think you saw something in a player, either good or bad, and the numbers back it up, you can be that much more confident that your assessment was accurate. For instance, while watching the game, I commented on how noticeable Boqvist was when he was on the ice, and the numbers will support that. While we can’t really say much, if anything, about what that means long term, we can, with greater confidence, say that Boqvist had a good game. For someone who is trying to make a case for a roster spot, that is relevant information.
And so, with that, let’s look at some of the important takeaways from the two games. All stats cited are from Natural Stat Trick.
Any description that doesn’t start with the #1 overall pick is obviously burying the lede. Hughes was phenomenal. With his presence on the ice comes the palpable and threatening aura. He zips around the ice like very few players in the NHL can, and when you combine his speed with his excellent feel for space, his anticipation, and a fairly impressive shot; and he is a threat to score no matter where his shift starts. His two goals, including a game-winner in OT, qualify this as an unmitigated success.
His 5v5 impact numbers told a more complicated story. While the Devils were out-attempted and out-scored while he was on the ice, the expected goal ratio was 0.57 to 0.26 (68.61%) which. His xGF%Rel was better than everyone except the Zajac line (Zajac and the Jespers) and Nico and Coleman from the Montreal game. He did have 2 scoring chances personally, but 4 forwards had more (Wood, Bratt, Coleman, Hischier). And he had only one shot attempt at 5-on-5 play.
Hughes was always conspicuous, but that didn’t really manifest in shot attempts or possession ratio in this game. We’ll see in games to come whether or not that peripheral production comes along with the goals/points. Again, this was inarguably a stellar debut, but a stronger 5v5 performance would’ve tipped the scales a little more towards a “perfect” one.
Outside of Hughes, the Jespers were the most electric players on the ice in the Boston game. Bratt-Zajac-Boqvist wreaked havoc in that game, winning the high-danger chance battle against their opponents 6-0. Boqvist, in particular, led all Devils in both games with a +38.5 xGF%Rel.
Zajac led all devils with 0.35 ixG (expected goals) and Bratt led all Devils with 6 shot attempts and 3 high-danger chances. Bratt in particular felt like a constant threat, but all three played off each other very well.
Boqvist did take a penalty, but it was a soft call and he didn’t do much wrong on the play. Other than that, this was a pretty unequivocal win for Boqvist’s roster spot campaign.
PK was amazing. I say this as someone who has a fairly conservative projection for PK — the 30-year-old coming off the worst year of his career. But, he has the potential to impact the game in a way I haven’t seen from a Devils defender in a lonnggggggggg time. He skates smoother than Vatanen, passes better than Butcher, shoots better than Severson, and plays more physical than Greene. During the game, I noticed him lay out a guy while standing still, skate literal circles around forecheckers while exiting, and send a pass from his own goal line to the opposite blue line to spring Joey Anderson loose.
The analytics concur with this assessment as he and Sami Vatanen led all Devils defenders in both games with a +36.9 xGF%Rel. By the way, this was NOT a pairing people were expecting to see. While Vatanen is possibly the 2nd best defender on the team, they are both righties. That’s an unconventional pairing, but it did well and it will be interesting to see if Hynes sticks with it because that would reverberate up and down the lineup. As an example, unless we plan on doubling up lefties on a different pairing, Butcher, Greene and Ty Smith (all lefties) would not make the starting roster.
Smith started off really strong, displaying skating and passing skills that remind us of his first-round pedigree. There was one shift in the first where the faceoff was one at center ice, he immediately pinched up to grab the puck and carry it into the offensive zone with possession. Another Devil lost possession and Smith blocked a shot, intercepted a royal road pass, and then got an outlet to a forward to start the puck going the other way. On Hughes’s first goal, Smith maintained the zone well to keep the possession alive. He also got a secondary assist on two goals (neither at 5-on-5).
He also pinched waaayyyyy too far and left Carrick alone on the first Boston goal. A different time, he pinched to get an opportunity, but then when he came back, he took a dumb holding penalty to stick with his man coming around the net.
Smith’s CF%Rel (-22.22) was worse than everyone in both games except for Dakota Mermis and the Devils were outscored 0-2 when he was on the ice. This game had mixed results for Smith, but his ability is undeniable, and I still think he’s probably one of the best 6 defenders on this team.
In his first action in a Devils sweater, I thought Gusev showed a lot of potential in some important respects. I think it was honestly a little tough to notice him while playing with the speedy duo of Wood and Hughes, but I think his vision made the two of them able to play to the best of their ability. I’m not sure I’m confident Gusev could carry one of the top two lines, but in this game, he certainly looked like he could work alongside a driver like Hughes. Of the guys I was excited to watch (all the guys I’ve listed so far), Gusev was probably the least noticeable/impressive. Once again, this turned out to be supported by the numbers.
The Goose had two scoring chances and neither hit the net, and his CF%Rel (-17.9) was worst among all Devils forwards in both games.
I haven’t talked about the Montreal game much because all new guys were in the other game so I watched more of that one. But every time I switched over to the Montreal game it felt like these guys were making stuff happen. It’s not overly surprising, but still good to see the studs (Hischier and Palmieri) perform as such. Coleman is the interesting one, here.
I know they will use Coleman on the PK this year, but it’s not immediately clear to me where he slots in the lineup. The gave him a big opportunity here that they could have given to Bratt or Gusev. Hall’s spot in this line is obviously safe, but I don’t expect Miles Wood to be in the top 6, and that Bratt-Zajac-Boqvist line looked awfully good. I’ll watch to see how Hynes deploys these guys tonight, but after the weight he carried last year, would it be THAT shocking to see Coleman in a top 6 role again?
He certainly looked the part in this one with 5 shots (2 on goal) and 3 scoring chances to go along with a +20.1 xGF%Rel. Wood had a similarly effective day in Newark, but you have to think Coleman’s earned a little more respect from the coaches at this point.
No Surprise Competitors
When you look at the top of these lists, there aren’t a lot of surprises. Colton White had a +30.3 xGF%Rel and a +17.1 CF%Rel to lead all defenders in the Habs game, but given the backlog at the blueline it’s hard to envision him competing for a spot in the NHL.
McLeod had 2 primary points in only 12:39 of ice time which had to be nice for him, but his negative CF%Rel and xGF%Rel are also a reminder of the pretty awful impact he generally had in the NHL when he came up. We didn’t see much from Nathan Bastian either, who’s been a popular dark horse roster pick among some Devils faithful.
Basically, it looks like the people competing for roster spots are largely the ones expected. Which is perfectly fine by me.
Conclusion and Your Thoughts
Who did you like what you saw from? Did any of these numbers surprise you? Do you find any/all of them useless (you probably should, tbh)? Was anything surprising? What do you think the Devils lineup will look like for opening night?
Thanks, as always, for reading, and leave your thoughts in the comments below!