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What to Look for in the New Jersey Devils’ Last Two Preseason Games

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After cuts on Sunday, the New Jersey Devils entered their second and final week of preseason games. This post goes over what to look for from the team - other than battles over roster spots - in their final two preseason games.

New York Islanders v New Jersey Devils
Get to the net more!
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Yesterday, the New Jersey Devils cut twenty players from the roster. To be more accurate, sixteen were demoted to Binghamton and four players were placed on waivers. When those four clear waivers, then they will go to Binghamton as well. Twenty-nine players remain in training camp, twenty-seven of them are healthy (Jeremy Groleau and Julian Melchiori are hurt), and as long as Pavel Zacha has visa issues, the Devils have twenty-six players available for their final two preseason games this week. In my reaction to who was cut yesterday afternoon, I explained who I think is on the bubble. In this post, I want to go over what I would like to see in general in the team’s last two preseason games for 2019 other than the basic idea of figuring out the starting lineup.

Improved Zone Exits

This may be tied to the level of talent in each of these games, but the Devils have had an incredibly difficult time against the Rangers last Wednesday and the Islanders on this past Saturday. One of the major sources of the struggles was their play in the defensive zone. It was not so much that the Devils were chasing the attackers and hoping for failures by them to get the puck back. The issue was that when the Devils did have the puck on their stick or win a puck battle, they often failed to get the puck out of their own zone. The opposition managed to deny a pass, a clearance, or even just take the puck back that they lost many times. It was a big reason why the Devils allowed over 40 shots in each of those games.

What is more that is that one cannot fault the defensemen alone. The forwards also failed to execute and/or be in positions that would lead to successful exits. Whether it was a lost board battle, chipping a puck right into an opposing player, or just having a pass blocked, they had their role. And when those turnovers happened, people have to scramble and the goaltender - Cory Schneider in both of those games - had to come up with an important save. This happened a lot. I am glad that Schneider did quite well given all of the work he had to do, but he could use some more support. Completing zone exits would help a lot.

With the last two games featuring more of a NHL-level roster, I would like to see this part of the game improve against Boston and Columbus. If so, then we can start to feel better about the state of the defense. If not, then we may need to be a little more concerned about their play in their own end of the rink.

Continue to Stay Out of the Box a Lot

The Devils were on the higher end of being shorthanded in the NHL last season. With the addition of Wayne Simmonds and his 1,057 career penalty minutes, there is some reason to be concerned about the Devils going to the box so much in 2019-20. I am happy to report that the Devils have only went to the box more than three times in two of their games. One of which was their first of preseason against Boston and the other was the September 18 game in New York. The one in New York does not worry so much much. Of the four penalties in that game, two were delay of game calls: one on Will Butcher for a clearance over the glass and one on Sami Vatanen for pushing the goal away. The latter is rare and the former is not necessarily repeatble. For the most part, the Devils have avoided taking a large amount of fouls.

I would like to see this continue in the next two games. The Devils’ penalty kill is arguably the one part from last season that really does not need many changes. They have their wedge-plus-one system. Plenty of their personnel have returned. They really only struggled on the PK in that September 18 game but those PK units will not be the full ones for the season that went up against what is likely to be the first power play unit for Our Hated Rivals. And the Devils have only allowed two power play goals out of I do not think they need excessive amounts of practice. To that end, I hope the Devils continue to avoid the ref raising their hand against them a lot. I hope Damon Severson (two minors), Miles Wood (two minors), Kevin Rooney (one minor and one fighting major) and Simmonds (one minor and one fighting major) among others keep it up.

Figure Out the Power Play Units and Some More Plays

One of the big achievements for the Devils in this preseason so far is that it is clear that they can put together two strong offensive lines. Given how they were used in the recent back-to-back set at the Rock, the top two could very well feature Taylor Hall, Jack Hughes, and Kyle Palmieri on one line with Nikita Gusev, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt on the other unit. Some mixing and matching may be needed during the season. But I am more than fine with the Devils starting with those two combinations. As much as I liked Hughes and Gusev together, Hischier and Gusev also seemingly work well together as Hughes plus Hall may equal Humongous levels of production.

So I turn to the power play units, which seem like it is somewhat of a work in progress. The recent back-to-back set did have a unit each that on paper looks really nice. Friday’s top unit had Hall, Hughes, Palmieri, Simmonds, and P.K. Subban. Saturday’s top unit had Hischier, Gusev, Jesper Boqvist, Jesper Bratt, and Will Butcher. However, the issues with both units are that it was always not quite apparent what they are trying to do.

Getting into the zone actually was not an issue. There would be a pass to a trailer but it was not a drop pass; Subban notably turned around to make the pass instead of leaving it for, say, Hall. Crossing the line, the Devils would try to pass it in but then pass it back towards the line in the hopes of making space. That leads to one potential area of improvement. When it works, it works. When it does not, the Devils have to scramble back and start again. They could stand to mix up the first pass past the entry point. The second potential area of improvement is that there was a strong tendency to look for cross-ice passes. Changing the point of attack or setting up a shot where the goalie has to go post-to-post are great ideas. But those passes are not always easy to make and opposition penalty killers can and did pick up on it. With the amount of talent in those two units, they could stand to try some different things. Such as what led to their first goal against the Islanders: Hischier received the puck down low, turned at the crease, and forced a shot that rebounded out to Boqvist for a put-back. I would like to see more of that. Especially with Simmonds, who has been doing that kind of thing for most of his career. With two more preseason games, the power play will likely receive opportunities for more game-practice. I hope the Devils can utilize it for a more effective power play down the line.

Establish the Bottom Six and Their Identity

The forwards on the bubble would likely be on the bottom two lines if they make the New Jersey roster. The Devils also have Blake Coleman and Travis Zajac as locks to make the team. If Pavel Zacha gets his visa issues resolved, then he is another potential option. The Devils coaches can play around with what their bottom two lines could be. They should also figure out what the roles of these two lines should be.

In the Devils-Islanders game, the coaching staff stuck with Miles Wood, Kevin Rooney, and John Hayden against a line of Mathew Barzal, Anders Lee, and Jordan Eberle in 5-on-5 play. To say it did not go well would be an understatement. The line was steamrolled. However, the coaches made no adjustments. It was as if they intentionally wanted one line to soak up the pressure while a more offensive line - the Hischier line, in this case - had an easier match-up. This is analogous to checking lines, which were common about a decade-plus ago. With Coleman and Zajac, the Devils have some of the pieces to put one together for one line. We could see the Devils try one out in one of their next two games.

Even if they do not go down that route, it would be ideal for the Devils to construct lines with a purpose beyond “do not be so bad that we have to double-shift a top forward or line in the third period.” A line with Wood should probably be a speedy line. A line with Boqvist should have some complementary offense so the trio can chip in. A line led by Rooney would probably be more of a traditional fourth line that is really to spell the better players. Whatever the approach is, this is the time to figure it out ahead of October 4.

Get to the Slot and the Crease More

Now this may be a bit specific, but the Devils have not done a great job generating scoring chances and high-danger scoring chances. In 5-on-5 play per Natural Stat Trick, their rates for both are quite low. While this may be related to the fact that each game has featured only one “top line,” it does point to some issues with the offensive approach. Playing quite a bit in your end will do contribute to that. So will having different lines taking different approaches. But when the Devils do get into the opposition’s end, they do tend to stick to the perimeter. I understand there are times where you have to take what is given, but the Devils could also stand to work a bit more to get into those choice locations.

I would like to see a more complete roster be able to get into these spots more frequently. It would be one thing if they score a whole bunch and then do not need to do so. But with just about every preseason game except for one being close so far, the Devils would be wise to get into the habits of getting into more advantageous shooting spots.

Coach It Up

Preseason is not just for the players. It is also for the coaches to establish how they want to approach games. I can understand wanting to keep a line together or utilize a certain tactic on how to do it. With two games left, the coaching staff should be more involved with making adjustments as needed. This was an issue in the recent Islanders game. The trio of Wood, Hayden, and Rooney were crushed in their match up. Yet, there were no changes to the line or who they got in their match up. The game was at home so the coaches could have easily switched the three off to a different line if they wanted to maintain the group. And since the three were so awful that night, mixing up that line would have been justifiable. Neither happened.

Those are the sort of movements you would hope to see in a NHL regular season game. With two games left in the preseason, I would like to see the coaches make similar decisions. It will help prepare the players for the reality that will come in the 2019-20 season. It can help players who are struggling to be put in a better position to succeed. I’m not calling for full on line and pairing mixing or changing the overall gameplan completely. I would like to see the coaches observe the game and make appropriate adjustments. The time is coming soon for when that will be important. The time to practice it is in these two games.

Above All Else

Hope the goaltenders keep up the good work, Zacha gets his visa so he at least has a game under his belt, and, most of all, no more injuries.

Your Take

With two preseason games left, preseason is just about done. We will have our week-long season preview next week. The Devils’ first regular season game will be next Friday. The real games are coming real soon and there are only two more exhibition games that the Devils can do to prepare. I have shared what I would like to see from the team as a whole. What would you like to see from the Devils in their last two games? What do you expect them to do? Who will excel? Who has a lot of work to do? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the two remaining games coming up. Thank you for reading.