Preseason is now over for the New Jersey Devils. They played their final game before the 2019-20 begins next week this evening. They went to Ohio to play the Columbus Blue Jackets. They left with a 2-0 win thanks in large part to the excellent performance by Cory Schneider.
That Schneider had yet another fantastic night in the crease is worth more than the victory tonight - and not just because the victory is practically worth nothing as of right now. The biggest concern for the Devils going into this season is their goaltending. Would Schneider turn it around after an abysmal 2018? Is Mackenzie Blackwood really for real? I am happy to say that after seven preseason games, the answer to both of those questions is “it is very likely.” Blackwood has played quite well in his games. Schneider has been an excellent shot stopper with tonight being the apex of his short run of exhibition starts. If you want to hold your head up high as a Devils fan at something from the past two weeks, then do it for the goalies.
It is arguable that tonight was the easiest of Schneider’s last three starts too. Columbus generated a healthy amount of shots with 32 and did have four power plays with two overlapping two-man advantages in the first period. However, the Devils allowed only three high-danger scoring chances all game; Schneider had only one breakaway to deny; Columbus did not make the most of their 5-on-3s or their lone third period power play, and outside of a long stretch of being dominated in the first period, the game was even overall in the run of play in the second and third periods. Schneider did not face a terrifyingly effective power play getting multiple opportunities, multiple odd man rushes or situations that forced him to make multiple stunning stops, or even over forty shots. Schneider was locked in. He saw the puck well in traffic, he did not give up anything really bad to Columbus in terms of a rebound, and handled his business well. It was great.
Columbus will probably wish they did better. They only beat Schneider twice. The first was when Alexander Wennberg had a glorious one-timer across the slot - and hit the post early in the second period. The second was when Alexandre Texier put home a rebound in the second period. But that was assisted by Dubois plowing into Schneider. That kept Schneider from making any kind of play on the shot. The goal was easily waved off. Despite the crowd booing, there was no protest from the Blue Jackets. Everything else, including all five shots from Cam Atkinson, was denied.
This was not an elegant game for either side. The Devils iced an almost totally NHL roster tonight. Columbus, in their next to last preseason game, dressed their top players such as Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Wennberg, Nick Foligno, Gustav Nyquist, Cam Atkinson (who Schneider denied multiple times), Oliver Bjorkstrand, David Savard, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Alexandre Texier, and Joonas Korpisalo. Both sides struggled to move the puck smoothly and effectively. While both teams did step up for many interceptions on defense, there was definitely some rust as both sides saw passes, shots, and clearing attempts that would normally work but just get blocked due to timing being off or just not executing well enough. Both teams combined for 67 shooting attempts in 5-on-5 play and outside of the first period, the attempts were 14-13 and 10-8 in favor of Columbus. Hardly a lot going on for either side. Even with the big swell in the first period, the Devils still out-shot them 21-19 in 5-on-5 play. I will agree that Columbus had more going for them overall but they struggled to finish plays to set up shots at times. When they did get a shot off, Schneider just saved it and made it look easy.
In these kinds of close games, every opportunity to score is that much more important. Fortunately for the Devils, they did finish plays twice. After being picked on by Columbus for several minutes in the first period, the Devils were able to carry the puck beyond the red line and attack the zone. It resulted in Taylor Hall sniping a high shot past Korpisalo for the game’s first goal. Much later in the third period, the Devils received a power play. Their first one came close to scoring, their second one was the definition of do-nothing, but this one worked. An excellent sequence of passes ended with Kyle Palmieri at the left post setting up Travis Zajac in the slot for a one-timer. Zajac put it home to make it 2-0 and give Schneider and the Devils some breathing room. It ended up not being necessary but it was very welcomed. It took the edge off from what could have been a situation where the Devils had to play on the edge of a knife at the end of the game.
Again, the results do not really matter for preseason. They are now meaningless as the games that count await us next week. Nevertheless, we can be more confident that the Devils’ goaltending may turn out to be quite alright. As for the rest of the game, well, it is good that the Devils will have some practices before October 4.
The Opposition Opinion: Check out The Cannon for a Columbus-based take on this game.
Your Best Devils Line Tonight Is...: With Hall, Nico Hischier, and Jack Hughes in the lineup, it was exactly who no one really expected. The unit of Blake Coleman, Travis Zajac, and Wayne Simmonds was the best in the run of play tonight. They were the only forward line where the Devils out-shot the Jackets in 5-on-5 play and the only forward line to finish above 50% - and they each finished above 60%. It was not all perfect; Simmonds committed a heinous turnover at the Devils blueline that led to Schneider denying Atkinson on his one breakaway. However, outside of that, they were the only forward line that was attacking the Blue Jackets with any consistency.
They also had some very fine moments outside of 5-on-5 play. Zajac scored a power play goal and hit the outside of a post on an empty-net try near the end of regulation. Coleman and Zajac were quite fine on the penalty kill tonight. Simmonds was a part of the excellent puck movement that resulted in Zajac’s PPG. All three stayed out of the box. All three madethe game a challenge for Jones-Werenski. I would be fine with this line staying together for next week.
What About the Rest?: Eh, I think some things need to be switched around. The line of Hall, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt had some ups and downs. Hall had a sweet goal. Hall created a sweet breakaway for himself after intercepting a pass on defense; which did not end with a goal, unfortunately. Korpisalo did not take any of Hall’s dekes. Bratt did draw a power play. However, the line was swarmed from an attempts-standpoint and their offensive rushes were too far and too few between. Bratt also did not cover himself in glory when he cleared a puck over the glass at the other end of the rink during the penalty kill for Hayden not long after Subban came out of the box. Based on past seasons, it is justifiable to keep them together. It was not a good night tonight.
It was a horrible night for the trio of Nikita Gusev, Jack Hughes, and Kyle Palmieri. This trio was on the ice for just one (1) shot on net by the Devils in 5-on-5 play together. That is miserable. Hughes and Gusev were largely anonymous. Hughes did have a chance to score in a 2-on-0 led by Damon Severson (!). But Severson telegraphed a pass so Korpisalo was not too Korpislow to get over to his right to deny Hughes. That was the major offensive highlight from that line. Palmieri was awful on and off the puck for the majority of the night. He missed passes he made. He missed passes to him. He was not always in the right places off the puck to make plays. Palmieri salvaged some of his night with a great pass to Zajac for a power play goal. But the supposed shooter on the line had just one shot on net and one shooting attempt all night long.
As for the fourth line of Jesper Boqvist, Pavel Zacha, and John Hayden, there not as bad as the previous line written about but they still were not too hot either. Hayden had his best game in a Devils uniform yet, which is not really saying too much. While he seemingly had more of a clue on the penalty kill, he was too aggressive on a forecheck and wrapped up Werenski on Columbus’ blueline during the Devils’ first penalty kill. Giving the opposition a 45-second long 5-on-3 is not helping a cause to make the team. Boqvist was just kind of there and notably did not play on the power play at all. Zacha played in his first preseason game this year and it showed. I liked his work on the penalty kill. He was definitely working off the rust at even strength, though.
In addition to figuring out who to cut, John Hynes and his staff may have to reconsider what the lines could look like on October 4. The good news is that for most of these forwards, there were multiple combinations that proved themselves to be effective in past preseason games. And with some days of practice coming up, they will have some time to figure it out.
The Subban Experience: P.K. Subban had a very, very fine game. He had some excellent shifts where he was just calmly making plays on the puck, handling it with ease, and not conceding possession easily. It was a rough start to the game for him and his common partner of Will Butcher. But by the game’s end, Subban finished above 50% in CF%; Butcher was only off by three attempts; and both defenders saw more shots by the Devils in 5-on-5 play than by Columbus. Subban and Butcher played over 16 minutes together in 5-on-5 play tonight and by the game’s end, I think I can get behind a Butcher-Subban pairing. Subban also did well on the penalty kill (really) and handled the power play breakout well except on the team’s second power play of the night where the Devils could do nothing right. Subban’s big mistake was tripping Bjorkstrand in the first period; but the Devils killed that and it was not Subban’s fault Hayden committed a penalty during that one.
What of Smith and Tennyson?: Andy Greene did not play tonight as he was being inducted into the Miami (of Ohio) University Hockey Hall of Fame. This meant that Ty Smith and Matt Tennyson played in tonight’s game. They played together. The run of play did not go well for those two. I will state that they did not do anything particularly awful. Sure, they had issues getting the puck out but that also falls on the forwards. It is just that they did not commit any horrible turnovers or lapses in judgment. They took no penalties tonight either, which is a concern when a defender is pinned back. That was really their issue; they just had to play a lot in their own end. Smith got a few more shifts in 5-on-5 than Tennyson, who did receive a minute of shorthanded ice time.
Compared to his past games, I think Smith was just kind of OK. Is something like tonight and the Boston game enough to salvage his preseason and his shot of making the New Jersey roster? I do not know. The argument to keep him on may be for potential more so than for what he is currently doing. As for Tennyson, I am impressed he has lasted this long in camp. But he did not do anything tonight that made me think that he should stay in NJ. If the Devils need a right-sided defenseman as a callup, then fine. Better Tennyson than Josh Jacobs. But the Devils are four-deep in that position as it is.
So Who Would You Cut Now?: The Devils will need to cut at least two more players before the season can begin. Michael McLeod and Nathan Bastian were sent down earlier today. I would think Tennyson would be placed on waivers to go to down to Binghamton. The last one is tough. Boqvist did not have a noticeable game tonight, but he did play quite well in his other games. I would like him to stay. Smith really does not have anything to prove in the Western Hockey League but he has not proven that he belongs in the National Hockey League a whole lot either. Hayden would be my choice because while he was not particularly bad tonight, I do not think he brings anything to the table. Other forwards can provide more offense. Other forwards can kill penalties and likely better than Hayden. I have a suspicion the Devils coaches would not agree with this. We shall see soon, though.
Please Don’t Be Hurt: Both sides tonight saw players wince in pain after taking some pucks to their bodies tonight. Boone Jenner denied a Subban slapshot with a butt cheek. Josh Anderson took a Butcher slap shot up high. He left the game for a bit but did return for the third period and played all of his shifts. Subban blocked a shot with an ankle and looked stunned by it. Hughes took a shot up high too late in the game. Tennyson was stung for a bit after a big shot block on Jones in the second period. I hope everyone is iced up and there is not anything serious. Injuries from preseason are never good for anyone.
One Last Game Thought: One thing I will appreciate from a defensive point of view is how the Devils worked really hard to avoid getting Blue Jackets behind them. Wennberg and Bjorkstand had steps on their men at the time, but they were also foiled every time too - and legally. Whether it was back pressure from someone like Severson or Zajac, or someone like Mirco Mueller making a desperate play. It worked. Again, the Devils only allowed the one breakaway tonight and they did not let too many Jackets wide open in front either. You may not like how much they allowed or how much time they spent in their own end of the rink at times. But the defensive effort was not as bad as other preseason games and Schneider did not have to pull out miracles in an exhibition game to keep it close on the scoreboard. I liked the effort. I am not really worried about it. They can now work on maintaining possession going forward and turning zone exits into A) actual zone exits and B) exits with possession more often.
Site News: Next week is the week-long Devils Season Preview! Every day from Monday through Friday, we will focus on a particular aspect of the team. Looking from last season to this season and what to expect. On Friday, you will see what we all predict before the Devils actually start their season in the evening.
One Last Non-Game Thought: I thank the New Jersey Devils for providing a way to watch just about all of the preseason games they played in this year. In past years, if the game was not on MSG, your only legal options to follow the game were to listen to an audio-only feed or just refresh NHL.com or follow someone at the game on Twitter. The Devils made the deals necessary to at least show the arena screen and whoever was providing audio commentary. It may not have been ideal but since MSG Networks has shown they will not show off all Devils (or Islanders or even Our Hated Rivals) preseason games, they did provide a legal alternative when they did not have to. I thank them for that.
Your Take: Now that you know what I thought of tonight’s game, I want to know yours. What did you think of the Devils’ performance? How great was Schneider? Was any other Devil great tonight? What would you change about the Devils’ lines and pairings based on this game before their home opener next week? Who do you think gets cut from the Devils next? Please leave your answers and your other thoughts and feelings about tonight’s game in the comments.
Thanks to Chris for the game preview. Thanks to Mike for running @AAtJerseyBlog throughout the night. Thanks to everyone who commented in the Gamethread. Most of all, thank you for reading.