December 2019 was the final month of the 2010s. It would turn out to be a memorable one if only for the changes. This was the month where head coach John Hynes would finally be fired. This was the month where Taylor Hall was healthy scratched twice for “precautionary measures” and then traded before there would be a third scratch. This was the month where it appeared that the 2019-20 season was all but lost. Following a 7-7-1 run in November, the Devils went 5-7-2 in December and ended 2019 next to last in the Eastern Conference and sitting in 30th place in the league standings. However, the Devils finished December on a 5-2-1 run, which led to what we know now is their first winning streak in a long time. If nothing else, 2019 ended on a high note for a team that did not have much to sing about earlier in the month.
While the January schedule of games has already begun, let us take one detailed look back at the final month of the decade. (By the way, if you’re interested in a summary of the entire 2010s, then please check out this series of posts I wrote up from December 23 to January 1. The link goes to the summary of the whole series, which includes links to the previous parts in it.)
The Games of December 2019
The first game of the month would turn out to be the last for a long-time Devil over the past decade. Head coach John Hynes has been behind the New Jersey bench since the 2014-15 season. His last game on December 2, 2019 would be one to forget if you are a Devils fan. The Devils were completely wrecked by Buffalo in a 1-7 loss. This was not a competitive game after the first period. It would seal Hynes’ fate as he was let go hours before the team’s next game against Las Vegas on December 3. Alain Nasreddine, Hynes’ long-time assistant coach, was named the interim head coach. The Devils went out there and did not get embarrassed by Las Vegas as Buffalo did to them one night ago. They also did not win, they fell to the Golden Knights in a 3-4 defeat. On December 6, the Devils hosted Chicago in their last home game before a four-game road trip. The Devils lost 1-2 through a shootout in a game that can be described in one word: Blah. Not a great way to see the home fans off.
The Devils’ offense would show up in their first game on their trip in Nashville. They attempted some comebacks. However, they could not overcome the continued waves of offense and would end up losing 4-6 to Nashville. It was at least exciting. It was at least a good response after a offensively-poor performance against Chicago. Unfortunately, things would get worse in Texas. On December 10, the Devils went into Dallas and played one of the worst games in this season. While they lost by bigger margins, they were utterly dominated in a 0-2 loss to Dallas. As it would turn out in about a week, this would be Taylor Hall’s final game as a New Jersey Devil. Hall was scratched in the final two games on the trip. On December 13, the Devils played better in Colorado but could not solve a hot goaltender in a 1-3 loss. Finally, on December 14, the winless streak would end. The Devils would prevail 2-1 over Arizona. That night earned a much-deserved win for Mackenzie Blackwood (who had been playing really well), the team won their first game since November 28 (a seven game winless streak snapped), and Alain Nasreddine had his first win since becoming Devils coach. It was not known then, but the results would turn around a bit for the Devils in the month.
On December 16, the speculation ended. After being scratched for two games and weeks of speculation, Taylor Hall was finally traded. He was dealt to Arizona for a package of conditional draft picks and prospects led by defenseman Kevin Bahl. Hall was no longer a Devil at all. The first game of this post-Hall team would be on December 18, a home game against Anaheim. In a stingy affair, the Devils overcame an early deficit to beat Anaheim 3-1. On December 20, the Devils donned their 1980s “vintage uniforms” as they hosted Washington, the best team in the NHL. They were outclassed and sometimes even played like those 1980s teams - which is not a good thing in 2019. They lost 3-6 to the Caps. Of note is that Gilles Senn came in relief of Blackwood in the third period as the game was out of doubt. Senn was the backup as Louis Domingue was injured in the Colorado game. On the next night, Senn would make his first NHL start against Columbus. The state of Ohio remains as a difficult place for the Devils to play in as Columbus walked all over the Devils all night long. The Devils lost 1-5. Another winless streak loomed.
However, one would not come. In their final game before the holiday break, the Devils went into Chicago on December 23. A lot of scoreless streaks were snapped as the Devils just made it rain goals in the Madhouse on Madison. Jack Hughes got a goal. P.K. Subban got a goal (and his first point in nearly two months). Damon Severson got a goal. Pavel Zacha got a goal. Even John Hayden scored his first goal as a Devil. The second period was just dazzling by the Devils. The Devils won with a massive goal explosion, 7-1 over Chicago. When the team returned from the holidays, they hosted Toronto. The offense showed up, but the defensive effort was awful. A bad mistake by Severson led to an own goal in overtime, making it a 4-5 loss. The Devils would make things more right in their final two games of the month. On December 29, the Devils went into Ottawa and put in a more even performance. The game still needed overtime but Jack Hughes would score on a breakaway to be the hero of the night and make it a 4-3 win for New Jersey. The final game of 2019 and the decade for the Devils was an afternoon home game on New Year’s Eve against Boston. Boston has been a difficult opponent for the Devils for years. But the Devils got better as the game went on, they cracked a hot Jaroslav Halak to force post-regulation play, the game needed a shootout, and in the sixth round, Damon Severson provided a goal that Patrice Bergeron could not match. The Devils played quite well and beat Boston 3-2 through a shootout that garnered big cheers at the Rock and plenty of praise online. It would set up (and lead to) the team’s first winning streak in the beginning of 2020. It was a great way to end the month and the calendar year. It was something to smile about. After a 0-5-1 start to the month, a 5-2-1 run will make any fan smile. Maybe things will get better for the Devils in 2020.
By the Numbers
If you believe the Devils are not good defensively this season, then you will want to save the 5-on-5 stats because they totally back up your argument. Who was responsible for the defense under Hynes? Oh, the current interim head coach? That does not bode well for future improvement. In happier news, special teams had good processes. Yes, both of them.
5-on-5 Stats: The offense on-ice rate stats look much better than before. What in the world happened on defense?
By these numbers the Devils actually had a decent offense in 5-on-5 for the first time in a quite some time. Even when you add in score and venue adjustments, they finished mostly in the middle third of the league when it came to attempts, shots, and scoring chances. Even expected goals in 5-on-5 was decent. Unfortunately, the Devils’ team shooting percentage was not that high. As a result, they did not score many goals to go with their better-than-usual rate of attempts, shots, and chances. The good news is that it is evidence that the team is both capable of putting a decent offense together and to do so without Hall. It speaks well of Nasreddine and the coaching staff, as well as the notion that the players may be more free to attack. Since they are in 30th in the league standings, they should have no scruples about taking some chances here and there.
However, the on-ice against rates are just hideous. Look at all that red. The Devils were one of the worst teams in terms of allowing attempts, shots, and scoring chances in December. They were in the bottom third in terms of high-danger chances, something the team had previously specialized in preventing. The score and venue adjustments do not make it look any better. The expected goals model backs up the notion that the Devils were defensively poor in December. These against rates are so high that it ensured that the Devils would remain below 50% in all four of the listed stats, with high-danger chances being the closest to break-even. It may be worth looking at later in the season whether the Devils have truly played better under Nasreddine and after the Hall trade. This gives me doubt.
What surprised me was that the team’s goaltending appeared to be not good in December. Finishing 25th out of 31 teams in save percentage in 5-on-5 situations is not and will not be seen as good. I want to clarify: Mackenzie Blackwood was sensational. The few appearances of Louis Domingue and Gilles Senn were not. Alas, it partially the Devils gave up so many goals over the whole month. Bad defending plus less than good goaltending will equal this. Again, strange as it may seem, do not fault Blackwood for this number.
There is a silver lining and that is with the all situations expected goals. When you factor in special teams, the Devils had one of the better expected goals for rates in the league and their expected goals against also ranked well. They actually finished the month above 50% in all situations xGF%. That speaks to how well the team performed on special teams - success aside.
Power Play Situations: This really was not that bad in December!
December was an example of a good process with not-so-good results, which I prefer over good results with a not-go-good process. With the latter, you know it will not last. With the former, there is something to be encouraged about as there could be more results in the future. The Devils’ only failing on the power play over all of December was finishing the plays. The team’s shooting percentage in man advantage situations ranked really low and, as such, they did not score as many goals as they could have. While converting eight power plays was not a low number, a lot of teams were tied with eight. A couple more and the Devils would have finished in the top ten for PPGs in December 2019.
That all stated, there is still plenty to like. A month after finishing in the bottom third in the league in all of these rate stats, the Devils were nearly in the top ten in all four of them. Attempts, shots, and high-danger chance rates were all quite good with respect to the league. They just missed out of the top ten for scoring chances per sixty minutes. Even so, this was a big improvement over last month. The expected goals model supports that, which was also was tenth among all NHL teams last month. It remains to be seen whether the Devils can keep this up. If they can, I would hope to see the power play be more of an asset than a waste of time. I look at this and see progress.
For what it is worth, the eight goals came from only four Devils. Three from Kyle Palmieri, two each from Hischier and Gusev (both of Gusev’s goals were 5-on-3 goals), and one from Hall. The team leader in the month for power play points was Sami Vatanen with six assists. In other words, if the unit has Vatanen, then it has been the productive one.
Penalty Kill Situations: The penalty kill has continued to be a success for the Devils.
The Devils were simply fantastic at nearly all things penalty kill related in December. They had one of the best success rates despite a league-median save percentage. They were excellent at limiting attempts, shots, scoring chances, and high danger chances. They allowed a higher rate of goals allowed than the expected goals model and even then the goals allowed rate was among the best in the NHL. The Devils’ PK continued to shine for another month.
The only downside is that the Devils were on the penalty kill as much as they were. They were tied for the most shorthanded situations in the league in December. As great as the penalty kill performed, you would hope to not see the Devils have to spend a lot of time on it. On some nights, they did just that. As well as they performed, they still run the risk of giving up some costly goals. Eight allowed is not that much at all. If it continues, it could get larger in future months. Discipline is definitely an opportunity for improvement for the Devils. Other than that, they were arguably one of the best penalty killing teams in the entire NHL for the month of December.
What is noteworthy about the penalty kill in December is the inclusion of Damon Severson on the primary unit. He finished fourth in penalty kill ice time, behind only Andy Greene (who played about 52 out of those 81 minutes), Travis Zajac, and Blake Coleman. This is considerably more ice time than Mirco Mueller or Sami Vatanen. It has gone fairly well.
Additions and Subtractions
Two massive changes occurred in December. John Hynes was fired and replaced by Alain Nasreddine on an interim basis on December 3, 2019. Hynes earned this firing with the team falling flat on their faces to start 2019-20 and without much improvement since then. After a winless streak under Nasreddine, the team’s results have been much better. One could question why the move was not made earlier.
On December 16, Taylor Hall was traded to Arizona. The full details of the deal are as follows: Arizona received Hall with the Devils retaining 50% of Hall’s salary. The Devils received a lottery-protected first round pick in 2020, a conditional third round pick in 2021 that can be upgraded to a first if Hall re-signs with Arizona and Arizona wins a playoff round in 2020, prospect defenseman Kevin Bahl, minor league forward Nick Merkley, and minor league forward Nate Schnarr. This was very much a rental deal. One questions whether Ray Shero could have done better. Then again, with the league knowing full well that pending UFA Hall was on the block, there was not of leverage in Shero’s favor. However, with the team going 5-2-1 in the remainder of the month after this seal, there has been a lot less heat on Shero. Some of the other AAtJ writers and I had a roundtable discussion over the Hall trade with initial thoughts and reactions to questions in line after the move.
There were some other moves made within the team that were not as major as those two. Matt Tennyson appeared in the team’s first two games in December - and that was that. He was placed on injured reserve from an injury sustained in the game against Las Vegas. He remains there ever since. On the flip side of defenders, the Devils saw Connor Carrick come back to play for the first time since sustaining a broken finger in October. Carrick played in the December 21 game in Columbus and the December 29 game in Ottawa. He did not play much in either game.
Louis Domingue left the Colorado game early due to an injury and spent about a week or so on IR. This meant the Devils needed to call up a backup. For the Arizona game, the team called up Evan Cormier due to his availability. He was sent back and Gilles Senn was brought up for the following games in December. Senn made his NHL debut in a relief effort against Washington and received his first NHL start against Columbus. Senn would stay as the #2 goalie until the new year. Domingue was activated from IR on December 28, was assigned to Binghamton for a few days, and then was called back up on January 1.
Lastly, there a couple of minor injuries at forward. Nico Hischier missed three games due to illness. Jack Hughes missed two games due to a lower body injury. The timing of these worked out such that only one call up was made: Michael McLeod from Binghamton. McLeod would get into four games and generally played a little better than what most were expecting. He was returned to Binghamton before the holiday break. Other than that, players like John Hayden and Kevin Rooney were rotated into the lineup on an as-needed basis.
Devil of the Month
Despite the team’s record, there are a number of players who did impress in the month. One could make a case for Nico Hischier, who was hard to ignore in the month. One could argue for Sami Vatanen for his production alone. However, two stood out from the rest in my eyes.
First was the goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood. How can this be with the Devils posting the 25th best 5-on-5 save percentage in December? Easy: Because Blackwood was a top-ten goalie in 5-on-5 situations among all goalies with at least 60 minutes played in December. Per Natural Stat Trick, Blackwood put up a brilliant 94.1% save percentage in 5-on-5 hockey in December. Only seven other goalies had a better save percentage and of those seven, only three can claim to be the team’s starters last month. Blackwood’s Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) of 5.87 was the third highest in the whole league in December per Natural Stat Trick. The expected goals model expected 20.8 goals to be allowed by Blackwood; he allowed just 16. Blackwood played a lot in December - only six goalies played more 5-on-5 minutes than him - and was worth every second. His performances often kept the Devils in games that they otherwise would have no right to be in. And his performances eventually would yield wins as he would keep the Devils alive in tight scoring affairs. The only thing about Blackwood’s December that was not amazing was his 84.8% penalty kill save percentage. Which certainly did not hinder the team’s shorthanded success all that much in December. Regardless, Blackwood is my choice as the Honorable Mention for Devil of the Month of December 2019.
My actual choice for Devil of the Month is a skater who has come a long way from the beginning of the season. He finished December as not only tied for the team lead in scoring for the month but as one of the team’s best 5-on-5 players. Believe it or not, it is winger Nikita Gusev. There was a lot of hype and excitement when the Devils acquired him. However, he was abysmal at times in October. He had a very hard time acclimating to the NHL game and it showed. Gusev has finally turned it around. While he is not going to be killing penalties anytime soon, he is not totally lost when he does not have the puck on his shifts. While he can still force passes and plays at times, he has become more successful at both. And this is reflected in both his production and on-ice rate stats. Recall that the Devils were very much a sub-50% team in 5-on-5 play in December. As per Natural Stat Trick: When Gusev is on the ice last month, the team took 54.3% of the shooting attempts (best on team), 56.2% of the shots (best on team), 53.1% of the scoring chances (best on team), 62.5% of the high danger chances (second best on team), and 57.7% of expected goals for (best on team). Yes, having him with Travis Zajac and Blake Coleman has helped out with the weaker parts of Gusev’s game, but these percentages are fantastic with some well ahead of either linemate. Add to this to his production. Gusev put up two goals (both at 5-on-3) and ten assists to be tied with Vatanen for the most points in December, he put up 30 shots of his own, and was a big reason why Coleman ended up leading the team with 55 shots. It was a remarkable month for the Goose. Honk honk, Gusev is the All About the Jersey Devil of the Month of December 2019.
Concluding Thoughts & Your Take
The second half of December showed that the team without Hynes and Hall would not keep the team in a pit of despair and defeats. Credit the Devils for finding ways to give the fans something to smile about as the month, calendar year, and decade closed out.
I am not fully sold on whether or not the team is really playing much better without either. The team’s offense has awakened, but the defense has allowed so much that without Blackwood playing out of his mind, the Devils likely do not get five wins in the month. Also, since when was five wins out of a fourteen-game month a good thing? The Devils earned twelve points; only four teams in the NHL earned fewer points in December. I get it. After a winless streak, a couple of wins is enough to feel good about. I felt good about the team’s last few wins too. Let us pump the breaks before we start invoking the p-word or claiming that miracles are going to happen.
Still, there are positives to be pleased with. Mackenize Blackwood was hot all month and continues to be a goaltender the team can rely on. Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri continue to perform and produce both before and after Hall. A number of scoring slumps were snapped, which is all good news for Hughes, Subban, Zacha, Severson, and others. The line of Gusev, Travis Zajac, and Blake Coleman has been a solid one and Nasreddine has done well to not tinker with it. Those who want to see more of the youth can appreciate Jesper Boqvist and Zacha receiving more games in December than Hayden and Rooney combined. Will there be further changes in 2020? I would say so. Is it necessarily going to be a dull and dismal as how 2018-19 went? Not necessarily and I suppose that is a step ahead of that poor season. Unless you support a man named Abrams.
Now I turn this over to you. What did you think of the Devils’ performances in December? Who impressed you the most among the Devils in the month? What was your favorite game? What was your least favorite game? What did you learn from this month in review? Do you agree that Gusev 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 December 2019 in the comments. Thank you for reading.