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New Jersey Devils Players With a Lot to Prove in 2021

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The Devils are in the process of rebuilding, and may move some players if they seem like they will be outplayed by prospects.

Florida Panthers v New Jersey Devils
They played on an effective line together in 2017-18, but have struggled to develop their respective games since.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

On Friday, I reviewed players who were in Binghamton last season who might make the roster in 2021. Today, we're taking a look at members of the New Jersey Devils who are at a critical point in their time with the team and their careers in general. There's a lot at stake for them, given their youth and ability on the ice. However, if they do not make improvements to their performances, they might find themselves in reduced roles or even traded.

Will Butcher

Will Butcher had a career low in points in 2019-20, with just 21 points in 56 games. His production came at a similar rate as his 30 points in 78 games the prior season - with Butcher in 2019-20 scoring about .09 fewer points per game. For a guy who came into the league and scored 44 points in his rookie season, these are concerningly low totals. However, there are some explanations to his drop.

Lack of Power Play Time and Production

In Will Butcher's three seasons, his power play production has plummeted to the best among the team's defensemen to almost nothing. From Evolving-Hockey, here’s how well Butcher performed offensively in 2017-18:

Evolving-Hockey

Back then, he was also able to make passes like this:

From Hockey-Reference, here’s a look at his real production over the past three years on the power play:

  • 2017-18: 81 games, 214 minutes, 3 goals, 20 assists, 36 shots. 3.9 primary points and 2.5 secondary assists per 60.
  • 2018-19: 78 games, 222 minutes, 1 goal, 14 assists, 20 shots. 2.7 primary points and 1.4 secondary assists per 60.
  • 2019-20: 56 games, 88 minutes, 0 goals, 1 assist, 1 shot. 0.7 secondary assists/total points per 60.

The departure of Geoff Ward may have had some negative effects on Will Butcher, but he is a professional hockey player. The Devils still had talented players who performed well on the power play this past season, but Butcher was awful with the man advantage.

Evolving-Hockey

Butcher is still pretty good at even strength - especially if he has a defensively capable partner. Unfortunately, it seems likely that his partner will be P.K. Subban, who is not good defensively.

Why Butcher Needs to Prove Himself

With the acquisitions of Ryan Murray and Dmitry Kulikov, Butcher is joined by two left-handed defensemen who played 20 minutes a game last season. While Murray is a bona-fide top four player, Kulikov is not and Butcher should be able to outplay him. But in order to get more minutes next season, Butcher needs to produce points. He is not a defensively strong player, and could easily find himself supplanted by Ty Smith as a top four left defenseman by 2021-22 if Lindy Ruff wants to move him to the left side.

Pavel Zacha

If last season was not cut short due to COVID-19, Pavel Zacha could have finished with respectable production. He had 32 points in 65 games, and finished the year with 2 goals and 5 assists in his last 10 games while playing just over 17 minutes a game. With 13 games canceled from the schedule, Zacha possibly could have finished the season with 40 points. If he managed that, he would be in a good position to improve with a steady middle six role on the team. But it didn't happen.

Zacha is competing with Jack Hughes for playing time. If he does not get off to a good start in 2021, Zacha could find his minutes reduced. He played an average of over 16 minutes in 2019-20. But that is not even the biggest concern with Zacha. If he does not show he can score at a 50-point pace this season, I think he may end up traded following the expansion draft - especially if the draft results in the Devils losing a defenseman. But here's a few other things that Zacha needs to work on:

Transition Game

From CJ’s Three Zone Performance Tool (data from Corey Sznajder), here’s a look at how Zacha has performed in transition over the past two seasons:

CJ Turtoro; Corey Sznajder

Pavel Zacha is fine with getting the puck out of the defensive zone, which is nice. But he relies far too much on his linemates getting into the offensive zone. This is probably why he fared so well on a line with Jesper Bratt and Nikita Gusev - they can both enter the zone effectively. For Pavel Zacha to be a truly effective scorer in the NHL, though, he needs to start creating more for himself like he does on the penalty kill. We’ve seen good things happen when Pavel Zacha drives to the net (this is from 2018-19):

See? It’s possible at even strength, too.

Even Strength Defense

It might seem ironic that a player who is so effective on the penalty kill could let up so many opportunities on defense at even strength. In the case of Pavel Zacha, he has been getting worse in this respect since the 2017-18 season. From HockeyViz (@IneffectiveMath), here’s a look at his isolated impacts over the past three seasons:

HockeyViz

These are not good signs for a player who is supposed to be entering the prime years of his career. Pavel Zacha will turn 24 next season, and he is regressing defensively. I am wary of how he will perform in the Devils’ end under Lindy Ruff, who is known for his high-octane style. That might make some more goals for Zacha, but I doubt it returns his defense to its former promise.

Miles Wood

I think I’ve seen more calls to trade Miles Wood from Devils fans on this site and on Twitter than any other player. Frankly, I think it was well-deserved given his past season. He was terrible defensively, and did not score nearly enough given where he was getting shots from. Of the three players in the article, Miles Wood is probably in the most precarious position of the three. Here’s a look at his career stats:

Hockey-Reference

2017-18 was clearly the peak of Miles Wood’s performance with the Devils. If they were to trade him, they’ll never get as much for him now as they would have after that season. But the Devils were trying to compete for the playoffs for both of the past two seasons, and (right or wrong) did not expect themselves to be where they are today. Thus, Miles Wood is still here, is in the last two years of his contract, and it is entirely possible that the younger up-and-comers outplay Wood this season. If that happens, I expect him to be traded - but again, he probably won’t get a lot at this point. So what’s the deal with Wood?

Bad Shooting

Wood’s 19 goal season was pretty fun to watch. When he got a breakaway, I didn’t think to myself that there was no way he was going to score, or that he’d stuff the puck right into the goalie pad and fall into the corner boards. But that’s all I think now. How much worse has he gotten, exactly? Well, HockeyViz has a shooting tool that tells how well players shoot from specific spots on the ice relative to the rest of the league. Here was Miles Wood in 2017-18:

HockeyViz

All that red in front of the net is a beautiful sight. Wood used to perform very well from the high-danger areas, like the time he scored a hat trick a month after the start of the 2017-18 season. Can you imagine him doing this today?

Today, Miles Wood simply does not do well from the high-danger areas. In fact, he was outright bad in front of the net in 2019-20, and got a lot of his goals from medium and low-danger shots. When Miles Wood was 22, I thought he could be a netfront fixture for years with the Devils. Now, he looks lost at the part of the game he was best at in his best season.

HockeyViz

Wood needs to remember to keep his game under control. For such an extremely fast player, he is not small. In fact, he is on the bigger end of forwards on the current Devils roster. He needs to work on playing stronger with the puck, and not just using his strength when throwing late or bad hits.

Defense

We’ve always known Miles Wood as an all-offense guy. But in 2019-20, he really turned into an all-offense guy, because he was one of the worst players in the league defensively. According to Natural Stat Trick: in 76 games in 2017-18, Miles Wood had an xGF-xGA ratio of 35.2-34.09 (xGF%: 50.80). In 67 games in 2019-20, that ratio was 31.98-41.32 (xGF%: 43.63). The team’s real performance was even worse with him on the ice in 2019-20, with 30 goals for and 47 against (38.96 GF%). When Miles Wood is on the ice, the Devils bleed opportunities for the opposition. Worse for Wood: the only lines he can fit on moving forward are with Pavel Zacha and Travis Zajac. Hughes should not play with him because Wood does not score on enough of his chances and doesn’t have great hands. And since 2017-18 when they were very good together, Wood-Zacha combinations don’t really fare that well anymore. Zajac seems most likely to me - but that would mean Wood playing on a checking/shutdown line. He would have to really learn how to play defense.

Evolving-Hockey

Just to see how bad Miles Wood is, I had to change the Y-axis limit for his RAPM chart. Regardless, for Wood to make up for his horrid defense, he would have to score at least 20 goals while playing fourth line minutes. And unless Travis Zajac goes on one of his renaissance runs in 2021, I just don’t think that is going to happen.

Concluding Thoughts

I’ve enjoyed watching these three players at times over the years. They’ve all shown what they can be at times, and they’ve all had periods where it seems like they can do nothing right. The three also all have two years left on their contracts. If they do not perform well in 2021, the Devils could trade them away following the expansion draft to continue building around Nico Hischier, Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, and most likely Ty Smith. With P.K. Subban eventually leaving the team - either with the draft or after his contract expires in 2022, and Ryan Murray being an unrestricted free agent after the 2021 season, Tom Fitzgerald is going to have to make some tough decisions about who should stay and who should go among the Devils’ current group of skaters. Fitzgerald has a lot to prove too - and sitting on his hands with players who just aren’t working out would not be a good look for him.

In the cases of Butcher and Zacha, their 2019-20 seasons were mixed bags. Butcher was terrible on the power play, but improved his even strength scoring. His 20 even strength points in 56 games was vastly better than his previous years. He had 16 even strength points in 76 games in 2018-19 and 21 even strength points in 81 games in his rookie season. Had the season been fully played, Butcher definitely would have broken his rookie season total. However, he was signed to be a power play specialist, and is now terrible on it. With Ty Smith coming very soon, Reilly Walsh looming, and Shakir Mukhamadullin actually putting up some points in the KHL (which are especially impressive for an 18 year old), I would not be surprised to see Butcher moved if Fitgerald doesn’t want to re-sign him before he becomes unrestricted free agent in 2022. He could easily see himself made expendable if he does not prove his worth in 2021.

Pavel Zacha hit his stride on a line with Jesper Bratt and Nikita Gusev, and could have broken 40 points (it was already the first time he scored 30) given his improving scoring pace. Here’s Zacha’s scoring rates over his career:

Hockey-Reference

It’s improvement, but it did not come without cost. Zacha’s even strength defense was bad this past season - though not as bad as Miles Wood. Wood’s season, unlike Zacha and Butcher, was not a mixed-bag. It was a bad bag - a dud. I think Miles Wood has the most to prove this season, and I hope he can make the adjustments that are necessary to make him an effective player again.

Your Thoughts

What do you think about these three players? Do you think they have what it takes to prove themselves? Do you think Butcher can fix his power play issues? Can Zacha work on his transitional play and defense? Can Wood fix...everything but his skating and physicality? Are there any players on the roster not included here who you think have a lot to prove this season? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.